ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Being true to the spirit of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

The New York Times reports that an upcoming Broadway production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is embroiled in a contract dispute. The new production features a script by Aaron Sorkin, governed by a contract that requires it to keep to "the spirit of the Novel." Author Harper Lee's estate believes the play's new script has breached this contract provision. 

The crux of the disagreement seems to be that Sorkin's script apparently updates the novel's depiction of racial politics and shifts Atticus Finch's developmental arc. Atticus, well-known as the crusading heroic lawyer at the center of the novel, apparently begins the play "as a naive apologist for the racial status quo" who eventually develops into the Atticus familiar from the novel. Sorkin in an interview described Atticus as evolving in part through interactions with a black character, Calpurnia, whose role Sorkin had expanded in the play as compared to the book. 

Lee's estate is objecting to the "massive alteration" of the novel, but the play's producers contend that, although the play is "different" from the novel, it is still true to the novel's spirit, pointing out that Lee's novel's universe was itself expanded and complicated by the recent publication of "Go Set a Watchman," in which an older Atticus is portrayed as a racist and segregationist. 

As anyone who's sat in an English class might agree, "the spirit of a novel" is rather vague and can be the source of much contentious disagreement. Literature can be a very personal experience, and what stands out as the vitally important part of a novel to one person can barely register to another. We could probably as a society reach a consensus on what "the spirit" of "To Kill a Mockingbird" might be, but I still don't think that would be of much assistance in resolving this dispute. There are, I think, two approaches to adapting a novel, and one is a requirement to be faithful to the letter, and the other is to be faithful in a more abstract way. I suspect that both parties here actually agree about what the spirit of "To Kill a Mockinbird" is but that Lee's estate believes the former approach to adaptation to be the only acceptable one, and that the producers of the play believe the latter to be acceptable. This reminds me of a recent New Yorker article on the proper role of translators. 

(As an unabashed fan of Sorkin's writing, as soon as I read the first paragraph of the article, I have to admit my reaction was: "Let me guess, the script sounds like Aaron Sorkin instead of Harper Lee." I haven't seen the script, of course, but there are few writers in my experience whose style is as instantly recognizable as Sorkin's.)

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