Atticus Finch Gets the Sorkin Treatment

I hate to dwell too long on To Kill a Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin’s new Broadway adaptation of the Harper Lee novel, because it inevitably means making comparisons with the classic 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck — and I just finished doing the same thing with Broadway’s Network. Yes, a theatrical work should be judged on its own merits, without having to “measure up” to a better-known version from another medium. Still, a play has work on its own terms on stage, and I think some comparisons help pinpoint the reasons where this one does and doesn’t. 

On the plus side, I’m happy that Sorkin resisted the temptation to give us a revisionist take on Atticus Finch, the small-town Alabama lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape (ignoring the more conflicted portrayal in Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s long-secret companion novel, published in 2015). Atticus is still a heroic figure, a wise father and a brave fighter for racial justice in a bigoted southern town — though Jeff Daniels’ edgier, more earthbound portrayal takes him down a peg or two from Gregory Peck’s exalted beacon of moral rectitude. 

And I think Sorkin made a defensible choice in juggling the story’s timeline, opening with the rape trial and presenting much of the surrounding story in flashback — narrated by his six-year-old daughter Scout (played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, one of three adult actors who play the child characters). This frames the play more neatly as a courtroom drama, which is Sorkin’s comfort zone, and he gives the trial scenes more verisimilitude than those in the movie, which were hokey and oversimplified even by Hollywood standards. On the other hand, Sorkin — known for his dense, hyper-verbal dialogue in TV dramas like The West Wing and Newsroom — can’t helping putting new, explicitly anti-racist speeches in the mouths of  the black characters (the accused rapist Tom Robinson and family maid Calpurnia), surely less true to the period, but more satisfying for a contemporary audience of liberal New York theatergoers.  

My main complaint, however, is that most of the scenes outside the courtroom —  Scout’s coming-of-age, my-most-memorable-summer story — simply don’t have the flavor or impact of the movie. Despite director Bartlett Sher’s elegant, well-paced production, too much of the action has to be narrated, rather than dramatized. The children’s obsession with the town’s mysterious outcast Boo Radley, most especially, doesn’t really play at all. The climactic violent encounter, in which Boo finally reveals himself, is a touching and entirely fitting denouement for the movie. Onstage it’s a cumbersome, very talky, almost extraneous coda. The movie always brings me to tears; the stage version left me (and I suspect even the audience members who give it the inevitable standing ovation) dry-eyed.

4 thoughts on “Atticus Finch Gets the Sorkin Treatment

  1. Wow! well-done, Richard.

    We see it in January.

    Love,

    h

    http://howardschatz.com 917/756-4613

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  2. …..i was always vaguely bored by to kill…..felt like school assignment…..always loved network and ran into faye duneaways in my days……

    >

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    1. Believe it or not, I never read the book. But the ’62 movie is quite effective, in an old-fashioned Hollywood way. And “Network” is great.

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  3. Agree–The climactic attack on the kids fell totally flat–why couldn’t they have shown it, even in a confused way? why all the tiresome exposition of who killed Ewell? They made Ewell such a cartoon villain anyway, leading the lynch mob, etc. The dull ending ruined the show for me. Up till then, I’d been with it pretty much–though Sorkin’s additions really stood out like a sore thumb. And I didn’t like the way he made Atticus all naive at first, actually thinking he’ll get an acquittal (“my neighbors will do the right thing”) and then becomes all militant at the end (“I’ll do the fighting for you, son”). No wonder the Lee estate objected to the script at first.

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