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How Aaron Sorkin adapted 'To Kill a Mockingbird' for the stage

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

London is finally getting to see Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird premiered at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway in December 2018. The West End run of Sorkin’s critically acclaimed adaptation, directed by Bartlett Sher, stars Rafe Spall as the principled lawyer Atticus Finch and Gwyneth Keyworth as his daughter Scout.

Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, partly inspired by her own childhood in small-town, rural Alabama, became an Oscar-winning film in 1962, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. It was then adapted for stage by Christopher Sergel in 1990, debuting in Monroeville, Alabama, and coming to the UK in 2006 for a tour. It returned in 2013 at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, with Robert Sean Leonard as Atticus.

How will Sorkin’s new take differ from those past adaptations, and how does To Kill a Mockingbird fit into his impressive body of work? Read on for our definitive guide to this much-anticipated production, now booking at the Gielgud Theatre.

Book To Kill a Mockingbird tickets on London Theatre.

Aaron Sorkin and To Kill a Mockingbird

There is one significant aspect of Lee’s work that makes it an immediate match with Sorkin: it climaxes with a great courtroom drama. Sorkin has always taken a keen interest in law and justice in his plays, TV shows, and movies, plus it gives him the opportunity to write those big, eloquent speeches he's so well-known for. It’s an inherently thrilling and entertaining setting.

Sorkin made a name for himself with the 1989 court-martial drama A Few Good Men, about two United States Marines accused of murder. It subsequently became a hit movie starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson — the latter, under cross-examination, uttering the immortal line “You can’t handle the truth!” Sorkin has since revisited the courtroom numerous times in his career, including in TV series The West Wing and film The Trial of the Chicago 7.

No wonder, then, that in his stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, that courtroom conflict is writ large. In fact, the trial is the framing device for the play. In the trial, Atticus nobly and passionately defends Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman — and through which Scout learns hard truths about racial prejudice, even though Atticus has encouraged her to find the “fundamental goodness” in everyone. It’s a lesson in tolerance that has its limits.

Sorkin’s adaptation partly refracts that 1930s story through a contemporary lens, and, crucially, expands the roles of the two Black characters: Tom Robinson and Atticus’s housekeeper Calpurnia. Watch out for a new scene in which Atticus visits a sceptical Tom in jail and asks if he can represent him, and for Tom voicing his own opinion on his prospects.

Sorkin also makes Calpurnia a more overt foil for Atticus. In the play, she challenges his attitude that we should respect everyone with the pointed observation that by adopting such moral equivalence, you disrespect some people. In 2022, you can’t just say that there are fine people on both sides.

Ironically, however, Sorkin’s changes to this tale of justice prompted a real-life court case. Lee’s estate objected to the alterations, especially around the character of Atticus, saying that he must remain, as Lee intended, “a model of wisdom, integrity and professionalism.” The litigation was eventually settled, but it creates an interesting extra element for audiences. We get to examine Sorkin’s changes and make our own judgement about whether they make for a more convincing play – and one with an eye on contemporary debates. 

It will also be fascinating to see how a new cast interprets Sorkin’s material, with Rafe Spall the latest actor to take on the key role of Atticus after Jeff Bridges, Ed Harris, and Greg Kinnear played the part on Broadway.

Read more about West End courtroom dramas including To Kill a Mockingbird.

Aaron Sorkin’s theatre projects

Sorkin’s first foray into theatre was his play Removing All Doubt, which was staged at his former university, Syracuse, in 1984. That was followed four years later by his off-off-Broadway debut with one-act piece Hidden in This Picture —eventually developed into the full-length play Making Movies.

But it was A Few Good Men, staged on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre in New York, that was Sorkin’s ticket to the big time. It was inspired by real events at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base: a group of Marines — on orders from a superior officer — gave William Alvarado a retaliatory hazing that he only just survived. Three of them refused honourable discharges as part of a plea bargain, instead going to court, and Sorkin’s sister Deborah was tasked with defending them.

A Few Good Men then became Sorkin’s first Hollywood hit, but, after a long hiatus, he returned to theatre in 2007 with The Farnsworth Invention. In fact, it was a stage version of his unproduced screenplay about television pioneer Philo Farnsworth and his battle with a rival inventor David Sarnoff — another tale featuring lawsuits. It premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2007 and then moved to Broadway.

Another gap followed, before To Kill a Mockingbird lured Sorkin back to theatre with the 2018 production. So far, the play is a huge commercial success and is set to return on Broadway in June 2022 with Kinnear resuming the role of Atticus.

Aaron Sorkin’s film and TV career

Sorkin is probably best known for his adored political TV series The West Wing, which premiered in 1999 and gave viewers an enthralling glimpse into what goes on behind closed doors at The White House. That fascination with behind-the-scenes, biographical or process stories runs throughout Sorkin’s career, whether it’s taking us backstage at a TV show in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, or giving us private time with famous figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Lucille Ball.

The West Wing’s director Thomas Schlamme helped perfect Sorkin’s trademark “walk and talk” style of drama — quick-witted, articulate characters who continue to fire off speeches while on the move — and gave wonderful material to its cast: Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, and John Spencer. The show offered a utopian vision of morally decent characters grappling with big challenges. Atticus Finch would fit in beautifully among them. 

He would also find himself in good company in Sorkin’s first TV series, Sports Night, set at a sports news show. Stymied by a network-dictated laugh track, it was a wobbly start, but featured the likes of Felicity Huffman, Peter Krause, Josh Charles and William H Macy as intelligent, principled professionals. Sorkin continued to take us behind the cameras for The Newsroom, with Jeff Daniels as a complacent anchor and Emily Mortimer as the producer challenging him to do better. 

Sorkin has conquered the big screen, too. He won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for 2010 movie The Social Network, about the origins of Facebook and — that Sorkin staple — Mark Zuckerberg facing multiple lawsuits. He was nominated again for sports drama Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, and made his directorial debut with poker film Molly’s Game. Sorkin was then back in court for The Trial of the Chicago 7, about the anti-Vietnam War protestors accused of conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

His most recent movie is the Oscar-nominated biopic Being the Ricardos, starring Nicole Kidman as the legendary comedian Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as her real-life and sitcom husband Desi Arnaz. Even in the realm of comedy, those Sorkin ideas are bubbling away: the complex intersection of politics, justice, business, art, and doing what is right. Likewise, To Kill a Mockingbird is another great addition to the fiercely intelligent and deftly entertaining Sorkin canon.

Book To Kill a Mockingbird tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Aaron Sorkin (Photo by WEBN-TV on Flickr)

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