Aaron Sorkin takes a harder look at the American classic
When I found out Aaron Sorkin, one of my favorite writers and master of messy, complex and impassioned dialogue, was taking a pass at To Kill A Mockingbird, I set google alerts for ticket announcements immediately.
Maybe a year later, I purchased two tickets to what would be my first broadway play and this past January, a little over 6 months later, I was seated in the orchestra with a good friend ready to be wowed.
Full context, I was not a fan of To Kill A Mockingbird when we read it in school. Not because of it’s slow, southern-summer day pacing (feat and folly of the author), but because as a school-aged youth, raised in Texas, I knew the esteem of Atticus Finch, lauded as one of the most controversially virtuous protagonists in history, was bullshit.
Bringing it back to the play, Aaron Sorkin and his Atticus, Jeff Daniels, were transparent and intentional about making sure audiences understood that this was an interpretation of Harper Lee’s classic and, by the time I’d seen it, the initial reviews were stellar across the board.
If you’re looking for an endorsement or opposition, here — it’s really good. Get tickets, go see it.
That said, what’s great about it isn’t that it underlines or fortifies how we already view Atticus Finch or even Scout, Jem and Dill (Gideon Glick’s effeminate, southern drawl was in-fucking-credible). It calls into question that exact thing. True to the familiar, Atticus chastised Scout and Jem for numerous things, encouraging them to always take the high-road even in the face of excessive and violent racism and general ignorance. To their own detriment and his. In the play however, there were a number of times that Scout, Jem and even Calpurnia challenged Atticus in ways that made his own naïveté, and faith in people he had no reason to believe in, take center stage.
While it certainly didn’t make me like him more, this was absolutely a welcomed change that brought this God-like character down from Mount Olympus and made him feel less patronizing, while turning down the volume on the author and publisher’s pristine image of white benevolence.
That said, I don’t know that Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, could exist, or exist to this level of adulation, without the controversy of Go Set a Watchmen. Intended as the original draft of what would become TKAM, Go Set was released as a sequel after the author’s death and seemed to do the work that Aaron Sorkin is getting the praise for now. To be clear, Aaron is well deserving, but I’d find it hard to believe that the play isn’t benefitting at all from the numerous conversations around Go Set’s representation of Atticus Finch in a more humanizing way — the Atticus Finch we know was polished into this version from a slightly more contentious original rendering. Some 55 years later, the media and entertainment landscape is saturated with similarly complex heroes and antiheroes alike.
Also, the older Scout in the previously unreleased version grapples with her fathers support or alignment with the racists of the town she grew up in and the seemingly conflicting messages he’s taught her all his life. Younger Scout, in the book we got, was accidentally impactful through a precocious innocence that was ultimately the undoing of one of the most tense scenes in both the novel and play. Aaron’s version is a near-perfect marriage of the two and, of the other non-book adaptations, probably the best and most true to life interpretation we’ll ever get.
Ultimately, I still think To Kill a Mockingbird gets praise for things it shouldn’t, but if we’ve reached the era of taking a more critical lens to the beloved classics, I can make some time for that.