The Shubert Theatre was a sea of chinos and button downs. I was surrounded by law school graduation presents. Behind me, an older gentleman was lecturing his young son on the importance of what he would he be watching. This white, affluent, audience foreshadowed what was to come; Aaron Sorkin, who adapted the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a Broadway hit, has received criticism over how he writes female characters, so his decision to adapt Harper Lee’s bildungsroman novel on girlhood is a curious one. How does a white man from New York City tell a Southern Gothic about a young girl growing up in the Depression Era South, a story inspired by the female author’s lived experience?
For Sorkin, it’s easy—you just silence her voice.
Despite Scout being the protagonist and narrator of the book, Sorkin’s play shifts the focus to her father, Atticus Finch, played by the fantastic Jeff Daniels, while splitting the narration between Scout (played by Celia Keenan-Bolger), her older brother Jem (Will Pullen), and their friend Dill Harris (Gideon Glick). Why do we need three narrators—in particular, two men who keep interrupting Scout when Keenan-Bolger is more than talented enough to do the heavy lifting? Scout may have been a tomboy, but Sorkin’s writing makes it clear that this is a masculine take on a girl’s story.
While the novel’s narrative arc builds up to the trial, the play’s narrative cuts in and out of the trial at an almost jarring pace. It’s like listening to your favorite song that has been rearranged and played a little off-key. The heart of the play, Scout’s childhood antics and growing pains, are replaced with snappy one-liners. We see Atticus as both idealistic and distant, but we never learn why. We are missing pieces that never get picked back up. (Director Robert Mulligan’s film adaptation of the book also steers the narrative away from Scout in favor of a greater focus on Atticus.)
Even Harper Lee’s own words are edited out. The titular “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” is casually tossed in during closing arguments, muddled by Daniel’s fake southern drawl. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” is no longer wise fatherly advice, but “something that dad always says.” This point could have been sharper and it feels like a missed opportunity, especially in 2019, when it’s impossible to see the point of view of people who are willing let atrocities take place. It just doesn’t go deep enough.
For high school reading material, To Kill A Mockingbird is a complex novel. The book not only tackles racial injustice but also gender identity, toxic masculinity, poverty and addiction—all things that are still relevant today and all things the movie and play adaptions ignore. In this version of To Kill A Mockingbird, we are getting a thriller, a courtroom drama. The children only serve as narrators and seem like meddling kids who somehow needed to fit into the plot. We brush up against a few of these issues but never dive deeper.
To be fair, there were rewarding moments in Sorkin’s adaptation. As a flawed, distant Atticus, Jeff Daniels adds a realistic touch to the idealized character in the novel (even if this version of Atticus is more a Sorkin character than Lee’s). There was also great inclusions, like a touching scene between Dill and Atticus, and another in which the talented La Tanya Richardson as Calpurnia goes toe-toe with Atticus. Yet, Sorkin didn’t take enough impactful risks, and if you’re going to be fighting legal battles with the Harper Lee estate and shutting down plays you might as well go all in. Focus only on the court case, cut Boo out, set it in modern times, give Tom Robinson his own narrative. If you’re going to alter a classic, really alter it instead of half-heartedly trying to make it work, or it will come off as lacking.
In the end, Sorkin’s Mockingbird shows a white man’s idea of what a racist looks like. By over-dramatizing Ewell’s racism, Sorkin seems to comfort a predominantly white audience by saying that racists are just backwood hicks without education or wealth, when in fact they exist in our lawyers, our hiring managers, our “self-made” billionaires in white houses. You don’t have to shout slurs to benefit from racism—a point Sorkin forgets or elects to ignore.
To Kill a Mockingbird has never been more timely, but not even the most talented cast can save such a distorted, watered down script. We need the whole story, the raw story. We need something more. Sorkin’s biggest sin isn’t killing a mockingbird, but silencing a woman’s narrative.