TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on May 1, 2018

Journal Issue Date: May 2018

Journal Name: May 2018 - Vol. 54, No. 5

He is the most revered lawyer in American history. He has inspired tens of thousands of people to become lawyers, and according to a survey by the American Film Institute, he is regarded as “the greatest American hero.”

And this is true despite the fact that as a trial lawyer he lost the biggest case of his career.

His name, of course, is Atticus Finch. This Alabama trial lawyer was introduced to the world in 1960 by the late great Harper Lee in her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Over the past nearly 60 years, the book has sold 40 million copies.

In 1962, actor Gregory Peck portrayed Atticus in an Academy Award-winning performance of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. The film is still watched by lawyers, law students, and millions of Americans who are often otherwise cynical about the legal profession.

Yes, Atticus Finch has been a hero on the pages of an inspirational book and on the Silver Screen. And now, believe it or not, he is headed to Broadway. But first, he is going to have to do something he did not do in To Kill a Mockingbird.

He’s going to have to win a lawsuit.

The Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird is scheduled to open on Dec. 13, at the Lincoln Center Theatre in New York City with Jeff Daniels playing the role of Atticus. The production is under the direction of Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher.

It is my understanding that it is a dramatic play, rather than a musical. That’s probably because it’s really not possible to come up with a word that rhymes with “mockingbird.” Also, I don’t believe that even Broadway audiences are ready for a singing and dancing Atticus accompanied by a chorus line featuring Scout, Jem and Boo Radley.

But the show may not go on. If the Estate of Harper Lee has its way, To Kill a Mockingbird will be banned on Broadway.

In March, the Estate of Harper Lee filed a lawsuit in federal court in Alabama seeking to stop the play, contending that the script deviates from the novel, particularly in its depiction of Atticus.

The script for the Broadway production was written by Aaron Sorkin, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter whose works include A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and the television series The West Wing.

The lawsuit claims that before she died, Harper Lee authorized Sorkin to write a Broadway adaptation of her classic novel. But the contract provided that Sorkin’s play script could not “derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel, nor alter its characters.”

The lawsuit further alleges that Sorkin’s script violated the contract by depicting Atticus as a lawyer whose views about race evolved during his lifetime. To this extent, Sorkin’s portrayal of Atticus is more similar to the Atticus we read about in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (the so-called prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird) than the Atticus who inspired us in the original great novel.

The lawsuit contends that Atticus Finch is portrayed in the novel as a model of wisdom, integrity and professionalism, and that Sorkin’s script departs from this portrayal to which the stage producers contractually agreed to be faithful.

Sorkin’s lawyer, Scott Rudin, vigorously contests the claims. He told the New York Times it was “never expected that the play would merely be the recitation of the novel from the stage,” and that the script is faithful to the spirit of the novel.

And so Atticus may lose another trial this fall, this time on the stage at the Lincoln Center Theatre, but first he is going to have to win or settle a lawsuit with the Estate of Harper Lee.

I predict that the lawsuit will be settled and the show will go on. But as much as I love a good Broadway show, I have no intention of seeing this one.

First, I doubt I could afford a ticket. The last time I was in New York I tried to buy a ticket to Hamilton, and the going price was — so help me — $900. For that amount of money, the cast of Hamilton should come to your home and perform the show in your den.

But more important, even if I could afford a ticket to To Kill a Mockingbird, I want to remember the original novel and motion picture. I made a mistake a couple of years ago by reading Go Set a Watchman, and I resolved I would never make that mistake again.

Whenever I want to be inspired by Atticus, I intend to pull my well-worn copy of To Kill a Mockingbird off my bookshelf, or watch Gregory Peck defend Tom Robinson one more time on the TV screen in my den.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.