Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Go set a playwright

with 2 comments

If you follow theatrical gossip as avidly as I do, you’re probably aware of the unexpected drama that briefly surrounded the new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin. In March, Lee’s estate sued producer Scott Rudin, claiming that the production was in breach of contract for straying drastically from the book. According to the original agreement, the new version wasn’t supposed to “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters,” which Sorkin’s interpretation unquestionably did. (Rudin says just as much on the record: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.”) But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. As a lawyer consulted by the New York Times explains:

Does “spirit” have a definite and precise meaning, or could there be a difference of opinion as to what is “the spirit” of the novel? I do not think that a dictionary definition of “spirit” will resolve that question. Similarly, the contract states that the characters should not be altered. In its pre-action letter, Harper Lee’s estate repeatedly states that the characters “would never have” and “would not have” done numerous things; unless as a matter of historical fact the characters would not have done something…who is to say what a creature of fiction “would never have” or “would not have” done?

Now that the suit has been settled and the play is finally on Broadway, this might all seem beside the point, but there’s one aspect of the story that I think deserves further exploration. Earlier this week, Sorkin spoke to Greg Evans of Deadline about his writing process, noting that he took the initial call from Rudin for good reasons: “The last three times Scott called me and said ‘I have something very exciting to talk to you about,’ I ended up writing Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, so I was paying attention.” His first pass was a faithful version of the original story, which took him about six months to write: “I had just taken the greatest hits of the book, the most important themes, the most necessary themes. I stood them up and dramatized them. I turned them into dialogue.” When he was finished, he had a fateful meeting with Rudin:

He had two notes. The first was, “We’ve got to get to the trial sooner.” That’s a structural note. The second was the note that changed everything. He said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He’s got to become Atticus,” and of course, he was right. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and change as a result, and a protagonist has to have a flaw. And I wondered how Harper Lee had gotten away with having Atticus be Atticus for the whole book, and it’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book. Scout is. But in the play, Atticus was going to be the protagonist, and I threw out that first draft. I started all over again, but this time the goal wasn’t to be as much like the book as possible. The goal wasn’t to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and then gently transfer it to a stage. I was going to write a new play.

This is fascinating stuff, but it’s worth emphasizing that while Rudin’s first piece of feedback was “a structural note,” the second one was as well. The notions that “a protagonist has to change” and “a protagonist has to have a flaw” are narrative conventions that have evolved over time, and for good reason. Like the idea of building the action around a clear sequence of objectives, they’re basically artificial constructs that have little to do with the accurate representation of life. Some people never change for years, and while we’re all flawed in one way or another, our faults aren’t always reflected in dramatic terms in the situations in which we find ourselves. These rules are useful primarily for structuring the audience’s experience, which comes down to the ability to process and remember information delivered over time. (As Kurt Vonnegut, who otherwise might not seem to have much in common with Harper Lee, once said to The Paris Review: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”) Yet they aren’t essential, either, as the written and filmed versions of To Kill a Mockingbird make clear. The original novel, in particular, has a rock-solid plot and supporting characters who can change and surprise us in ways that Atticus can’t. Unfortunately, it’s hard for plot alone to carry a play, which is largely a form about character, and Atticus is obviously the star part. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from using the backbone that Lee provides—the play does indeed get to the jury trial, which is still the most reliable dramatic convention ever devised, more quickly than the book does—but he also grasped the need to turn the main character into someone who could give shape to the audience’s experience of watching the play. It was this consideration, and not the politics, that turned out to be crucial.

There are two morals to this story. One is how someone like Sorkin, who can fall into traps of his own as a writer, benefits from feedback from even stronger personalities. The other is how a note on structure, which Sorkin takes seriously, forced him to engage more deeply with the play’s real material. As all writers know, it’s harder than it looks to sequence a story as a series of objectives or to depict a change in the protagonist, but simply by thinking about such fundamental units of narrative, a writer will come up with new insights, not just about the hero, but about everyone else. As Sorkin says of his lead character in an interview with Vulture:

He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.

In other words, Sorkin’s new perspective on Atticus also required him to rethink the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, which may turn out to be the most beneficial change of all. (This didn’t sit well with the Harper Lee estate, which protested in its complaint that black characters who “knew their place” wouldn’t behave this way at the time.) As Sorkin says of their lack of agency in the original novel: “It’s noticeable, it’s wrong, and it’s also a wasted opportunity.” That’s exactly right—and I like the last reason the best. In theater, as in any other form of narrative, the technical considerations of storytelling are more important than doing the right thing. But to any experienced writer, it’s also clear that they’re usually one and the same.

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2018 at 8:39 am

2 Responses

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  1. This once again reminds me of something that happened in a writer’s group I was in. Someone read a story to us and we began commenting about this or that action or plot point and finally the writer said, “But that’s not the way it really happened.” To which I replied (internally using the voice of Sidney Pollack in Tootsie) “Who gives a shit?” You’ve got to make choices when you tell – or adapt – a story, and “what really happened” is possibly the least useful choice of all.

    Neil Shurley (@ThatNeilGuy)

    December 14, 2018 at 9:44 am

  2. @Neil Shurley: Sydney Pollack from Tootsie is the kind of internal voice I’d like to have!

    nevalalee

    December 14, 2018 at 9:47 am


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