A New Way of Looking at To Kill a Mockingbird

The Broadway adaptation’s writer and star—Aaron Sorkin and Ed Harris, respectively—talk about updating and paying homage to Harper Lee’s American classic today.

Julieta Cervantes

The first line of Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is one of quiet confusion. “Something didn’t make sense,” Scout Finch tells the audience of the tale that’s about to unfold. Sorkin’s dramatization of Harper Lee’s novel, which opened on Broadway last December, is an unexpectedly probing work that refuses to let an American classic go unchallenged. Instead, it stages two trials: One is from the book, in which Scout’s attorney father, Atticus Finch, defends Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of rape in 1930s Alabama, and tries to combat the community’s entrenched racism.

In Sorkin’s play, the other trial is of Atticus’s own nobility, and how it doesn’t always square with his grander vision of justice. Though the adaptation broadly follows the narrative arc of Lee’s novel, it uses Scout, her brother Jem, and her friend Dill (all played by adult actors) to cast a wary eye over some of the book’s more idealistic details. That framing encourages the audience to ponder the limits of Atticus’s impulse to empathize even with vile racists such as Bob Ewell, a man who’s trying to pin his own assault of his daughter Mayella on Tom. The play beefs up the relatively anonymous parts given to black characters in Lee’s work, gives Atticus’s kids a more argumentative nature, and sheds harsher light on the book’s somewhat pat ending.

The stage adaptation is nonetheless made with appreciation for Lee’s novel, and that mix of homage and update has translated into a family-friendly Broadway hit. The production, directed by Bartlett Sher, premiered last year with Jeff Daniels headlining a seasoned cast and has now turned over with Ed Harris in the lead role. I was fascinated by the prospect of Harris, who brings an edge to even his most warmhearted roles, playing one of the most heralded characters in the American literary canon, and he didn’t disappoint. There’s a sweetness and a sadness to his Atticus, a perfect match to the melancholy backwards glance of Sorkin’s text. I talked with Harris and Sorkin together about their approach to the revival, Atticus’s status as a hero, and recasting the classics for a modern audience. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Sims: The show surprised me. I knew the book, and I had seen the film multiple times, so I was not expecting to be surprised.

Aaron Sorkin: I’m glad to hear that. From the moment the curtain goes up, we try to knock you off your pins a little bit. Scout spends the play trying to solve [the mystery of Bob Ewell’s death], but broadly what we’re doing is having a new conversation about the book, the story we all learned in seventh grade and thought we knew.

Sims: The industrial warehouse look of the set—it’s like a space that’s been there for a long time but has been standing empty.

Sorkin: That’s right. The curtain goes up and it’s not what you were expecting to see. And what the three characters—Scout, Jem, and Dill—are questioning is something from the book.

Sims: The ending, specifically. But also the entire tale.

Sorkin: When I started out [with this play], I thought it was a suicide mission, but I said yes right away ’cause I wanted to do a play so badly. My first draft was terrible because I tried to gently swaddle the book in bubble wrap and transfer it to the stage. It felt like a greatest-hits album done by a cover band—just somebody trying to imitate Harper Lee and standing up the most famous scenes from the book. I realized that Atticus, as the protagonist [of the stage version of the] story, has to change. And if he’s gonna be the protagonist, he has to have a flaw.

How did Harper Lee get away with having a protagonist who doesn’t change? Because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book or the movie; Scout is—her flaw is that she’s young, and the change is that she loses some of her innocence. While I wanted to explore Scout, I absolutely wanted Atticus to be a traditional protagonist, so he needed to change and have a flaw … It turned out that Harper Lee had [already] given him one; it’s just that when we all learned the book, it was taught as a virtue. It’s that Atticus believes that goodness can be found in everyone.

Sims: He excuses things [such as bigotry and cruelty].

Sorkin: By the end of the play, he realizes he doesn’t know his friends and neighbors as well as he thought he did, that it may not be true that goodness can be found in everyone.

Sims: Ed, how did you get involved with the show?

Sorkin: How do you win the lottery?!

Ed Harris: I was in San Francisco. I woke up in a hotel in the morning and I had an email from [the producer Scott Rudin] asking, “Do you want to play Atticus.” Period. How could I say no?

Sims: Aside from the thrill of playing Atticus, was there also the appeal of doing a big Broadway show again?

Harris: I knew Jeff [Daniels] had been doing it, but I hadn’t seen it—I’m glad I hadn’t and didn’t want to, just not to be influenced. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of whether they’d just paste us into a thing that already had its wheels turning. And it was very encouraging during rehearsal that [the director Bartlett Sher] realized this was a new cast. Yes, the play has been running for a year; yes, there are certain things you have to retain in terms of blocking. But within the themes and relationships, he was very open to us exploring stuff.

Sorkin: What Ed is describing is a big deal. To have four weeks of rehearsal, essentially just do the play all over again with a new group of people, is something you don’t find a lot. What happened on my end was, Scott called and said, “We have a chance to get Ed Harris.” So I talked to Bart about it. It’s a whole new cast. With someone like Ed Harris, you can’t just have the stage manager show them their blocking. So we started from the beginning. The result is even more thrilling because the quality hasn’t diminished at all. In fact, both Bart and I make a strong argument that the play has gotten better as a result of rehearsing it again.

Sims: For playing Atticus, how long had it been since you’d thought about the novel or Gregory Peck’s performance in the film?

Harris: I love the film. I think Peck’s portrayal in terms of that story and that script is just indelible. There are little things that happen on the stage even now, just a head move or something, that feels like Gregory Peck! But the inner life of this man I’m playing is so different [from Peck’s character]. He’s trying to hold on to a belief that’s being eroded slowly but surely. It’s really interesting to play. I’m not one of those people who finds a way to do it and is gonna do that same thing for six months. It’s always new. I try to stay open to allowing it to affect me every night.

Sims: The show is interrogating Atticus’s passivity and nobility. How do you want to communicate that passivity, and the anger within him as well?

Harris: Early on in the play, Bob Ewell comes by [to the Finch house] and threatens Atticus, saying, “We’ve got two ropes.” And Jem, Atticus’s son, comes out and says, “You want me to respect Bob Ewell?” And he says, “Yeah, there’s good in everyone.” That statement in itself does not betray who Atticus is and how he behaves. The first clue [of Atticus’s inner anger] to me, at least, is when Atticus goes off on Mayella [in the courthouse].

Sims: That’s a fascinating scene, where Atticus yells at Mayella Ewell for falsely accusing Tom Robinson and refusing to admit the truth under oath. His frustration is very understandable; as Atticus acknowledges, she’s a victim who’s obviously suffering, but when she rejects his empathetic gesture, he loses his cool slightly. Aaron, did you want that moment to be played that frighteningly?

Sorkin: This may be weird for Ed to hear, but when I’m writing, I’m playing all the parts. I’m very physical; I’m up, I’m down, I’m talking to myself. It was easy for me to get angry at that moment and to write the line, “I want to make the truth known to this court, even if I have to go through you to do it.” There’s a great tension there. We’re in the time of #MeToo, and we’re doing a play about a woman falsely accusing a man of rape. And Mayella is a victim, and she does deserve pity. But Tom Robinson doesn’t have a choice, and Mayella does.

Sims: You give a lot of that anger to the kids. In the novel, I don’t remember them ever challenging their father; they’re more like observers who are invested in childish obsessions, like [their mysterious neighbor] Boo Radley. But you’ve given them, especially Jem, a more defiant dynamic with Atticus.

Sorkin: Well, if Atticus is going to have all the answers, let’s ask him tougher questions.

Sims: Calpurnia [the Finch family’s black housekeeper] has more to do as well, and she’s a much more passive figure in the book.

Sorkin: I returned to the book and was surprised to find that in a story about racial tension, there were really only two significant African American characters, neither of whom had much to say. I want to be careful—this play is in no way meant to correct what I feel were mistakes that Harper Lee made. It’s a conversation. And I couldn’t do a Harper Lee impersonation or pretend like I was writing the play in 1960. But Calpurnia in the book is mostly concerned with whether Scout’s going to wear overalls or a dress; Tom Robinson pleads for his life, but we don’t know much more about him. In 1960, using African American characters mostly as atmosphere is something that probably would have gone unnoticed by a mostly white audience. But it would be noticeable today, and it’s a really big missed opportunity. You want their point of view in this.

Harris: One of my favorite things that Aaron did is the tension between Atticus and Calpurnia. And the reason for that tension is that when Atticus tells her he’s going to defend Tom Robinson, she isn’t “grateful” enough and he says “You’re welcome” under his breath. And she calls him on it! That scene really resonates for me because it says so much about Atticus and his real motivations.

Sorkin: There’s a scene in the book and in the movie. For a lot of people, it’s their favorite scene; it had always been mine. My father passed away a few years ago; it was his favorite too. At the end of the trial, Atticus has lost, he’s putting stuff back in his briefcase, and the whole courtroom has cleared out, except for what they call the “colored section” up in the balcony. Atticus turns around to see that they’re all standing silently out of respect for him, and someone says [to Scout], “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise; your daddy’s passing.” It’s a good movie scene.

Sims: Of course, it gives you a chill.

Sorkin: But the people in the balcony should be burning the courthouse down. They should be out in the street chanting, “No justice, no peace!” Instead, they are [written as] docile; they are quietly respecting the guy who I most identify with in the story, the guy who seems like my father, the white liberal guy. We all want to be identified as one of the good ones, and that’s what they’re saying to Atticus. And I do think Atticus is one of the good ones—it’s just a little harder than that, and it’s where Calpurnia’s dynamic with him comes from in the play.

Sims: It’s an ongoing conversation in 2019—what the limits of empathy should be.

Sorkin: And I’m not sure that there’s an answer to that, but I know those questions are being asked very loudly because of the monumental election we had three years ago and the one we’ll have 11 months from now.

Sims: Ed, are these things you’re thinking about, or are you more trying to inhabit the person?

Harris: I’m just trying to live it more and more every night. I’m trying to fill up this character with humanity.

Sims: Have either of you seen the recent Broadway revival of Oklahoma? I bring it up because that’s a musical that ends with a crime being covered up—the death of Jud—and a miscarriage of justice, and then the ensemble sings a song and everything’s happy. But this revival tries to interrogate that [ugliness] a little more. And then I had forgotten that To Kill a Mockingbird also ends with a crime—the [murder] of Bob Ewell [by Boo Radley, trying to protect Scout]—being covered up!

Sorkin: Isn’t it amazing? I had forgotten about it too, and I couldn’t believe it!

Sims: It’s a story about the greatest lawyer of all time—Atticus—and he’s complicit in this crime!

Sorkin: This novel ends with, as Scout said, “the most honest and decent person in Maycomb” covering up murder with a judge and a sheriff. Why didn’t that ever come up in my eighth-grade class? I saw that and thought, Well, I can tell this exact same story, but can’t that [tension] be part of it from the beginning? But that even raises new questions that people have talked to me about—that Boo Radley gets a different kind of justice than Tom Robinson gets. Never are the judge and the sheriff saying, “We gotta get Tom out of here!” [for his protection].

Sims: And there’s infinite understanding for Boo.

Sorkin: Right. Now I have a defense for that, which is that Atticus and the judge, when they arrange for Tom Robinson to have a jury trial, sincerely believe that it’s going to be a good thing for Maycomb, that justice is going to be done. They do not anticipate [Tom being found guilty]. Atticus’s mantra is “There is nobody in this town so far gone that they would send an obviously innocent person to the electric chair.” And they do.

Sims: There’s mob justice at work—Bob Ewell is disgraced and Atticus successfully proves the way [Bob is] treating his daughter, but the town’s reaction is just to excommunicate [Bob], not to make the leap forward of finding Tom innocent. It’s been an interesting year for these great American works getting interrogated on Broadway.

Sorkin: They’re not getting repainted. We’re just taking another look, given the times we’re living in.