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How Aaron Sorkin ignored his own doubts to write a new ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

By Curt Schleier

(JTA) — Aaron Sorkin, an award-winning screenwriter, and Scott Rudin, an award-winning producer, have been successful in several collaborations — the films “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs,” and the TV series “Newsroom.”

So, it wasn’t surprising when about three years ago, Rudin called Sorkin, asking him to write the stage version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” to which Rudin had just acquired stage rights. 

“I said yes right away. I didn’t hesitate, even though I thought at the time it was a suicide mission,” the writer recalled. 

Sorkin’s fears were understandable. During PBS’s recent search for “The Great American Read,” Harper Lee’s classic about racism and justice in the Deep South topped the list ahead of the Harry Potter books, which finished third; “The Lord of the Rings” (5); and “Gone With the Wind” (6).

The 1962 movie version starring Gregory Peck is nearly as iconic as the book, which still sells more than a million copies a year.

But Sorkin needn’t have worried: Since opening on Dec. 13, the show has been the highest performing non-musical play on Broadway. The result, which stars Jeff Daniels, is one of the great dramas of the season, one greeted with rapturous reviews. It’s a sure bet to be nominated for Tony Awards, including for best play.

Daniels plays Atticus Finch, the white lawyer assigned to defend a black man accused of raping a white teen in rural 1930s Alabama. From start to finish, Atticus is a paragon.

“He sees the goodness in everyone,” Sorkin says, even the racists.

“All you have to do is crawl around in someone else’s skin and see things from their point of view. From the beginning of the play, he believes these are his friends and neighbors. They may be stuck in their old ways, but none are so far gone that they would send an obviously innocent man to the electric chair. Over the course of the play, he discovers that they are too far gone and even he can’t find their goodness.”

Sorkin believed that at least parts of the play felt dated, including what he called “one of my favorite scenes, but probably not the favorite of anyone who isn’t white.” It comes at the end of the trial, when the courtroom has emptied except for the segregated balcony — where the town’s black people stand silently as a sign of their respect for Atticus.

“It always puts a lump in my throat, and I was thinking about why and I became comfortable with the answer,” he said. “It’s because these people upstairs are not burning the courthouse down. There is no ‘no justice no peace’ rally. They are standing in quiet gratitude to this white man, and that seemed to me to be this white liberal fantasy that marginalized people will point to us and say you are one of the good ones. Thank you. So I did the opposite.”

No spoiler will be revealed here, except to say the change is subtle. Harper Lee died in 2016 after authorizing a new adaptation but before reading Sorkin’s draft.

If there is such a thing, “Mockingbird” is in some ways a typical Sorkin script in that it is anchored by a person with a strong moral center. You saw it in “West Wing” (Martin Sheen’s Jeb Bartlet) and “Newsroom” (Daniels’ Will McAvoy). You even saw it in the drug-addicted title character of his last film, “Molly Bloom” (Jessica Chastain).

Another change Sorkin made in the play: He has the villain, Bob Ewell, insult Atticus with antisemitic slurs.

“I suppose it has something to do with my cultural background,” Sorkin said, “but also Ewell was a Klansman and I wanted to express more of the Klan ideology.”

Sorkin did not go to Hebrew school and did not celebrate his bar mitzvah. Growing up in Scarsdale, New York, he said, “in the seventh grade I’d be going to someone’s bar or bat mitzvah every week. In my family the boys, we had a big party on our 13th birthday. But I loved [bar mitzvahs]. They appealed to my sense of theatricality. The singing and oratory and they were also inspirational. Six weeks before I was 13 I contacted a rabbi and told him I’d like you to teach me the Torah. He said he couldn’t do that in two weeks.”

So Sorkin made a counteroffer: Just teach me what I need to know.

“I have a good ear and I can learn it phonetically,” he said. The rabbi responded that wasn’t in the spirit of the occasion.

“I feel I missed something because friends of mine who did go to Hebrew school, who are observant and keep kosher and some who keep the Sabbath, they have something I want,” Sorkin said. “I can’t describe it. I wish I could describe it. I just know that I envy it.”

Sorkin is divorced from his wife, Julia Bingham, and they have a daughter, Roxy, who is being raised Jewish.

“She can say the Sabbath prayers on Friday night and is Jewish for the same reason I am,” he said. “We understand that we come from a long line of people who always got their asses kicked for being Jewish — and we stand with them.”

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