The estate of Harper Lee, managed by Tonja Carter, is suing the stage production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” that is being produced by Scott Rubin and Aaron Sorkin.
The lawsuit alleges that the production deviates too much from the novel in regards to the portrayal of Atticus Finch, who begins the play as an apologist for the racism around him and evolves into the righteous man the world knows from Lee’s original novel and the film adaptation starring Gregory Peck.
What makes the argument the estate puts forward so ridiculous is how much the “sequel”, ‘Go Set a Watchman’, deviated from the original novel in regards to the portrayal of Atticus Finch, who is a segregationist and believes the Supreme Court acted too hastily in granting rights to African Americans.
Apparently such deviations of character are only allowed when Carter is facilitating the release of that material. Perhaps if the producers offered Carter—I mean, the Lee estate—a larger royalty, a lawsuit might be unnecessary.
Explaining the changes in character, Aaron Sorkin said, “As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on Mockingbird than Harper Lee’s or Horton Foote’s. 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.”
From that explanation and having watched Sorkin-penned arguments throughout “A Few Good Men” and seven seasons of “The West Wing” (not to mention the letter Sorkin wrote to his daughter on the election of Donald Trump), I’m eager to see the evolution and on-stage transformation of a man when faced with racism and forced to recognize it for the debilitating evil it is.
How relevant that scenario is now, that he should be given and takes full advantage of the opportunity to discuss it with a person of color. That this person person of color is Calpurnia, a black woman in his employ, should make the conversation even more meaningful. This woman, who is considered socially beneath him and dependent on Atticus for her livelihood, needs to educate and elevate him. However, it shouldn’t be lost on the audience that it is Atticus, and the entire Finch family, for that matter, who depend on Calpurnia for all their needs. How meaningful would it be to recognize that finally in this stage production and rightly attribute Atticus’ strong moral compass to the woman who set it on course?
It seems to have taken the framework of the novel and adapted it to fit with the major themes of our current world. And isn’t that what keeps theater so vibrant? The freedom and fluidity to adapt stories to fit a contemporary lens? To make a historical struggle relevant to what we may come face to face with today?
In doing so, Sorkin has embraced the spirit of “Go Set a Watchman” in that where Atticus himself wanted to break down Scout’s version of him as a flawless ideal and show her he was a man as faulty as any other. So does Sorkin’s Atticus begin as the imperfect man. In this version he is allowed to evolve and to demonstrate for the audience that we are all flawed and bigoted, whether intentionally or by privilege. But it is in confronting that ignorance, questioning it, arguing it and speaking the uncomfortable truths as Atticus and Calpurnia allegedly do, that we can grow closer to the ideal that Atticus Finch has always represented since “To Kill a Mockingbird” was first published in 1962.
A Look Into the Dark Underbelly of a Holiday Phenomenon
Let me put you at ease regarding your purchase: I don’t think you’re a racist.
But I do think you’re wasting $29.95.
It’s a stupid purchase, this magical little creature. And creepy. Look at it. Really. I want you to look into his dead little eyes. Sitting there like he owns the place. He won’t even look you in the eye will he? Always off to the side, the shady little bastard, until you look away and then! Goddamnit, just out of the corner of your eye, just as you looked away, or were distracted. Maybe as you were dozing off, there it was: he moved. You swear his eyes moved. It must have been. It must have been because he’s watching you and he’s watching your children. He’s always watching. When you go to bed he goes through your underwear drawer and rifles through your wallet, he raids the liquor cabinet. He watches you sleep. You have invited him into your home. There is no escape. He is… the Elf on the Shelf.
It never gets old. I will say that about the Elf or at least what I think of as our Elf tradition. This treasured tradition is the pure discomfort on their faces when they have to ask this question. They really feel bad. They feel like they’re doing something wrong. You can tell the ones; they have an Elf on the Shelf box in their hands but they’re not looking at it. It’s held low in front of them and their eyes are watching the other customers around them. They feel genuinely guilty about the question they’re going to ask me. It’s adorable.
It’s known professionally as Elf Guilt*, but I’m here to tell you not to be ashamed. You have nothing to apologize for. I’m here to tell you it’s OK.
Say it with me, “It is OK.”
* * *
“Um, hi, excuse me. You… you work here, right?” the customer asks in a hushed tone, after she motions me a few feet away from the rest of the customers milling around the customer service counter. Sometimes there’s a little wave, quick enough so no one sees the gesture, but enough to get me to move away from the crowd.
“Yes,” I respond simply.
After all, I have a name tag on. I have books in my hand. Also, you just watched me help six other customers while answering the phone and trying not to trip over a cane some old man inexplicably left in the store. I shouldn’t have to answer this question. Why would I be doing this if I didn’t work here? But I answer.
“Do you…” she holds up an Elf on the Shelf box, her trembling hands keeping the flap closed tight, completely oblivious to the fact the top of the box is transparent, “do you have… a white one?”
I look at her a moment, the faintest of smirks tugs at my lips. I remain silent just long enough that she shuffles her feet and looks way. I can’t help it. I work retail during the holidays. That’s a special kind of hell and some days, this is all I have.
“Of course,” I say finally, breaking into my customer service smile, “right over here.”
By the way, there are elves everywhere. Te seconds of you opening your eyes between the front doors and the service desk could have avoided this situation entirely. There’s a mountain of Elf boxes in the front windows. There’s another mountain two steps inside the front door. I can see a third mountain from the service desk. That’s how many of these things we get in. We built a mountain. No, we built several mountains. One store made their pile of elf boxes into the shape of a twelve feet tall Christmas tree. Mount Elferest up front is one of at least six places those little bastards are on display. I can see two of those locations from where we’re standing.
Yeah, lady, we got elves. All right, you toe the ground and act embarrassed. I’ll take you over to them. And don’t worry, we have plenty of whiteys for you.
* * *
You do know there’s nothing wrong with wanting a white Elf, don’t you? I mean, you’re white and your kids are white. So, it’s OK. That’s why there are light-skinned and dark-skinned ones. Because it’s OK. It’s OK to want a light- or dark-skinned elf for the same reason that we have boy elves and girl elves.
Shit, you could buy a skirt and slap that on an old boy elf you have because you’re cheap or want to teach your kid a lesson about sexual identity. Buy a skirt and a football jersey, you filthy liberal. You’re already scarring your child by bringing the damn thing into your house, why not tear down those gender biases while you’re at it? On second thought, you probably don’t even need the skirt to raise a few questions….
It’s a brave new world people, and you shouldn’t feel trapped in your choice of terrifying behavior modification merchandise. I want you to feel free to buy whatever color elf you want, in any gender and with any stupid designer accessory brought to you exclusively by the Claus Couture Collection. Yeah, that exists. There are ugly sweaters, felt skirts, leather skirts, bomber jackets, football jerseys. Take your pick, you sick bastard.
So to all of you suburban housewives with your self-indulgent guilt fixations who need to buy a creepy, poorly made doll that looks like it stepped out of the 1970s in a futile attempt to control your spoiled child’s behavior, I just want to say, it’s OK to want a white Elf on the Shelf. Don’t be ashamed. You don’t need to act like a Cold War spy dead-dropping nuclear secrets just to ask where all the white dolls are at. No one who might overhear you asking cares that you want a white doll. No one cares that you’re an elf racist. I’m just kidding; you’re not an elf racist. Because that’s not a thing.
Unless you think the dark-skinned elf is going to steal your stuff after you go to bed. Then we have a problem on multiple levels.
*It’s not known professionally or otherwise as Elf Guilt. I just made that up. Feel free to use it.