Sammy Sussman: Problems with the perfection of Aaron Sorkin's ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Wednesday, January 16, 2019 - 5:42pm

To Kill a Mockingbird

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Michigan Daily / Sadhana Ramaseshadri

Over the winter break, I was lucky enough to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway. The script for this new production, which opened on Dec. 13, was written by Aaron Sorkin. It was an incredibly spellbinding experience, easily one of the best plays I have seen all year.

Jeff Daniels’s Atticus Finch was refreshing, in both ambiguity and strength, as Daniels managed to capture Atticus’s flaws and finer moments in this production without sounding overly preachy. Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Scout, furthermore, was quite convincing — she expertly straddled the boundary between child and adult, oscillating between adolescent memory and adult reflection.

As with many Broadway productions, especially those based on books of this stature, the production value behind the play was superb. The sets were great, the courtroom with empty jurors’ chairs in particular standing out in my mind. And while the music and lighting were not much to speak of, they perfectly underscored the childish simplicity of the narrative.

A little after attending the play, however, I began comparing it to the novel. In doing so, I became aware of many striking departures Sorkin took in this production — many of which seem to rob the story of its greatness.

Sorkin complicates Atticus, for example, painting him not as a perfect figure but as a flawed man working to do what he believes to be best. The best example of this comes in the middle of the play, as Sorkin adds a tense scene between Calpurnia and Atticus, two characters previously described as having a sibling-like relationship. At the height of this scene, Calpurnia accuses Atticus of muttering “you’re welcome” under his breath at her after taking on the case.

Atticus’s interactions with Bob Ewell are also quite different in this telling of the story. Ewell is now a virulent racist and anti-Semite. He claims that Atticus’s work as a lawyer must be an indication that he is secretly Jewish, and he criticizes Atticus among his white peers for this (alleged) Jewish ancestry.

Later, when Ewell comes to confront Atticus, they engage in a brief altercation. Unlike the Atticus of the movie and the novel, this Atticus does not refrain from engaging in this fight, which eventually culminates in Atticus pinning Ewell’s hands behind his back and holding him by his hair.

One of the aspects of Harper Lee’s novel that I have always found most compelling is the ambiguity that she brings to Southern race relations. Unlike many other novels, she portrays Southerners as neither entirely bad nor entirely good. Scout’s young age further enhances this narrative, as the reader is forced to confront early 20th-century race relations from the point of view of a naïve adolescent, losing any stereotypes that they may hold regarding these issues.

Sorkin, on the other hand, modifies the story to make it more acceptable to our Trump-era left-wing prejudices. These modifications felt slightly cheap — unlike Lee’s novel, it felt as though Sorkin was giving the audience exactly they wanted, leaving in no ambiguity and provoking no higher-level questioning surrounding Southern culture.

Sorkin deflects criticism of the “white savior” trope, for example, by adding the confrontation between Calpurnia and Atticus. To my great surprise, Atticus responded to this criticism by apologizing to Calpurnia — rather than demonstrating the flaws in this “white savior” trope, Sorkin takes it further, portraying Atticus as aware of his own prejudices though his actions seem to perpetuate them.

Atticus’s fight with Ewell was similarly flawed in my view. Though some may argue that this speaks to his flaws in terms of his inability to control his own emotions, I saw it instead as a cheap attempt at solidifying Atticus’s masculinity and strength. This was yet another instance in which Sorkin’s additions, rather than adding intriguing complexities to the narrative, merely served to create new flaws.

Just as with Atticus’s newfound introspection, I found Ewell’s anti-Semitism to be a cheap attempt at pandering to modern sensibilities. It served no purpose in the narrative besides engaging further with modern audiences — a surprisingly surface-level reference to the resurgence of neo-Nazism.

If anything, Sorkin seems to be grasping for more prejudices that he can give to Ewell. It almost seems as though Sorkin thinks that Ewell’s initial racism wasn’t enough — that saying the n-word a couple of times and accusing a Black man of a crime he did not commit is not enough to provoke the audiences anger; that without this addition of anti-Semitism, the audience might not despise Ewell to the proper degree.

On the other hand, Lee’s controversial sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Go Set a Watchman,” chose to depict Atticus not as a slightly introspective savior-like figure but as a deeply flawed and hypocritical man, a lawyer who spends his free time with racist individuals and engages in racist discussions even as he voluntarily defends a Black man in the South’s racist courts of law.

Though I was initially upset by this new novel, (as were many readers), this play served as a helpful reminder of the frightening yet powerful message that this book seems to send: that we all hold racial prejudices, that even a flawless pro bono attorney like Atticus can still hold deep racial prejudices. Lee destroys the idyllic Atticus in favor of the flawed, racist Atticus, forcing the reader to examine their own prejudices.

Sorkin’s play, however, instead reminded me of the pitfalls of our hyper-polarized cultural climate. We live in the supposedly “post-racial” era, where a Black man could be elected to the presidency. Our entertainment is expected to reflect these post-racial attitudes, whether it be the criticism of Atticus or the addition of Ewell’s anti-Semitic prejudices. Lost in this climate, I fear, is the ambiguity and complexity that gives the performing arts their thought-provoking qualities.

This is not to say that Sorkin’s additions are not more culturally appropriate, or that they might not reflect a better, less-prejudiced society. But at the end of the day, they are not original to the text — they give the audience what they want to see instead of what they might be forced to see. But, as I have said before, the performing arts are not meant to comfort us, they are meant to challenge us. They should make us slightly uncomfortable. They should force us to conform our prejudices, not confirm to us that we have overcome other people’s prejudices. And in this regard, unfortunately, Sorkin’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” fell flat.