Most adaptations differ in some way from their source material, but Aaron Sorkin’s new stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird seems to hold its source in contempt.
This missed opportunity to share a message about forgiveness and compassion demonstrates a lack of social grace. Compassion and empathy are the chief virtues of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but Sorkin’s production invites the audience to laugh at them.
Set in the 1930s against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the original story is told from the perspective of Scout Finch, a child learning to respect her deeply admirable father. Atticus Finch, both in the novel and in the 1962 film portrayal by Gregory Peck, is humble but strong. His restraint and humility give the children the belief that he has little to offer them. After all, he won’t play football for the Methodists or teach Jem how to shoot, what good can he be? He does, at great personal cost, defend a black man falsely accused of rape. To Kill a Mockingbird is a story of children, who see their father anew and gain a deeper, more adult reverence and love for him.
This is not true of the Atticus Finch depicted in Sorkin’s play. The new Atticus is a weak version of the original, more a Mister Rogers than Gregory Peck’s theatrical depiction. Famous lines of wisdom are throwaways, delivered as trite platitudes repeated to the annoyance of his children and the laughter of the audience, told that Atticus believes all people are basically good.
This is not a contention of the original; in fact, Peck’s Atticus seems distinctly aware that people are flawed and difficult. He just doesn’t see these flaws as the sum total of their personhood. Peck’s Atticus commands the respect of the people around him in each scene. He doesn’t lose his temper and fights the story’s main antagonist, the prejudiced and racist Bob Ewell, as Sorkin’s Atticus does. Peck’s Atticus looks Ewell in the face, and his strong but silent presence is enough to make him leave.
Sorkin’s Atticus is ashamed of his fight with Ewell, despite the protests of the children and the Finch’s housekeeper Calpurnia. He gives a speech that rationalizes Ewell’s sadness over the South’s loss of the Civil War and how many in the South grieve its loss 70 years after the fact.
Atticus reminds the children of his famous line that they must “climb inside” someone’s skin. Calpurnia explains Atticus’s famous line is wrong because it is done at the expense of the victims of the person being understood. She also corrects Atticus for reprimanding his son Jem for destroying the flowers of the Finch’s mean neighbor Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose. Calpurnia retorts that Dubose was a racist long before she was addicted to drugs.
In contemporary culture (where our options are to either indiscriminately affirm or completely cancel) Atticus’s advice to get into someone’s skin is seen as an affirmation of his neighbor’s worst attributes. We don’t see people with nuance because we have lost the belief that the world is full of fallen people who yet retain the image of God.
In Lee’s novel, Atticus doesn’t openly speak to the Ewells’ feelings on the Civil War but he does pity them. He doesn’t condone all of Dubose’s actions, but he admires her for striving to be sober again. Atticus recognizes something that we fail to see today: to feel pity and compassion is not to affirm all of a person’s choices. In his summation, Peck’s Atticus says, “I have nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness for the State. She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance. But my pity does not extend so far as to her putting a man’s life at stake.” In Sorkin’s play, the falsely accused Tom Robinson’s pity for Ewell’s victimized daughter Mayella is treated as the reason he receives a guilty verdict.
Throughout the play, Atticus and the children become disgusted with their neighbors. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.” This is not true of Sorkin’s Macomb County where all but a few of the characters are completely evil. The complexity of most characters is removed. The play depicts most of the town as Klansmen. The evil of the antagonists is heightened. Ewell is not only lying but, in fact, is his daughter’s rapist. But even though she is inherently evil; her racism makes her unworthy of pity.
In the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, Jesus states, “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” Sorkin’s play would have us all be the Pharisees looking down on our fallen neighbors with pitiless contempt. However, it would be better if instead of laughing with Sorkin’s audience we listened to Atticus’s advice regarding our neighbors and “climb inside of [their] skin and walk around in it”.