Harper Lee estate sues over Broadway version of Mockingbird

Lawsuit says script would violate the contact by changing Finch and other characters and adding people who aren’t in the novel

FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2007 file photo, author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala.  The will of “To Kill a Mockingbird” author has been made public following a lawsuit by The New York Times, but details on her estate remain a secret. The will unsealed Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018,  shows most of Lee’s assets were transferred into a trust days before her death two years ago in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala.  But the contents of her estate remain private because trust documents are private. (AP Photo/Rob Carr, File)

The estate of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee has filed suit over an upcoming Broadway adaptation of the novel, arguing that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's script wrongly alters Atticus Finch and other characters from the book.

The suit contends Mr Sorkin's script violates their agreement by portraying Finch, the noble attorney who represents a black man wrongly accused of rape in Mockingbird, as someone else in the play. A copy of the contract, signed by Ms Lee and dated about eight months before her death in February 2016, has been included.

Filed against the theatre company of New York producer Scott Rudin, the complaint cites an interview with the online publication Vulture in which Mr Sorkin was quoted as saying the small-town lawyer would evolve from a racist apologist at the start of the show to become “Atticus Finch by the end of the play.”

Such a change during a play could fit with the character evolution shown between the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mockingbird and Ms Lee's first draft of the novel, finally released in 2015 as Go Set a Watchman.

But the lawsuit contends the script would violate the contract by changing Finch and other characters and adding still more people who are not in the novel. It asks a judge to enforce a section of the agreement that states the play will not "depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters."

A firm that represents Mr Rudin’s company, Rudinplay, said Mr Sorkin’s script “is a faithful adaptation of a singular novel which has been crafted well within the constraints of the signed agreement” between the producers and Ms Lee.

The statement also took a jab at the “history of litigious behaviour” of Ms Lee’s estate, overseen by attorney Tonja Carter of Lee’s south Alabama hometown of Monroeville.

“This is, unfortunately, simply another such lawsuit, the latest of many, and we believe that it is without merit,” said the statement. “While we hope this gets resolved, if it does not, the suit will be vigorously defended.”

The play is scheduled to open in New York in December.

The suit names as its plaintiff Ms Carter, who represented the author during the final years of the author’s life. She handled Ms Lee’s will and is listed in the lawsuit as the personal representative of the estate.

Rudinplay paid Ms Lee $100,000 after she approved Mr Sorkin as the screenwriter in November 2015, the suit said. Ms Carter first saw a draft of the play in September, according to the lawsuit, and she later spoke with Mr Rudin by phone to express numerous concerns about the script.

“Mr Rudin assured Ms Carter that he wanted to do the play right and that he would make sure that the estate would be satisfied with the final product,” the suit said.

The two talked again in February about the script, the suit said, adding: "At times, the conversation was heated." Ms Carter sued after Mr Rudin's attorney wrote earlier this month saying extensive changes to the script were not possible, the suit said.

Mr Sorkin has won multiple Emmys for his work on the drama series The West Wing, and he won an Academy Award for his screenplay of The Social Network in 2011.

Mr Rudin’s credits include Lady Bird, which was nominated for an Academy Award as best motion picture this year, and Fences, which was a 2017 nominee. He won a best picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men in 2008.