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Harper Lee estate unhappy with characters in Broadway adaption

| Apr 6, 2018 | Probate Litigation |

Artistic license, the scope of contract provisions and how Calpurnia would have acted are all involved in the dispute. If the parties cannot resolve their disagreements, it could delay the stage opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

While she was still living, Harper Lee agreed to allow Aaron Sorkin to adapt her famous novel for the stage. She placed one condition: Do not “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel, nor alter its characters.”

What would she have thought of the script?

Since the author is no longer with us, it is impossible to know exactly. Her estate represented by her longtime attorney has some concerns. 

When the author died, her estate basically stepped into her shoes with the rights to litigate contract issues. And her estate sued the screenwriter’s producer alleging that Atticus is too mean and the kids – Jem and Scout – are too old. Another concern was that Calpurnia is more opinionated in the adaption.

What happens now?

As the New York Times notes, a lot is at stake. And the outcome could determine how the next generation encounters one of our most famous stories.

In a pre-trial letter, the estate gives examples of things characters “would never have done.” But this begs the question: who decides since the original creator of the characters cannot be consulted? And there could be reasonable disagreement.

The author held the ultimate approval over the choice of playwright. Terms in the contract suggest that the author and her estate had more of an advisory role over the script.

A literary and artistic property law professor raised an interesting point. It might not be all that surprising that the 1930s Alabama story and characters are different when filtered through Sorkin’s eyes and experience.

This case illustrates why it is important for artists and authors to consider what happens to their works into the future. Appointing a personal representative for the estate with similar views who will stand up for your wishes is also critical.


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