First, read Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Next, watch Horton Foote’s 1962 Oscar-winning screen adaptation.
Even if you’ve already done both, do them again.
Only then will you fully appreciate what Aaron Sorkin has accomplished in his play TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Yes, HIS play.
I can say this without question, for before I set foot in the Shubert, I read all 296 of Lee’s pages and watched all 129 minutes of Foote’s adaptation. As a result, I estimate that about 40% of the dialogue is Sorkin’s alone – and nearly 100% of it is riveting.
What came to my mind was a famous quip George S. Kaufman once made while he was watching The Marx Brothers performing one of his shows. After he endured their many, many ad-libs, he said to the person next to him in mock-astonishment, “I think I just heard one of the original lines.”
That seems true of Sorkin’s adaptation, which doesn’t just cannibalize what his previous authors had written. Sorkin has occasionally replaced but more often has augmented what Lee and Foote had written.
All those adapting should take Sorkin as their inspiration. (Are you listening, NETWORK’S Lee Hall?) Don’t just take the original author’s lines and add stage directions. Consider what other characters in the book are thinking and doing. Imagine what might have happened in scenes that the novel’s author never included. Find a new metaphor, as Sorkin did by giving a second meaning to the famous courtroom exhortation “All rise!” Work with skill and taste, and you’ll come up with a script that will thrill audiences the way that Sorkin’s script is doing now.
To review: Lee had six-year old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch tell what was then happening – and what she was feeling — in Maycomb, Alabama from 1933 to 1935.
Foote had an adult but unseen Scout occasionally add a piece of nostalgic narration while we saw young Scout and everyone else in action.
Sorkin has expanded Foote’s idea. He’s made Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill into adults. Now the three are looking back on what had happened in their youth: Tom Robinson, a black laborer, was accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white teen. The truth is that she was trying to seduce him and was caught by her father who was so incensed that he beat her mercilessly. Mayella, to explain away her injuries, had to claim that she received them while fighting off Tom.
When Scout, Jem and Dill were kids, they bought the sheriff’s declaration that Bob Ewell later died after he’d fallen on his own knife. Now, with the wisdom that comes with aging, they’ve grown skeptical. Wasn’t it all too convenient that the man who was out to terrorize or even murder the Finch kids just happened to inadvertently kill himself? So the three will be reviewing the situation.