Aaron Sorkin: The West Wing creator on staging To Kill a Mockingbird in the Trump era
BRIAN APPLEYARD • THE SUNDAY TIMES • 15 DECEMBER 2019
It was, Aaron Sorkin assumed, an attempted murder. Scott Rudin, godlike stage and screen producer, had asked him to turn To Kill a Mockingbird into a play. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is how Scott’s finally going to kill me. This is a suicide mission.’”
Harper Lee’s novel stands alongside Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a sacred American text. It is about racism in Alabama in the 1930s. To tinker with it is to invite popular and professional death, even if you happen to be America’s supreme screenwriter. Nevertheless, Sorkin took the job — he desperately wanted to do a play.
At first, he did not tinker. “My first draft was terrible. I tried to gently transfer the book, sort of swaddle it in bubble wrap... That draft ended up being a kind of greatest-hits album done by a covers band.”
Rudin sat him down and said: “You know, I think this is going to be rougher than you thought it was going to be.”
So Sorkin went back to the book, and the genius that produced, inter alia, A Few Good Men, The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War and The Social Network kicked in.
The dramatic problem with Lee’s novel is that Atticus Finch, the Deep South lawyer at the centre of the action, is not the protagonist, his daughter, Scout, is. For Lee, this was logical: she was Scout’s age when the action takes place and lived in Alabama. So Scout tells the story, and, in doing so, learns, moves and changes. Atticus does not. He is not, strictly speaking, a dramatic character at all. “He’s kind of carved out of marble — the guy who has all the answers. In the play, he was going to need to be the protagonist. Which means he was going to have to have a flaw. And he has to change from something into something else — and what would that be?”
At this point, your average screen hack would have invented a flaw for Atticus. Sorkin did not stoop so low. He realised Lee had provided one.
“I didn’t need to give Atticus the flaw, he already had one. It’s just that when I learnt the book in school, when most people learnt the book in school, it was taught as a virtue. And it’s this: Atticus believes there’s goodness that can be found in everyone. So he forgives people for flaws that perhaps ought not be forgiven.”
To Lee, the saintliness of Atticus would not have been a flaw, but to the American contemporary liberal conscience, battered by Trumpery, it is. Sorkin reminds me of the 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacist groups clashed with campaigners for the removal of a statue of a Civil War general and a woman died. Trump said afterwards there were “very fine people on both sides”. But there was nothing fine about the white supremacists.
The lightbulb that created what has become Broadway’s most successful play lit up above Sorkin’s head. “Suddenly I realised that, for very different reasons, Atticus might say the same things... Of course, Atticus was coming from a place of decency, Trump was not.” The insight freed him to tinker further. The trial, in which Atticus defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, does not start until halfway through the novel; in Sorkin’s telling, it is the beginning, the middle and the end of the action.
“When my daughter was reading the book in her English class, I would ask her every day, are you up to the trial yet? She kept saying no. I hadn’t looked at the book in a long time and, sure enough, the trial doesn’t start until very late in the book, almost at the end. And I think it only takes up two chapters. I wanted to get to the trial right away. So the trial is the framing device for the entire play.”
But tinkering has consequences, and the production was sued by the Harper Lee estate because it deviated too much from the novel. Rudin did what Hollywood gods do: he countersued.
One way or another, the case was settled. The play has been an immense hit, opening with the mighty Jeff Daniels as Atticus, followed by the equally mighty Ed Harris when I saw it in New York, and the estate is probably flooded with hard cash now. The case had no effect on the Sorkin version.
“The Harper Lee estate shouldn’t be confused with Harper Lee. But we worked it out,” he says. “One thing I wouldn’t do was sort of allow a committee of lawyers to write the play. And we avoided that, the play hasn’t been affected.”
Of course, the Sorkin version is still set in the 1930s, and Scout, though displaced, is still the heart of the matter. Sorkin’s daughter, Roxy, his only child, is now 19 and studying film. He acknowledges that she “informed” the character, and he certainly gives her the tear-jerking last line of the play, which, nightly, brings the house down. “It wasn’t something I’d planned, it just happened while I was writing.” You’ll be seeing this play soon enough, so I can’t say what that last line is.
In fact, I suspect the daughter theme was there all along. Since 2005, Sorkin has been divorced from Roxy’s mother, Julie Bingham, a lawyer. When Trump was elected in 2016, he wrote a letter to both “Sorkin girls”, describing the new president as “a thoroughly incompetent pig with dangerous ideas, a serious psychiatric disorder, no knowledge of the world and no curiosity to learn”.
“This was the first time around that Roxy had kind of become engaged in the election in the States. And she was sincerely upset that night. I understood. I felt terrible for a number of reasons, one of which is that I kept guaranteeing her, for the 18 months leading up to that, that the man couldn’t possibly get elected. And she’s justifiably never going to believe another word I say.”
Has Trump been as bad as he expected? “Ever since I became a parent, I believed the easiest thing in the world to do was for one parent to empathise with another parent. So I don’t understand how we take children away from their parents at the border.
“As an answer to your question, it’s much, much worse than I thought it was going to be.”
Empathy is everything to him. He speaks of seeing a Harvard psychiatrist on television talking about Trump. “It wasn’t a bipartisan discussion, it was a medical discussion. He was saying that we learn empathy at a very, very young age — two, three years old — and if you don’t at that time, you are not going to learn. Or at least you have to work at it, I guess. And this man [Trump] hasn’t.”
Sorkin is an American liberal to his core. He wants his presidents to be heroes, like Andrew Shepherd in his film The American President or, most famously, Jed Bartlett in The West Wing. It’s hard not to see autobiography in all this: not in the hero, but in observers like Josh, Bartlett’s deputy chief of staff.
“I’ve never written autobiographically, and I don’t try to make any particular character a vessel for something I’d want to say. But I think all of the characters were probably my father a little bit. In one form or another. Certainly Jed Bartlett. I like writing about heroes who don’t wear capes. And heroes are like you and me, they don’t have superpowers. But they’re not going from Scrooge on Christmas Eve to Scrooge on Christmas morning. In other words, when you meet them, they are good people, but they’re being challenged to reach higher, even if there’s a price to pay.”
One can argue about whether The West Wing was his greatest achievement, but it is unarguable that it is his most dazzling display of technique. Throughout its seven-year run, there was never any long-distance plot planning: Sorkin just winged it. For example, when the first lady has to be shown to be a doctor, he cannot bear to have her say: “As you know, I’m a doctor...” Instead he invents a serious disease for her husband when he only has a cold.
“So I just asked the researchers, can you find me something that would show the symptoms of a cold or flu, but... I don’t want to put the guy in a wheelchair. Can you thread that needle for me? And they came back and said, MS. And I said, oh, OK. We then do a press conference. I was facing them, and they all wanted to know, my God, what is going to happen now the president has MS? That was the first time I realised, we own this now.”
Some see Sorkin’s hero worship, this perpetual pursuit of a good guy, a desire to please and be pleased, as a weakness in his writing. The great screenwriter William Goldman once told him he wrote as if he was perpetually on a first date with a girl he really wanted to have a second date with.
“Bill took me under his wing when I got out of college. He read a first draft of my play A Few Good Men and saw something in me. But he was the one who wanted me to rid myself of this habit. He told me to write like you already have the second date. Write like you’ve had drinks, you’ve had the appetiser, a little of the main course, and you say, ‘We’re having a wonderful time — would you like to go with me to the movies on a Friday night?’ And she has said yes. Now do the rest of the dinner.”
He never succeeded. He is still a first-date writer; the girl is the audience. To watch a Sorkin drama is to be a target of seduction. He doesn’t just want to entertain you, he wants you to commit.
Making his hero reach higher, become someone to whom you can commit, is exactly what he does to Atticus Finch: he forces him to find something beyond his easy conviction that there’s good in everybody. To make the point dramatically, he turns Bob Ewell, the father of the supposedly raped girl, from a bad guy in Lee’s version into a monster, unforgivable and beyond redemption.
“I wanted to make sure Bob Ewell didn’t feel antiquated — like a relic of a time gone by. In each of his lines is a direct quote from online commenters on an alt-right website.”
Sorkin has made Mockingbird contemporary without updating it. It’s still the Deep South, it’s still the 1930s, but it is also America in 2019, and Scout’s last line is a command addressed to us now. It’s just a dry legal term, but, trust me, you will choke up.
To Kill a Mockingbird previews at the Gielgud, London W1, from May 25; tokillamockingbird.co.uk