Aaron Sorkin’s Liberties in To Kill A Mockingbird

By Liam Rockwell

In 2018, acclaimed screenwriter of The Social Network and The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, adapted Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Naturally, like almost all adaptations from a non-visual medium to a visual medium, Sorkin had to take some liberties with the nature of the storytelling.

To begin with, there are issues deeply rooted in the premise of the novel which would inevitably bleed through into almost any adaptation of it. It follows the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer defending a black man named Tom Robinson against false charges that would lead to Tom’s execution if the jury voted guilty. The original novel was written by a white woman, Harper Lee, and the story, whatever its intent, perpetuates some problematic narratives.

For example, the white supremacist characters are portrayed as over-the-top and excrutiatingly awful, and most importantly, very consciously racist. And while it’s obviously good that it doesn’t portray white supremacists in a positive light, what this does is that it creates characters for white people who are subconsciously racist to look at and think, “This is what racism is. And since I’m nowhere near as horrible as these people, I am not part of the problem.”

What this story is also guilty of is the white savior narrative, which is essentially the “damsel in distress” trope through a racial lens. In this story, the white man, Atticus, is “saving” the black man, Tom, defending him against the racist allegations that could lead to his death. The story is told through white children’s eyes, and it follows the story of their white father. 

And while Aaron Sorkin clearly understood this narrative played a large part of the book and he does a lot to negate this narrative, it is too deeply woven into the premise of the story to be avoided completely. There are plenty of moments in the play where the white savior narrative seeps through the barriers Sorkin put up in order to prevent it.

In the novel, the protagonist, Scout Finch, is the sole narrator of the story. However, in Sorkin’s adaptation, there are three narrators: Scout, her brother Jem, and Dill, their friend from Mississippi. The effect this has is that it highlights the innocence of all three of these characters and juxtaposes it against the cruel world. It brings the audience closer to a more direct protagonist of “the innocent youth”, rather than an indirect relationship to that same concept through one character, Scout.

Aaron Sorkin is usually extremely present in his projects, meaning that his distinct style is extremely prevalent and noticeable throughout. He’s still there in this play, but to a lesser extent. Although his snappy dialogue and repetition aren’t as prevalent, there’s still an inexplicable sensation that he is in the theater with the actors as you watch the play.

One obstacle that Sorkin tackled really well was how he took the cerebral aspects of the book, like the courtroom scenes, and made them engaging. Atticus Finch is a lot more witty of a character and he’s really entertaining to watch.

However, probably the most uncomfortable aspect of the specific production of this play, having nothing to do with Sorkin’s script, is that the three child narrators were all played by actors who were seemingly in their 20’s. And not in the way a lot of high school dramas do where they cast young adult actors to play teenagers, the child characters are six to ten years old. It was so unsettling and creepy watching twenty-five year olds talk and act like children, and it was pretty hard to ignore.

To conclude, while Aaron Sorkin does a really good job at translating this story to the stage, it certainly isn’t flawless. The story does decently onstage and the acting was great, though some of the casting decisions were awful. I give it 3/5  stars.

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