And calls to mind Donald J. Trump: Does it really make sense?
Does it make sense to create an "adaptation" of a famous book—in this case, a famous novel—if you don't even like the book? If you don't understand the famous book, even in the most basic ways?
Also, have you "adapted" a famous novel if, in the course of your "adaptation," you simply change the famous novel's basic events all around? If you massively scramble the attitudes andthe views of its famous characters? Should we call that an "adaptation?"
The famous novel to which we refer is Harper Lee's 1960 classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. The "adaptation" to which we refer was written by Aaron Sorkin.
At present, it's bringing in big money on Broadway, but generating no public discussion. And perhaps that's just as well!
In a recent, extremely strange interview piece, The Atlantic's David Sims describes the Broadway version of To Kill A Mockingbird as "an unexpectedly probing work that refuses to let an American classic go unchallenged."
There's certainly noting wrong with "challenging" an American classic; such critiques are advanced all the time. But Sorkin's critique is based on certain perceptions which are remarkably hard to sustain—and Sorkin has played a major role in our nation's childish political discourse over the past thirty years.
Sorkin has been a major "influencer," and it seems he's perhaps weirdly dumb.
How strange are the perceptions which lie behind Sorkin's apparently heartfelt "adaptation?" In a crazy essay for New York magazine, Sorkin offered a set of crazy pensees back when his play debuted.
Sorkin reasoned thusly. Atticus Finch was going to be the protagonist of his play. And if he was going to be the protagonist, he would have to have a flaw.
That said, what flaw could Atticus possibly have? Sorkin racked his influential brain as he tried to come up with the answer.
Finally, it happened! According to Sorkin, he realized that Atticus always had a flaw, even in Lee's novel! The man who has fed us so much simple-minded TV sitcom-style pap spelled it out like this:
SORKIN (11/26/18): [H]ow do you give Atticus Finch a flaw?...I tried all the doors and they were locked, until I found one that swung open with the lightest touch. I didn’t have to give Atticus a flaw because, to my mind, he already had one; it’s just that we’d always considered it a virtue. Atticus believes that you can’t really know someone unless you “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.” He believes that Bob Ewell should be understood as a man who lost his job. He believes Mrs. Dubose should be understood as a woman who recently stopped taking her medication and lives in physical pain. He believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?It would be hard to overstate the childishness of that analysis, and beyond that its sheer stupidity. What can it mean when one of our leading "influencers" reasons in such childish ways?
In the play, this set of beliefs would be challenged.
Amazingly, that passage actually seems to mean when it seems to say. As he reread Harper Lee's novel, Sorkin apparently came to believe that its noble hero, Atticus Finch, "believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists."
Those are Sorkin's actual words—and yes, it even gets more childish and stupid than that! As Sorkin reread the famous novel, he began to see that Atticus Finch was quite a bit like our own Donald J. Trump!
Very famously, Trump had recently said that "there are fine people on both sides." Apparently, Sorkin thought that he had spotted this attitude in Lee's heroic lawyer. The flaw had been there the whole time!
Harper Lee's fictional Atticus Finch now seemed like Donald J. Trump! In a disappointing piece in The New Yorker in which she herself seemed to take everyone's side of every point, Casey Cep summarized Sorkin's new view of the book:
CEP (12/10/18): The children are now played by adults; Calpurnia, the Finches’ black housekeeper, gets to argue a bit with her employer about his tolerance of intolerance; and Atticus—sounding, Sorkin has noted in interviews, a little like President Trump—says that there are good people on both sides of a lynch mob. It was Trump’s comments after a counter-protester was killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville that, Sorkin has said, helped him see the contemporary resonance of the play.In Sorkin's reading of Lee's book, Atticus Finch believed in the “goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists.” He was a great deal like Trump.
In an essay for New York, Sorkin recounts how, after finishing a bad draft, he realized that he could not “swaddle the book in bubble wrap and transfer it gently to a stage”; instead, he focussed on Atticus and his transformation from one kind of man into another. In this new production, the empathy for which Atticus has always been celebrated—his belief, as Sorkin sees it, in the “goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists”—would be his fundamental flaw.
In case you missed that part of Lee's book, Sorkin apparently decided to goose up this flaw just a bit. In last month's interview piece at The Atlantic, actor Ed Harris describes a scene in the new "adaptation." Harris spoke with David Sims, The Atlantic's film/drama critic
SIMS (12/17/19): The show is interrogating Atticus’s passivity and nobility. How do you want to communicate that passivity, and the anger within him as well?"There's good in everyone," this new, adapted Atticus says. Atticus [HEART] Bob Ewell!
HARRIS: Early on in the play, Bob Ewell comes by [to the Finch house] and threatens Atticus, saying, “We’ve got two ropes.” And Jem, Atticus’s son, comes out and says, “You want me to respect Bob Ewell?” And he says, “Yeah, there’s good in everyone.”
Did Atticus Finch really [HEART] Bob Ewell in Lee's famous book? We're forced to suggest that he didn't.
In the climax of Lee's book, Ewell tries to kill the Finch children. Boo Radley saves their lives.
This unseemly bit of behavior is not unlike Bob Ewell! Early in the book, the adult narrator tells us what Scout's father had told her about the Ewells when she was still only 6:
LEE (page 33): Atticus said the Ewells had been the disgrace of Maycomb County for three generations. None of them had done an honest day's work in their lives. He said that some Christmas, when he was getting rid of the tree, he would take me with him and show me where and how they lived. They were people and they lived like animals.There isn't a lot of admiration there. Indeed, Lee has been criticized for her book's scathing portrayal of the Ewells as "white trash."
That criticism seems valid to us. But it flies in the face of the lusty "challenge" Sorkin decided to lodge.
Later, Scout starts to learn about the crime with which Tom Robinson has been charged. Once again, we learn how Atticus has described the Ewells:
LEE (page 141): Calpurnia sighed. "Old Mr. Bob Ewell accused him of rapin' his girl an' had him arrested an' put in jail—"Atticus does display empathy for Bob Ewell's mistreated children. Back toward the start of the book, he tells his irate daughter why everyone agrees to let Bob Ewell hunt outside hunting season:
"Mr. Ewell?" My memory stirred. "Does he have anything to do with those Ewells that come every first day of school an' then go home? Why, Atticus said they were absolute trash—I never heard Atticus talk about folks the way he talked about the Ewells. He said—"
"Yeah, those are the ones."
LEE (page 34): "Atticus, that's bad," I said. In Maycomb County, hunting out of season was a misdemeanor at law, a capital felony in the eye of the populace.There is no place in Harper Lee's book where Atticus Finch tells his children that they should respect Bob Ewell because there's "goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists.” Whatever their shortcomings might possibly be, the moral holdings of the book are much more subtle and varied than that.
"It's against the law, all right," said my father, "and it's certainly bad, but when a man spends his relief checks on green whiskey, his children have away of crying from hunger pains. I don't know of any landowner around here who begrudges those children any game their father can hit."
Atticus doesn't [HEART] Bob Ewell in Harper Lee's famous book! For whatever reason, Sorkin decided to put new attitudes in this famous character's head, new words in his mouth.
No ticket holders will be irreparably harmed by Sorkin's "adaptation." With that admission recorded, we think a different question should be asked:
What does it mean when influential figures within our culture reason as oddly as this?
As he says in The Atlantic, Aaron Sorkin apparently thinks that Harper Lee's famous book ends with Atticus Finch covering up a murder—the murder of Bob Ewell.
That is a very strange reading of this famous book. Beyond that, Sorkin seems to think that Harper Lee made her black characters too "docile." Instead of displaying respect for Atticus Finch, they should have taken to the streets of their small Alabama town in 1935.
They should have shouted "no justice, no peace," then burned the courthouse down. In The Summer of '35!
To help us see why Maycomb's black residents should have done that, Sorkin rearranges Finch's racial views, having him display imagined resentment toward Calpurnia, who isn't grateful enough. To help us see how stupid Finch was, he has him consign Tom Robinson to his death by dumbly convincing him to renounce a previously-arranged plea deal.
And not only that! Sorkin has Atticus tell his son that he should respect Bob Ewell because there's good in everyone, even in a person who has just threatened him with a hanging. This is what this very strange person thinks when he reads Lee's book.
In her disappointing discussion of Sorkin's "adaptation," Cep offers an accurate assessment of Harper Lee's actual book. "Although it features children, it is not childish," she says.
To Kill A Mockingbird isn't childish, but Sorkin's odd reasoning is. Searching for a way to "adapt" a book he doesn't seem to understand very well, he decided that its hero reminds him of Donald J. Trump and even [HEART] Bob Ewell.
Does Lee's famous book end with a murder? You have to be dumber than a seventh grader to come up with an idea like that.
The person who did so is influential! What does it mean when our leading cultural figures are as dumb and as childish as that?
Tomorrow: The Summer of '99