The Summer of '35: How dumb can it get at the top of the cultural/journalistic pile—let's say, with Aaron Sorkin?
In our view, it can get quite dumb. As our society slides toward the sea in this, the evolving Age of Trump, this strikes us as a very major cultural/political problem.
How dumb can things get with Aaron Sorkin? We'll offer today's example below. First, though, let's consider something said in the Financial Times when Sorkin debuted his "adaptation" of Harper Lee's book thirteen months ago.
The famous book which Sorkin "adapted" is Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. In "adapting" the famous novel, Sorkin changed many things, building off such peculiar ideas as his apparent belief that the famous book ends with a "murder."
Sorkin changed Harper Lee's famous tale all around. As we noted yesterday, the FT's Max McGuinness offered these remarks when the play first appeared. Today, we include the final paragraph in his largely unfriendly review:
MCGUINNESS (12/13/18): [T]he Atticus on stage here is more Sorkin’s creature than Lee’s. In Jeff Daniels’ portrayal, the novel’s shrewd and saintly widower becomes a flawed and somewhat diffident figure with an exaggerated faith in the power of the law.Briefly bowing to the dumbness of the mob, McGuinness said that Sorkin's reckless, stupider, deeply flawed Atticus Finch "has perhaps some claim to be a more realistic version of small-town white lawyer in 1930s."
As in the novel, Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black labourer accused of raping a white teenager, Mayella Ewell. But Sorkin makes some crucial changes: Atticus here replaces another unseen lawyer who had negotiated a plea bargain that would have saved Tom from the death penalty in exchange for a hefty sentence. He then persuades Tom to fight to clear his name. And whereas the novel’s Atticus knows that he cannot win the case and has at best “a reasonable chance” of overturning a guilty verdict on appeal, Sorkin’s Atticus seems naively and even recklessly convinced that justice will be done. Atticus—a model of restraint in the novel—also nearly comes to blows with Mayella’s father and actual rapist Bob.
This Atticus has perhaps some claim to be a more realistic version of small-town white lawyer in 1930s Alabama than Lee’s moral paragon. But Sorkin’s efforts at adding complexity feel so strenuous that he might have been better off writing an original play, or else adopting a radical style of adaptation that actively signalled his changes.
He then suggested that Sorkin "might have been better off" dreaming up "an original play" if he felt the need to change Lee's original creation so thoroughly.
Would Sorkin "have been better off" writing an original play? Almost surely, no. In creating his "adaptation," Sorkin has drafted along behind Lee's massive fame and enormous good will, perhaps behaving a bit like Maycomb's Bob Ewell down at the welfare office.
In all likelihood, no one would give a flying fig about an original play about race dreamed up by Aaron Sorkin. By using the title of Lee's famous book and the names of her famous characters, he has his hand deep in Lee's purse and he's siphoning gas as he goes.
He also gets to present himself as more insightful than Lee ever was concerning matters of race. Are far as we know, there are no words which can describe dumbness so vast and so dumb.
That said, consider McGuinness' brief act of deference to the joys of modern dumbness. We refer to the place where he says that Sorkin's less admirable version of Atticus Finch "has perhaps some claim to be a more realistic version of small-town white lawyer in 1930s."
We're sorry he said that! Here's why:
When she wrote her famous book, Lee wasn't trying to author a sociological profile of white Alabama lawyers of the 1930s. She wasn't attempting to offer a "realistic" portrait of the average lawyer of that description, or of some particular actual lawyer.
Instead, she was authoring a novel. Through her narrator, she was telling a bit of a tale—a bit of a moral fable.
Lee's book wasn't "true crime," nor was it a biography or a history. Atticus Finch is a fictional person—and most of the things we see him saying are things he's saying as a father, to children who are still very young.
So it goes when he makes the comments shown below, soon after an innocent man is convicted of rape, a capital crime in that time and place. He's speaking here to his angry son, who by now is 13:
LEE (pages 252-253): "If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man," said Atticus. "So far nothing in your life has interfered wit your reasoning process...There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn't be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins. They're ugly, but those are the facts of life."So says Harper Lee's fictional lawyer to his angry son.
"Doesn't make it right," said Jem stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. "You just can't convict a man on evidence like that—you can't."
“You couldn't, but they could and did. The older you grow, the more of it you'll see...As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life. but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
So said her fictional character! When Lee's book appeared in 1960, this stimulated a substantial amount of thinking.
Sixty years later, for reasons which strike us as tragically dumb, Sorkin seems to think that he's seen through this folderol. For that reason, he has reinvented many events which occur in Lee's (fictional) book. He has also reinvented Finch's racial attitudes.
How dumb can Sorkin's thinking be? Consider today's example:
In Sorkin's "adaptation" of Lee's famous book, Atticus Finch is dumbed way down. So are his racial attitudes.
In fairness, Sorkin seems to be playing no favorites! Finch turns out to be an ass who causes Tom Robinson's death, but Lee's black characters don't escape Sorkin's enlightened perspectives.
At one point in his peculiar recent interview with The Atlantic's David Sims, Sorkin helps us see what was wrong with Maycomb's black folk, at least as Lee chose to present them.
Sorkin starts with a famous scene in Lee's actual fictional book and in the subsequent movie. It had always been Sorkin's favorite scene, he says as he begins:
SORKIN (12/17/19): There’s a scene in the book and in the movie. For a lot of people, it’s their favorite scene; it had always been mine. My father passed away a few years ago; it was his favorite too. At the end of the trial, Atticus has lost, he’s putting stuff back in his briefcase, and the whole courtroom has cleared out, except for what they call the “colored section” up in the balcony. Atticus turns around to see that they’re all standing silently out of respect for him, and someone says [to Scout], “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise; your daddy’s passing.” It’s a good movie scene.Playing Glaucon to Sorkin's Socrates, Sims agrees that the scene was quite good.
SIMS: Of course, it gives you a chill.
In Lee's book, the "someone" who tells Scout to stand is a respected minister in Maycomb's black community. He says that because, in the actual fictional book, Atticus seems to be widely respected within that black community.
This used to be Sorkin's favorite scene—but now, it seems he knows better. Believe it or not, this is what he told Sims next. The bracketed material was inserted by Sims:
SORKIN (continuing directly): But the people in the balcony should be burning the courthouse down. They should be out in the street chanting, “No justice, no peace!” Instead, they are [written as] docile; they are quietly respecting the guy who I most identify with in the story, the guy who seems like my father, the white liberal guy. We all want to be identified as one of the good ones, and that’s what they’re saying to Atticus. And I do think Atticus is one of the good ones—it’s just a little harder than that, and it’s where Calpurnia’s dynamic with him comes from in the play.Can a person get dumber than that and live? No really—how stupid is that?
As some will recall, Lee's book takes place in a small Alabama town in the 1930s. More precisely, Tom Robinson's trial occurs in The Summer of '35.
The challenges facing Maycomb's black community are well described in Lee's novel. But no matter! In this passage, Sorkin seems to be complaining that Lee has fashioned her black characters as "docile."
In Sorkin's reckoning, Lee's black characters "should be burning the courthouse down" in the wake of the guilty verdict.
Instead of doing the things Lee has them do, they should be out in the street chanting, “No justice, no peace!” That's what they should have been doing!
With that, we return to the question we've posted above. Can a person get dumber and live?
Who knows? Maybe Sorkin didn't mean for those remarks to seem as strange as they seem. Surely, though, anyone with an ounce of sense or historical awareness knows that these heartfelt, inspiring remarks don't make a lick of sense.
Sorkin's heart may be in the right place, but good God, this man seems dumb! It only gets worse as he pretends that Lee's version of Atticus Finch [HEART] Bob Ewell, the lunacy we'll consider tomorrow.
We assume that Sorkin is sincere, but good lord he seems dumb! He's also been a major cultural force for many years. The question we'll ask all year is this:
Can a modern society expect to survive pervasive upper-end Dumb?
Tomorrow: Atticus said to [HEART] Ewell!