One of this year’s most anticipated Broadway productions was at risk of being shuttered before it ever opened because of a fierce dispute between producers and the estate of the book’s author on which the play is based. A representative of the estate of Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, sued producer Scott Rudin and his production company, Rudinplay Inc., alleging that the stage adaptation authored by Aaron Sorkin violated the licensing agreement Lee signed prior to her death in February 2016.
In the June 2015 agreement, Lee granted Rudinplay the option to acquire the worldwide stage rights for To Kill a Mockingbird for $100,000, subject to Lee’s right of approval regarding the selection of a playwright, as well as the right to review and comment on the script. The agreement also provided that the play could not “derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel, nor alter its characters.” Lee agreed to the selection of Sorkin as playwright in November 2015, but died prior to the completion of the play’s first draft.
In her suit, Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer and the representative of her estate, alleged that Sorkin’s play significantly altered the storyline and characters, including portraying Atticus Finch, the iconic defense attorney, as an apologist for his racist neighbors who grows into his virtuousness over the course of the play. Carter also asserted that the play changed the way Atticus’s children Jem and Scout spoke; expanded the role of Calpurnia, the family’s housekeeper; and added two new characters. She also criticized Rudin’s response to her stated objections to the drafts of the play as insufficient, untimely, and conflict-laden.
Rudin and Rudinplay countersued for $10 million, alleging Carter was attempting to default the play into cancellation by throwing the production off the required timeline for Rudinplay to exercise its option to acquire the novel’s live stage rights set forth in the 2015 agreement. The producers argued that, under the agreement, neither Lee nor the estate possessed approval rights over the script or a right to subjectively determine whether the play departed from the spirit of the novel or altered the characters.
Noting that Carter “is not an author, editor, literary agent, or critic, and has no known expertise whatsoever in theater or writing,” Rudinplay argued that Carter’s objection to the character arc of Atticus in the play was especially dubious, given her role in the headline-making and controversial discovery and decision to publish Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the precursor of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was released in 2015 and portrayed Atticus Finch as racist (although Rudin asserted that Sorkin’s Atticus was not like the character in Go Set a Watchman).
Rudinplay also argued that Carter’s objections were insubstantial and untimely – noting that in the six months between his delivery of the first draft and when Carter asserted that the play violated the licensing agreement, Rudinplay had deployed considerable financial resources in preparation of the play’s premier – reserving a theater, casting the play (including Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch), and entering into contracts with cast members, securing director Bartlett Sher, scheduling workshops, and contracting with a general management company. The production company argued that the lawsuit threatened not only these investments of capital, but hampered its ability to raise further capital because of “the cloud” that now hung over its rights.
In an interesting twist, the producers not only asked for a quick ruling in order to allow the play to move forward without delay, but argued that the court needed to view the live play in its entirety in order for it to rule. Rudin offered to stage the production – with Jeff Daniels and the complete cast – at the federal courthouse. The court declined, but ordered the producers to create and submit a filmed version of the play before trial scheduled for June.
The special preview for the court did not take place, however. The parties settled the case on confidential “amicable” terms in May.