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Aaron Sorkin is best known for his award-winning screenwriting: A Few Good Men, The West Wing, Moneyball, The Newsroom. But his first love is the theater.

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Today, Aaron Sorkin’s stage version of Harper Lee’s beloved story, To Kill a Mockingbird, is officially the most successful Broadway play ever. But when he agreed to write it, Sorkin worried that the audience’s existing attachments to the story meant he was doomed to fail.

Aaron Sorkin: In spite of those fears I said yes because I’d just do anything to be in a theater. I love doing plays and if getting beaten up and told I’ve ruined people’s childhoods was the price, I was willing to pay it. 

The success of the show is just another achievement on the resume of one of the most recognizable writers around, whether in film, television, or on the stage. Sorkin’s hallmark is fast-paced, witty dialogue, often breathlessly delivered by characters in close physical proximity.

(Clip from West Wing)

Donna: Thank you.

Josh: Listen.

Donna: I got you on standby on a direct flight to Boca where you can rent a car and you can–

Josh: Cancel it.

Donna: Why?

Josh: I need a layover in Atlanta.

Donna: Of course you do.

Josh: And I need to get there about an hour before an eight o’clock flight would take off.

Donna: That would be around seven?

Josh: I haven’t done the math. I’m also gonna need some information on the DeKalb County DA, whose name is Farragut. Do me a favor, start with a recent photograph. And call my mother and tell her I’m gonna be late.

Donna: Josh.

Josh: Yeah?

Donna: You call your mother.

Josh: Right.

Sorkin: I am most comfortable in a small space, in four walls. They say that when you buy a new dog, when you bring home a puppy, that you should get a crate that’s just big enough for the puppy to be able to turn around, but no bigger because they like the security of those four walls. So do I. I like being in four walls and having two people who disagree about something, and when I can pin down what it is they’re disagreeing about and what their positions are, then I feel like I’m ready to write a scene.

As a child growing up in suburban New York, it was always clear that ethically driven cleverness had currency. As a result, legal matters, especially courtrooms, are often a feature of his work.

Sorkin: I come from a family of lawyers. I’m the youngest. Everyone in my family is smarter than I am. The same is true for my circle of friends. I’m sort of the mascot. Growing up at my family’s dinner table, anyone who used one word when they could’ve used 10 just wasn’t trying hard enough, but there were terrific arguments. Not fights, I mean intelligent— 

AJC: Debates and discussions.

Sorkin: Yeah. And with everyone playing devil’s advocate and me just listening, and I loved the sound of, “But have you thought of it this way?”

AJC: Which is the great question, what if? It’s the great creative question.

Sorkin: That’s right. So, I wanted to imitate the sound. As a writer, I wanted to imitate the sound of those conversations.

AJC: That said though, what you do in a courtroom is that you make it easy for those who are not lawyers to understand, and you also give us an understanding of the fact that the jury’s an emotional group of people, and they will make decisions somewhat related to what they hear, but mostly related to what they feel.

Sorkin: That’s right. Listen, ultimately our system of justice ultimately is in the hands of humans, ultimately our democracy is in the hands of humans, and I write about that from time to time as well.

Sorkin was called to closely examine just how much the justice system is handled or mishandled by humans in what he has called his most daunting project to date: an adaptation of the great American novel and Academy Award winning movie, To Kill a Mockingbird. Few stories occupy such a prominent place in American hearts and on their bookshelves as the tale of the Finch family. The novel follows the young Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill, as they learn about compassion from a reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, and their noble lawyer father, Atticus, as he defends Tom Robinson, an African-American field worker, from bogus charges in 1930s Alabama.

(Excerpt from To Kill a Mockingbird)

He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did. He never went hunting, he did not play poker, or fish, or drink, or smoke. He sat in a living room and read. With these attributes, however, he would not remain as inconspicuous as we wished him to. That year the school buzz was talk of him defending Tom Robinson, none of which was complimentary. After my bout with Cecil Jacobs when I committed myself to a policy of cowardice, word got around that Scout Finch wouldn’t fight anymore. Her daddy wouldn’t let her. This was not entirely correct. I wouldn’t fight publicly for Atticus, but the family was private ground. I would fight anyone from a third cousin upwards, tooth and nail.

In 2016, when producer Scott Rudin asked him to turn To Kill a Mockingbird into a play, Sorkin got off to a rocky start.

Sorkin: My first draft was terrible because I tried adapting the book, which is to say I kind of took all the important scenes, all the scenes you need to tell the story, and I just stood them up and had people talk to each other. And I showed it to Scott and whereas usually he gives me dozens, sometimes hundreds of notes over several days’ work in his office, he gave me one note and it didn’t take a half hour. It was this: that Atticus can’t be Atticus from the beginning of the play to the end of the play. He’s gotta change, he’s gotta be put through something and change. In other words, he has to be the protagonist. I thought, well, of course, yeah, he’s absolutely right.

AJC: Like writing 101, right? 

Sorkin: Yeah. And I thought, “Gee, how did Harper Lee get away with having Atticus be Atticus from the beginning to the end, and then how did Horton Foote get away with having Atticus be Atticus from the beginning of the end to the movie? And the answer is that in neither the book nor the movie is Atticus the protagonist. Scout—

AJC: Scout is.

Sorkin: Is the protagonist. She’s the one who’s put through something and changes. Her flaw is that she’s young and she loses some of her innocence as a result. I didn’t want to lose that. I wanted Scout, and Jem, and Dill to continue to be protagonists. But I wanted Atticus to be the central protagonist in the play, and that set me on a course of writing not an adaptation, but a new play.

AJC: The flaw he has though is the perceptions that it’s a virtue. He believes in the good in all.

Sorkin: That’s right. I didn’t add a new characteristic to Atticus. I took something that we had been taught when we were young when we read the book, which is that his belief that there’s goodness is everyone and all you have to do is crawl around inside another person’s skin and you’ll get it. We all accepted that as virtuous and I questioned that. And, in fact, whereas in the book and then in the film, Atticus is the guy who has all the answers, he’s a pillar of wisdom and you go to him for the answers, in the play I wanted him to wrestle with the questions.

AJC: The other thing that you’ve done is to bring the African-American characters out of the shadow. They were scenery in the book. Is that fair?

Sorkin: That is fair. There are two significant African-American characters in the book, Calpurnia the maid and Tom Robinson the defendant, the accused, and in this story about racial strife in the Jim Crow South, neither of the African-American characters have anything to say about what’s going on, and Calpurnia is most concerned with whether Scout’s gonna wear overalls or a dress to school, and she bakes cornbread. Tom Robinson gets to plead for his life and that’s it. Using African-American characters only as scenery, only as atmosphere, is the kind of thing that would’ve gone unnoticed by a lot of people in 1960. In 2019, it’s unacceptable. Also, you’re missing an opportunity. Give these characters agency and you’re heating up the pot in a very interesting way.

Around eight months after discarding his disappointing first effort, Sorkin delivered his second draft. Once again, Rudin’s response was succinct.

Sorkin: A week after I turned in the draft, I opened the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section to see a two-page ad announcing that To Kill a Mockingbird, a new play, would be opening December 2018 on Broadway, and that was a year and a half before our opening. He took out that two-page ad and said to me basically—

AJC: You got it.

Sorkin: Yeah.

A year on, the magnitude of Sorkin’s accomplishment is reflected in the record-breaking popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway. Audiences and critics alike have fully embraced the show for its unique approach to this well-loved story.

Sorkin: They’re not coming out of the play comparing it to the book, saying, “Well, I liked the part in the book where they did this, I don’t know why he cut that, I don’t know why he added—”

AJC: Which is a stroke of wonder.

Sorkin: I can’t believe it. I thought for sure that that’s what we were in for. But that hasn’t been happening. They may come into the theater with certain expectations, but about a minute or two in, I think they’ve forgotten about the book, I think they’ve forgotten about the movie, and they’re experiencing something brand new. And when they leave the theater, they look and sound the way I look and sound when I’ve had a thrilling night in the theater.

Next up for Aaron Sorkin is another film. He’ll write and direct The Trial Of The Chicago 7, the story of the riots of the 1968 Democratic Convention and the conspiracy trials that followed. But Sorkin says he’s never really gotten over his childhood dream, and is eager to return to the theater.

Sorkin: I’m an accidental writer of movies and television shows. It’s been a very happy accident because I love doing them, but all I ever wanted to be was a playwright and that’s all I ever kind of studied to be. This is only my third play in 25 years. I should up my average a little bit. So, I’d like to write a new play as soon as I can. 

AJC: Completely not from anything? I mean, because you—

Sorkin: No, I’m going to adapt “Catcher in the Rye” this time.