We just had the privilege of seeing Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in Chicago. Full disclosure: TKAM is one of my favorite books, and I loved teaching it to high school students. I love the Gregory Peck movie, too. But Sorkin’s version made me rethink the book. He forced me to recognize some of its limitations even as he managed to make it feel incredibly current.
I grew up with parents who worked for civil rights, and I have tried to honor their commitments by making my own efforts. The horrific events that propelled “Black Lives Matter” spurred my women’s activist group to build on our reading and discussion of White Fragility with other readings and with actions, like questionnaires for school districts and local candidates. I’ve always believed myself to be an ally even when we didn’t seem to be making much impact. So Atticus had always seemed heroic to me.
Toni Morrison was right in 2015, however, when she argued that TKAM perpetuated a “white savior” narrative, in which whites led the fight for civil rights and blacks were helpless, passive actors. So how do we acknowledge the limitations of a book that fit its time period but now seems outdated?
Enter Aaron Sorkin. He shifted the focus and added tough questions. Sorkin recognized that Atticus never changed in the book, nor did he have the heroic flaw that Aristotle insisted was required for effective drama. In the book, both of his children experience a loss of innocence, and Sorkin created an Atticus with a sense of humor who had his own loss of innocence. Atticus taught his children that everyone must be treated with respect, but both Atticus and the audience have to grapple with question of how we should respond to those who show bigotry and commit heinous deeds, a very timely question. Sorkin challenged the white savior arc of the book and the passivity of its victimized blacks. He gave his characters of color more agency. His Calpurnia, the black housekeeper and surrogate mother to the children of Atticus, challenges his liberal views and commitment to niceness, forcing him to recognize the corrosive evil of racism. Sorkin’s story questions the purity of our justice system. And the play, which begins with the trial and references it periodically throughout, ends with a call to action as Scout shouts, “All rise!” Sorkin challenges liberals like himself to stop sitting back and offering empathy in place of action.
As a teacher, I long for the chance to take this play back to the classroom as part of an extended study of sources. I’d take Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman, along with her Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1962 Academy Award winning movie starring Gregory Peck, the 1990 stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, and Sorkin’s play script. What a remarkable opportunity to see the impact of a novel’s time period on its views and the perception of it, to recognize the impact of great editing to evolve from the first novel to its follow-up second version, and – most of all – to appreciate the way literature allows us to confront our world and its limitations. I remain a voracious reader not only because reading transports me to other worlds and other worldviews, but because literature and the discussion of what we read gives us a fictional venue to explore tough issues in a context once removed from our own daily lives. The evolution of my response to TKAM reminds me of the power of great writing once again.