White man and black man sitting at a table looking very solemn

Is Atticus Finch a “white savior”? That question probably wasn’t on the minds of those who took part in a PBS poll that named To Kill a Mockingbird America’s favorite novel. But it certainly was on the mind of Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin when he adapted Harper Lee’s 1960 work for the stage.

After seeing the results of his efforts on a recent trip to Broadway, I had mixed feelings. I felt Sorkin had successfully incorporated modern sensibilities into the beloved tale, but in the process, he misplaced some of the charm and profundity of Lee’s masterpiece.

Set in Depression-era Alabama, the classic story centers on a small-town lawyer who agrees to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lee’s novel and the subsequent Oscar-winning film depict Atticus as a principled man who takes on the case despite knowing it will earn him the animosity of many white neighbors. Conversely, it earns him the respect of the town’s black residents.

In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, a dejected Atticus (Gregory Peck) takes his time leaving the courtroom after a disappointing but not unexpected defeat. Meanwhile, the black spectators, who have been forced to watch the trial from the balcony, remain seated until the lawyer stands, then rise as one when he passes below them.

It’s a touching and heartbreaking moment. But, due to 21st century sensibilities, it is not included in the Broadway production. 

Though sticking to the basic plot points, Sorkin has rearranged Lee’s coming-of-age tale in order to turn it into a taut legal drama. He also has made changes designed to avoid the type of patronizing approach Hollywood too often takes toward race-related issues: giving African-American characters small, passive roles and making them reliant on heroic white characters. In other words, “white saviors.”

To avoid this kind of thing, Sorkin gives each of the story’s major black characters—the defendant, Tom Robinson, and Atticus’s housekeeper, Calpurnia—more of a voice than they previous enjoyed. And he sometimes has them use that voice to question and criticize Atticus or to offer their own perspective on racism.  

These and other changes have created a production that has proved popular with viewers, who reportedly have left not one seat unfilled since it opened last December. But it proved less popular at this year’s Tony Awards, suggesting that not everyone feels writer Sorkin, director Bartlett Sher and the cast have created a work as masterful as its source material.

Probably the production’s biggest boon is veteran actor Jeff Daniels, who portrays Atticus Finch in a way that is convincing yet understated enough to tone down Sorkin’s penchant for political posturing. The only downside is Daniels’s tendency to slur his words, making some of them hard to understand.

In contrast to Daniels’s naturalistic approach, LaTanya Richardson Jackson sometimes gives Calpurnia’s lines a sassy delivery that underscores their message-y nature and makes her seem like a modern stereotype rather than a black woman living in 1930s Alabama. More believable is Gbenga Akinnagbe, who gives the unjustly accused Tom Robinson an undercurrent of dignity that makes it easy to believe he would sometimes forget his “place” in Southern society and lash out at his white attorney—or admit that he felt sorry for a white woman.

The production’s most searing and scary performances are given by Erin Wilhelmi as Tom’s accuser, Mayella Ewell, and Frederick Weller as her vicious father. More strong work is turned in by Will Pullen as Atticus’s son, Jem, who is forced by an eventful summer to mature beyond his years.

But no one is more central to the play’s dramatic success than Celia Keenan-Bolger, the only person on- or offstage who won a Tony for her efforts. As Atticus’s idealistic daughter, Scout, who is looking back on this summer of lost innocence, she gives the tale its soul.

Perhaps my mixed feelings about the production can be summarized in the fact that Sorkin gives the climactic title line—about the sinfulness of killing a mockingbird—to an adult. Lee gave it to Scout, signifying that the girl had learned the lessons Atticus had been trying to teach her and Jem: namely, that it’s impossible to understand another person without walking in that person’s shoes.

In adapting and streamlining Mockingbird, and in downgrading Atticus from an infallibly wise and kind father figure, Sorkin has diluted some of the tale’s strength. He was right in clarifying that no one needs “saviors.” But we do need role models, particularly as children.

Broadway’s version of To Kill a Mockingbird is brave but flawed. I’m glad I saw it, but I still prefer the original.

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