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How Aaron Sorkin found Atticus Finch’s flaw

The playwright’s effort to adapt ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ presented plenty of challenges, including a new way to interpret a beloved character.

Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson in "To Kill a Mockingbird," adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin.Julieta Cervantes

Aaron Sorkin jokes that he could already hear people exclaiming “You ruined my childhood!” when he was approached about translating Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to the stage. One of the most beloved and widely-read American novels of the 20th century, the story centers on a compassionate small-town lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends a Black man falsely accused of rape in the 1930s Jim Crow South, as seen through the eyes of his young daughter Scout. Adapting the book was not a task for the faint of heart, even for an Oscar-winning screenwriter known for celebrated film and TV scripts including “A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network,” and “The West Wing.”

So his initial reaction wasn’t surprising. “This is a suicide mission,” Sorkin says, in an interview over the phone from Los Angeles. “I wasn’t sure there was a way to do it justice. But I was willing to take that chance.”

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His stage adaptation opened on Broadway, starring Jeff Daniels, in 2018 to largely warm reviews and blockbuster ticket sales. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning one (for Celia Keenan-Bolger, who played Scout). Now the national tour launches at the Citizens Bank Opera House, April 5-17, starring Richard Thomas (last seen in Boston in 2018′s “The Humans”) as Atticus. Mary Badham, who played the precocious Scout in the 1962 film adaptation that starred Gregory Peck, has come out of retirement to portray nasty neighbor Mrs. Dubose.

Despite the kudos that would eventually come, Sorkin says he deleted his first draft long ago. “I tried to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and gently transfer it to a stage,” he says. He soon realized two things: First, he had to get to Tom Robinson’s trial faster. Second, “Atticus can’t be the same person at the end of the play that he is at the beginning,” Sorkin says. “He’s got to change.”

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In the novel, we see the events through Scout’s eyes. But in writing the play, Sorkin wanted to make Atticus the central protagonist, which meant giving this paragon of virtue and decency a foible. “If I was scared of ruining people’s childhoods before, now I’m going to give Atticus a flaw? But what could that be?”

He realized that blemish had been staring readers in the face all along. “Atticus is an apologist for nearly every racist character in that story. So I realized that I didn’t have to create a flaw for Atticus, that he already had one. It’s just that it had been presented to us as a virtue, which is that Atticus believes that goodness can be found in anyone. You just have to crawl around inside someone else’s skin and you can find the goodness in them.”

Writing the play during the contentious Trump era, with its stoking of racial animus, gave the story a new resonance, says Sorkin. He cites the former president’s infamous comments after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

“I’m not comparing Atticus to Donald Trump, but doesn’t Atticus think there are fine people on both sides? Then I got excited because I thought: Now there’s kind of a reason to do this play. It’s not a trip to the museum. It has relevancy today.”

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Aaron SorkinChris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The other task was to flesh out the characters of Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), the wrongly accused man whom Atticus defends, and the Finches’ housekeeper, Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), and to dramatize the friction between them and Atticus. As the only two significant Black characters in the story, Sorkin wanted to give them voice and agency.

“In this novel about racial tension in the Jim Crow South, oddly, the only two African-American characters don’t really have anything to say about it,” Sorkin explains. “In 1960, using Black characters kind of as atmosphere would have gone unnoticed. But in 2022, it doesn’t and shouldn’t go unnoticed.”

Robinson’s trial is introduced at the outset and woven throughout. Unfolding as part memory play, part detective story, “Mockingbird” finds 6-year-old Scout (Melanie Moore) “trying to get to the bottom of something that’s always been this pebble in her shoe,” Sorkin says, about how one of the characters came to fall on his knife. Scout narrates the story along with her older brother Jem (Justin Mark) and their voluble friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson). Played by adult actors, the three children have their eyes opened to cruelty and injustice.

Writing the play made Sorkin reexamine his own biases and stereotypes. Growing up, Sorkin would watch the film with his father, and their favorite scene came when the courtroom empties out, Atticus is packing up his briefcase, and the Black citizens of Maycomb stand silently as he leaves.

“It was the scene we’d always talk about, where we’d get choked up and our eyes would fill with tears,” Sorkin says. “And I came to ask myself: Why do I like that scene so much? And I didn’t like the answer. The reason is because they’re all so grateful to the white guy for being one of the good ones, and as a white guy myself, you want to be recognized as one of the good ones.”

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So in the second act, Sorkin turned the white-savior narrative on its head, creating a moment when Calpurnia calls out Atticus for saying “You’re welcome” under his breath after he takes Robinson’s case and expects a show of gratitude. In the play, Scout describes Atticus and Calpurnia’s relationship as like brother and sister. “She feels free enough to tell Atticus where he’s got it wrong, to tell him that by showing respect to people who are disrespecting others, he is disrespecting those same people. When Atticus says ‘I know these people’ about some of his Maycomb neighbors, she is there to say, ‘Not as well as I do.’ ”

Says Thomas, “[Sorkin] has really taken [Atticus] off the pedestal. Icons belong on a wall. My job is to play a person.”

Indeed, Atticus undergoes a moral awakening. “His idealism is challenged, his sense of community is challenged, his sense of justice and what people are capable of is challenged. The scales fall from his eyes,” Thomas says. “You can’t confuse your ideals about the way the world should be with the way the world actually is, and we can’t be confused that everybody is playing by the same rules. It’s a devastating lesson for him.”

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A lawsuit filed by Lee’s estate in 2018 after her death nearly derailed the production, but it was eventually resolved. “It all ended up being much ado about something that was taken care of in about five minutes,” Sorkin says. “But, man, there was another five minutes when it looked like it was going to be stopped in its tracks.”

Sorkin says he has no idea what Lee would make of his adaptation of “Mockingbird,” but he points out that she approved him as the playwright a few weeks before she died. “The first time I saw an episode of ‘The West Wing’ that wasn’t written by me, I needed CPR. So I’m sure that she’d find it jarring hearing brand-new words come out of characters that were beloved to her. But I hope she would be able to see the playwright clearly had respect for what she’d written,” he says. “And I don’t know if she’d be surprised and horrified — or not — that the themes she was writing about were at least as relevant today as they were then.”

For Williams, who plays Calpurnia, “Mockingbird” has long been one of her favorite books. She attests that the adaptation has “truly honored the spirit in which it was written and the essence of all the characters.”

“You have to let these great works come forward and be reexamined and remolded,” Thomas adds. “It’s a compliment to any work of art that however many decades later, we’re still telling this story.”

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, April 5-17. Tickets from $44.50. broadwayinboston.com, 617-259-3400

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.