(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/13; Via Pam Green.)
As this is a trial, let’s have a verdict: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which opened at the Shubert Theater on Thursday, is not guilty.
Evidence shows that it does not deface the Harper Lee novel on which it is based, as the Lee estate at one point contended. And far from devaluing the property as a moneymaking machine, it has created an honorable stream of income that should pour into the estate’s coffers for years to come.
But as any reader of the novel knows, to say something is not guilty is not the same as saying it’s innocent. And this adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Jeff Daniels — is hardly innocent.
How could it be? Every ounce of glossy know-how available at the highest echelons of the commercial theater has been applied to ensure its success, both on Lee’s terms and on what it supposes are ours.
It is, for one thing, gorgeously atmospheric, from the weathered barn-red siding that serves as the show curtain (the set design is by Miriam Buether) to Adam Guettel’s mournful guitar and pump organ music, which sounds like hymns decomposing before your ear. Mr. Sher has made sure that every movement, every perfectly cast face, every stage picture and costume tells the story so precisely that it would do so even without words.
Ah, but the words. As Mr. Sorkin has explained pre-emptively, he faced a dilemma in approaching the material. He could not alter the plot significantly lest he alienate audiences who grew up treasuring the 1960 novel or the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. “To Kill a Mockingbird” still had to be the story of the widower lawyer Atticus Finch (Mr. Daniels) bravely standing up to racism in small-town Alabama in the mid-1930s. Defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, he could not suddenly introduce DNA evidence to win the case.