Thrillist: You've adapted a lot of true stories, from Steve Jobs to The Social Network. To Kill a Mockingbird is fiction, but it's sort of an American truth, in a certain way.
Aaron Sorkin: Yeah, because it's in our heads. We think that this is a true story that I've adapted into a play.
Do you tackle those types of stories similarly when you're working on adapting them?
Sorkin: I guess the similarity would be this: With the nonfiction, Steve Jobs, Social Network, Moneyball. At some time, you understand that it's not journalism, it's not a photograph -- it's a painting. So you take the real thing and you set it aside and you try to tackle what it was about the real story that was dramatic to you, that you wanted to write about. And things like Did he eat his spaghetti with his left hand or his right hand? become a lot less important to you. And so there's a similar thing here.
You know about the lawsuit, which ultimately became about words. In the play, for a number of reasons, I wanted to make Atticus a little more human than he is in the book. That's the wrong way of putting it. There's nothing in the book that I wanted to correct. But I was just writing something new. This Atticus that I was writing is not carved out of marble. So that after the trial, when he loses, the lowest, most frustrating, most angering moment in his life, it was very natural writing something like, "Godammit, Cal," or having him drink whiskey. The estate said Atticus would never take the Lord's name in vain, Atticus would never drink, that kind of thing. That was frustrating because they were talking about a fictional character and what that fictional character wouldn't do.
Was it also frustrating because of the recently published sequel, Go Set a Watchman, since the character had already been through this pop cultural reimagining from Harper's own work?
Sorkin: First of all, it should be known I've never read Go Set a Watchman, specifically so I could truthfully say to you, "I've never read Go Set a Watchman." However, I'm obviously aware of Go Set a Watchman and some of the things that happened in it, so it's silly to say that Atticus would or wouldn't do something. It's up to whoever is writing Atticus.
How do you avoid the general anxiety of influence when you are working on something like this? It's cultural memory.
Sorkin: You give yourself a day to worry about that, to be anxious about it. And then you have to stop. You have to say, "can't do this halfway." You can't swallow the book in bubble wrap and try to gently transfer it to the stage. That doesn't make for great theater. You have to fall out of love with the source material, make this your own now. As far as the general zeitgeist of "you ruined my childhood," that kind of thing, you have to forget about it. There will, of course, be people who will only watch it through the lens of, "How closely did the play adhere to the book?" And that's just not a grade I'm interested in getting. It just wasn't something we set out to do.