Notes on the stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird

Playwright Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird necessarily condenses the many incidents in Lee’s novel. The play concentrates its energy around the trail of Tom Robinson and the children’s interest in the mysterious Boo Radley.

Sergel, who was president of Dramatic Publishing from 1970 to 1993, published a short essay on his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here is an excerpt from that essay.

Meeting with Harper Lee to discuss the stage adaptation of her extraordinary book To Kill A Mockingbird was an event about which I felt much trepidation.

My father, Roger Sergel, was had been Professor of English at the University of Pittsburg and who had been close to many leading writers of his day — Sherwood Anderson dedicated a book to him — particularly admired Harper Lee’s book. He died before I met with Harper Lee, but I can still remember his unqualified enthusiasm for her work. When To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize, my father said, “This is the first time I entirely agree with the Pulitzer Prize.”

Prior to meeting directly with Harper Lee, I had a number of useful discussions with Maurice Crain who was a creative force in her life, as to some extent he was in mine. Lucille Sullivan of that office was also a source of excellent advice on this project.

The meeting with Harper Lee, as I recall it from twenty years ago, took place at the Hotel Pierre in New York City. It began as an early lunch and lasted several hours. As we discussed the adaptation and the reasons for the choices being made, I had a sense that she felt the work was on the right track, which, of course, was due at least in part to the good advice I’d been given earlier by Maurice Crain. The good discussion continued with Harper Lee as we walked down the hotel corridor. Passing a row of public phones I had an irrational wish that I could call my father and tell him that I’d met with Harper Lee myself and the meeting had gone well.

A taxi stopped in front and I opened the door for Harper Lee. She embraced me and was gone. I’ve never seen her again. Perhaps the essence of what I believe she does better than any writer I know is captured in a brief response Atticus makes to a question from his daughter Scout. In the book as in the play, Tom Robinson, a black man, is wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit and is later shot down by prison guards as he tries to escape. In anguish, Scout asks her father how such a thing could be done to Tom. Atticus replies, “Because he wasn’t ‘Tom’ then.” The special beauty of Harper Lee’s work is that she takes us inside the people in her book, and in their various ways, each becomes “Tom” to us.

-Christopher Sergel