In the years since Harper Lee’s death in 2016, her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird has been reimagined in surprising new ways. It was released as a graphic novel in 2018 and adapted into a successful Broadway production by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
Now, after years of legal battle, the way has been cleared for another major adaptation: a movie remake or sequel.
According to the successors and heirs of the creators of the original 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck, no plans have been announced or even thought of.
But unsealed documents filed in a federal court in Alabama reveal how those successors and heirs successfully fought Lee’s estate to retain the right to make a sequel or derivative film, which they claimed was originally by Lee in 1961 and reconfirmed by her in 2008.
The dispute over the film rights to Lee’s classic has been brewing for years. Shortly before her death, Lee attempted to revoke the film rights from the heirs of the original film producers. The producers filed a counterclaim, arguing that their previous deal with Lee remained in effect and that the estate had no right to enter into agreements with other producers or filmmakers for anything derived from “To Kill a Mockingbird” or ” Go Set a Watchman”, ” another novel by Lee, released in 2015.
The protracted battle pitted a best-selling American literary icon against the descendants of filmmakers who produced a critically acclaimed Best Picture Oscar-winning film that Lee himself claimed to love.
As part of an arbitration settlement previously reported by digital media company Puck, the Lee estate also agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to the heirs of “Mockingbird” producer Alan Pakula; the director, Robert Mulligan; and Peck, who starred as Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama attorney fighting to exonerate a wrongly convicted black man. Cecilia Peck, the actor’s daughter, signed for the Atticus Corporation, which was a party to the agreement. The agreement also gives the producers the right to make a film adaptation of “Go Set a Watchman,” with the proviso that the estate must sign for it.
It was another legal setback for Lee’s estate, which recently lost a battle with the publisher of a stage version of “Mockingbird,” after an arbitrator ruled that the estate had to pay more than $2.5 million in damages and fees to Dramatic Publishing. , a theatrical publishing company that has licensed a stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for decades.
Lee was such a fan of the 1962 film herself that she vehemently opposed a sequel or remake that could dilute its legacy. In a 2008 letter to Peck’s widow, she was adamant that none other than Peck would embody Atticus on screen: “Of course he was the only Atticus and I hope there’s a way to get a re-make of any kind.” therefore avoid,” she wrote. “I know we can ‘ban’ forever, but things happen.”
In 2008, Lee entered into a new agreement with the successors to the original producers, granting them film and other rights to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, while Lee retained the literary, stage, television and radio rights for one person. Lee’s representatives tried to end those rights in 2015, just months before her death, but the arbitrator ruled that the attempt to revoke rights had been invalid.
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In a statement, Tonja B. Carter, executor of the Lee estate, regretted the outcome of the arbitration and said Lee was misled when she entered into the 2008 agreement.
“We are disappointed with the outcome of this arbitration,” she said. “It was based entirely on a unilateral agreement from 2008 that convinced Gregory Peck’s heirs to sign Ms. Lee, at a time when she was being advised solely by her 93-year-old sister, even if it was completely against her best interests. to do that. The 2008 agreement transferred extremely valuable intellectual property rights owned by Ms. Lee in exchange for $1.”
An attorney representing the producers, Mark Lee, said his clients fought to retain the film rights, in part to prevent anyone else from making a film that would undermine the spirit of the novel or the original film.
“They want to be the proper guardians of those rights,” he said. “They want nothing to happen to those rights that they don’t approve of, or that wouldn’t honor Ms. Lee’s legacy.”
He added that there were no immediate plans to go ahead with a movie based on Lee’s famous characters.
“My clients do not currently plan to make or produce a remake or sequel,” he said. “I would never say never, but right now they don’t have such plans.”