In the years since Harper Lee’s death in 2016, her 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has been surprisingly reimagined. It was released as a graphic novel in 2018 and adapted into a hit Broadway production by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
Now, after a years-long legal battle, the way has been cleared for another major adaptation: a movie remake or sequel.
No plans have been announced, or even considered, according to the successors and heirs of the creators of the original 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck.
But unsealed documents filed in federal court in Alabama reveal how those successors and heirs successfully fought Lee’s estate to preserve the right to make a sequel or spin-off movie, which they say was originally granted. by Lee in 1961 and reaffirmed by her in 2008.
The dispute over the film rights to Lee’s classic has been simmering for years. Shortly before his death, Lee attempted to revoke the film rights of the heirs of the original film producers. The producers filed a counterclaim, arguing that their prior agreement 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 endless fight pitted a successful American literary icon against the descendants of filmmakers who had produced an acclaimed film that was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and which Lee herself professed to love.
As part of an arbitration settlement, which was reported earlier by digital media company Puck, Lee’s estate also agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to the heirs of “Mockingbird” producer Alan Pakula; the director, Robert Mulligan; and Peck, who played the lead role of Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama attorney who fights to exonerate a wrongfully convicted black man. Cecilia Peck, the actor’s daughter, signed for Atticus Corporation, which was a party to the deal. The deal also gives producers the right to make a film adaptation of “Go Set a Watchman,” with the caveat that the estate must approve 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 the estate should pay more than $2.5 million. dollars in damages and costs to Dramatic Publishing, a theatrical edition. company that licensed a stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for decades.
Lee herself was such a fan of the 1962 film that she was adamantly opposed to a sequel or remake that might dilute its legacy. In a 2008 letter to Peck’s widow, she was adamant that no one but Peck should play Atticus on screen: “Of course he was the only Atticus and I hope he exists. a way to prevent an overhaul of any kind”. wrote. “I know we can ‘ban’ forever, but things happen.”
In 2008, Lee reached a new deal with the original producers’ successors, which gave them film and other rights to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, while Lee reserved individual literary, stage, television and radio rights. . Representatives for Lee attempted to terminate those rights in 2015, just months before his death, but the arbitrator ruled that the effort to revoke the rights was not worthwhile.
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In a statement, Tonja B. Carter, executor of Lee’s estate, lamented the arbitration outcome and said Lee was misguided when she entered into the 2008 agreement.
“We are disappointed with the outcome of this arbitration,” she said. “It was entirely based on a unilateral agreement from 2008 which the heirs of Gregory Peck convinced Ms Lee to sign, at a time when she was advised only by her 93-year-old sister, even though it was totally contrary The 2008 deal transferred extraordinarily valuable intellectual property rights belonging to Ms. Lee in exchange for $1.
A lawyer representing the producers, Mark Lee, said his clients fought to retain the rights to the film in part to prevent anyone from making a film that would undermine the spirit of the original novel or film.
“They want to be the real guardians of those rights,” he said. “They want nothing to happen with these 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 move forward with a film based on Lee’s famous characters.
“My clients have no current intentions to create or produce a remake or sequel,” he said. “I would never say never, but at the moment they have no such plans.”