Complications Cloud Possibility of a Movie Based on ‘Watchman’

By MICHAEL CIEPLY and BROOKS BARNES

Town Revisits Its ‘Mockingbird’ Past

As Harper Lee’s new novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” debuts, her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., takes stock of its Harper Leerelationship to the writer and her work.

LOS ANGELES — Typically, the outsize attention given a novel like “Go Set a Watchman” would set off an immediate scramble in Hollywood for the film rights.

But, as with seemingly everything surrounding the recently rediscovered book by Harper Lee, which was published on Tuesday by HarperCollins, the situation is not that simple.

Those who represent Ms. Lee say they are not entertaining any offers at the moment, to comply with her request that the film rights be sold only after international publication of the book is complete. Beyond that, there is a question of what role Universal Pictures, which released the film version of Ms. Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962, would play in a film of “Watchman,” which has several of the same characters.

Other concerns may include an uncertain audience for ’50s-era period film, and how moviegoers would respond to a new portrayal of the lawyer Atticus Finch, who is depicted as a racist in “Watchman,” but is so identified with Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning portrayal of him as a colorblind champion of justice in “Mockingbird.”

Ms. Lee “is quite particular about film rights in general and would want to have a say in how it is produced,” Andrew Nurnberg, the British agent who represents Ms. Lee, said in an email about any prospective movie version of “Watchman.”

Mr. Nurnberg gave no specific time table for when the rights might be sold, but said the book had generated “heaps of interest” among film companies. He added that some inquirers have also expressed interest in remaking “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which Ms. Lee opposes.

In any case, Universal’s role in any film based on “Watchman” still needs to be clarified. A spokeswoman for Universal declined to comment.

But two people briefed on the studio’s position, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Universal executives thought that no film could be made from “Go Set a Watchman” without their consent or participation. One of those people said the studio — which has become more focused on blockbuster fare like “50 Shades of Grey” and “Jurassic World” — had not yet decided whether it would welcome or participate in any screen version of the new book.

Deals and disputes over the control of characters have led to situations as complicated as one that found MGM, Universal and Dino De Laurentiis sharing credits on “Hannibal,” which folded the cannibal Hannibal Lecter and the F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling into a film that had to reconcile rights related to Thomas Harris novels, a De Laurentiis film called “Manhunter” and “Silence of the Lambs,” which had been released by Orion Pictures before its acquisition by MGM.

Robert Mulligan, who directed “To Kill a Mockingbird,” joined Alan J. Pakula, its producer, in making it through their Pakula-Mulligan company. They introduced the book to Mr. Peck, whose own Brentwood Productions joined in the project.

Sandy Mulligan, Mr. Mulligan’s widow, and Hannah Pakula, Mr. Pakula’s widow, declined to discuss whether the Mulligan or Pakula estates held sequel or character rights.

Shot on Universal’s back lot, “To Kill a Mockingbird” became what one former Universal executive this week referred to as a “sacred” property. It has not been mined for remakes or sequels and its principal relic on the lot — the character Boo Radley’s house — has been kept off the studio’s regular tram tour, though it is occasionally opened to V.I.P. tours.

Mr. Peck died in 2003 at 87. Until the end of his life, he answered letters and spoke to groups about Atticus, who came to stand for opposition to racial bias.

(In 1999, Mr. Peck became the second recipient, after Harry Belafonte, of the Marian Anderson Award, which recognizes artists who effect social change.)

“I never had a part that came close to being the real me until Atticus Finch,” he once said, according to Lynn Haney Trowbridge’s 2003 biography, “Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life.”

Carey Paul Peck, one of Mr. Peck’s children, said he did not know whether the Peck estate held rights that might complicate any attempt to film “Go Set a Watchman.”

Asked whether he had concerns about the characterization of Finch in “Watchman,” in which it is revealed that he once attended a Klan meeting, Mr. Peck said he did not.

“Have at it. It’s a free society,” Mr. Peck said in a phone interview.

At the same time, he said he did not expect that any film of “Watchman” would approach the achievement of “Mockingbird.”

“That’s kind of the gold, the rest is dross,” he said. “It’s not going to be the same caliber.”

Netflix, which has rights to show “To Kill a Mockingbird” on its service, has not yet considered “Go Set a Watchman” as the basis for a new film or show, a person briefed on the matter said. HBO similarly has no plans for a film project. One executive with a company that has helped to finance prominent films in the United States and Britain questioned whether any studio would invest in the period drama, unless a star of, say, Leonardo DiCaprio’s stature were to agree to play the role of Atticus. (In the book, the character is 72.)

Ms. Trowbridge said she believed that Gregory Peck would have applauded a new film, even one that presented a more complicated view of Atticus Finch.

“He was a sophisticated, educated reader,” Ms. Trowbridge said. “I think he would have said, go ahead.”

Ms. Trowbridge’s biography portrayed Mr. Peck as having viewed both Atticus Finch and Ms. Lee’s father, A. C. Lee, on whom Finch was based, as almost uniquely without flaw: “Asked if any human being could be as noble and idealistic as Atticus, Greg said, ‘I’ve met two in my lifetime — my own father and Harper Lee’s.’ ”

Mr. Peck wore A. C. Lee’s gold watch to the 1963 Oscar ceremony as a good-luck charm, and came away with the best actor award.

Mary Badham, nominated as best supporting actress that year for her portrayal of Finch’s young daughter, Scout, said she saw the makings of a fine film in “Go Set a Watchman.”

But that, she said, would require close attention to an aspect of the book and of Atticus that she thinks some have overlooked. Some early readers have focused on the unseemly opposition Atticus has to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for instance, without catching the extent to which, Ms. Badham said, Finch may be engaging in dialectics meant to challenge his now-grown daughter.

“In the right hands, it could do very well,” Ms. Badham said. “But it needs very sensitive handling.”

Alexandra Alter contributed reporting from New York.

Source: www.nytimes.com A version of this article appears in print on July 17, 2015, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Film Version of ‘Watchman’? First, Untangling the Rights . Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

 

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