'Go Set a Watchman': Could Harper Lee's new novel shift to the big screen?

Two years after Harper Lee's 1960 novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published to critical acclaim and commercial success, the tale of righteous lawyer Atticus Finch and his precocious daughter Scout was adapted into an Oscar-winning film that further etched the story in the popular consciousness.

Five and a half decades later, Lee's quasi-follow-up-slash-precursor "Go Set a Watchman" has reached bookshelves, bringing with it questions — from the practical to the artistic — about whether and how it might follow "Mockingbird" to the big screen.

The first step in a "Watchman" adaptation would be for a producer or studio to acquire the film rights, which are held by Lee's London-based agent, Andrew Nurnberg. Nurnberg did not immediately respond to requests for comment about whether the rights to "Watchman" would be shopped, and thus far there has been no announcement of any movie deal.

Still, given the buzz surrounding "Watchman" and the stature of "Mockingbird," it's reasonable to assume that Hollywood's interest would be considerable.

Another wrinkle is whether Universal Pictures, the studio that made "Mockingbird," might have a claim to an adaptation of "Watchman," which features many of the same characters. It's unclear if Universal's original rights acquisitions covered a potential sequel. For that matter, "Watchman" wasn't written as a sequel to "Mockingbird" — it was more like a first draft.

Representatives for Universal did not immediately reply to a request for comment about a potential "Watchman" adaptation.

In addition to the legal considerations, there's also the obvious but subjective question of whether a "Watchman" movie should be made at all.

For starters, the publication of the book itself has been steeped in controversy, including at least one anonymous complaint that Lee, 88, was manipulated into agreeing to publish it. (Nurnberg responded forcefully to those allegations in a statement in March, calling them "shameful.")

Moreover, "Mockingbird" is widely recognized as a cinematic classic that any follow-up would find it nearly impossible to live up to, even one based on Lee's own writing. (Set about 20 years after "Mockingbird," "Watchman" would require a new cast, director and screenwriter.) Although it's unlikely that anything could tarnish the legacy of "Mockingbird," fans may still object to a "Watchman" movie on principle.

Many "Mockingbird" admirers have expressed surprise and some dismay in response to last week's revelation (plot details ahead) that "Watchman" presents a different side of Atticus than we're used to. The character indelibly portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film as a moral beacon is revealed in "Watchman" to be a bigot who supports segregation and has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting.

Needless to say, reimagining one of cinema's beloved characters as a racist could significantly undermine a "Watchman" movie as mass entertainment. Whether it would be enough to kill a movie remains to be seen.

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