To Kill a Mockingbird and Other Previously Banned Books That Took the Stage

Here at the Center, we are thrilled for the next arrival in our 2022-23 Broadway Series, To Kill a Mockingbird, swooping into Segerstrom Hall from December 27–January 8. Most people know that To Kill a Mockingbird is among the most frequently banned books in history; its often-uncomfortable depictions of race relations in a sleepy Southern town are relevant even today.

But Mockingbird isn’t the only stage production to be based on controversial source material. Below is a list of ten other adaptations that started as banned books in one form or another. How many have you seen? 

Fun Home

Fun Home. This darkly funny musical is based on the original graphic novel of the same name by Alison Bechdel. While the 2006 novel was initially criticized as obscene for its portrayal of lesbian relationships, the musical adaptation debuted on Broadway in 2015 and was considered groundbreaking for being the first Broadway musical to ever feature a lesbian protagonist. When it came to Segerstrom Center in 2017, Fun Home continued to receive rave reviews, with BroadwayWorld calling it “riveting, powerful and beautifully poignant at every step” and one of those rare, great stage musicals that represents an astonishingly unique point-of-view that is somehow miraculously universal and inclusive at the same time.”       

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple. Alice Walker’s much lauded, Pulitzer prize-winning novel was considered inappropriate in its depictions of sexuality and man’s relationship to God. This musical debuted on Broadway in 2005, and with its stage adaptation came joyous and tender music that focused the central theme of Walker’s story: “an exuberant celebration of community and female empowerment” (The Guardian).The Color Purple is ultimately a story of redemption, and Doyle and his cast do a miraculous job of capturing that essence, down to its spiritual core,” wrote USA Today, highlighting the moments of hope and interpersonal connection that continue to make this story so impactful.

Carrie by Stephen King

Carrie. This was the first published novel by master of horror Stephen King, and its use of foul language, underage sex, and satanic killing was cause for controversy and resulted in it being banned in multiple states. The musical debuted on Broadway in 1988 and closed after just 16 previews and 5 regular performances; as a result, it is considered one of the biggest Broadway failures in history. However, its popularity soared after several bootlegs surfaced and it continues to be a widespread cautionary tale against bullying that’s still relevant decades later.

1984 by George Orwell

1984. George Orwell’s dystopian novel was widely banned for its perceived pro-Communist stance and sexual content. The play debuted in the UK in 2013 and on Broadway in 2017; due to its shocking nature, children under the age of 13 were not allowed in the theater.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel about California migrant workers caused controversy with its obscene language and what was seen as Communist propaganda. When the play made its Broadway debut in 1990, it won that year’s Tony Award for Best Play and has since been praised for its depiction of “a plea for social justice and compassion” and “an all too timely examination of a nation in search of itself.”

Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men. Another Steinbeck novel to be widely criticized for its vulgarity, racism, and treatment of women, the stage version of Of Mice and Men originally debuted only a year after the novel’s release, in 1937, and was adapted by Steinbeck himself. When adapted for the stage, audiences resonated with the show’s emphasis on the topics of isolation and social exclusion of different groups, as well as relevant themes of friendship, loneliness, and justice.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The first version for the stage was released in 1964, just one year after the publication of Ken Kesey’s psychedelic novel about conformity, individuality, and sanity. A 2001 revival of the play won a Tony Award for Best Revival, and in 2018 an “immersive” version of the production debuted in California by the After Hours Theatre Company. In it, the Oregon State Hospital was recreated in a Burbank warehouse, and audience members were provided with patient wristbands and took part in an immersive pre-show.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeMark Haddon’s book about a highly intelligent 15-year-old autistic boy caused concern with its profane language and for “promoting atheism.” The play premiered in England in 2012, winning seven Olivier Awards (tying the record at that time) and debuted on Broadway in 2014, eventually winning a Tony for Best New Play.

Big River by Mark Twain

Big River. Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned almost immediately after its publication in 1885, considered “racist, coarse, trashy, inelegant, irreligious, obsolete, inaccurate, and mindless.” This musical adaptation debuted on Broadway in 1984 and ran for more than 1,000 performances.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank. Arguably the most famous book on this list, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl told of being hidden during Nazi Germany and was banned over the years for many reasons, including being too sexually offensive and too depressing for young readers. The stage version premiered on Broadway in 1955 and won the Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.

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