Being John Adams

Last night, I watched the first two parts of HBO’s new seven-part series John Adams, based on the wonderful book by David McCullough. It was very, very good — as intricately crafted as any theatrical release and totally compelling. But I don’t think I’ll be watching the other five parts.

Why? In part because Paul Giamatti just doesn’t work for me as Adams. I hate to say this because Giamatti seems like a perfectly fine actor and human being and it’s not really my place to tell producers and directors who to put in their movies, is it? Moreover, I generally couldn’t care less whether, say, Batman were to be played by George Clooney or George Foreman. But in this case I care because I am so fond of McCullough’s book and the Adams story. And I have to agree with Alessandra Stanley that Giamatti is miscast, “… a prisoner of a limited range and rubbery, cuddly looks.” (Tom Wilkinson, who plays Ben Franklin, might have been terrific, but he is a) not as big a name as Giamatti, and b) perhaps too tall?)

But there’s a bigger reason than Giamatti for my disappointment in the series. It is obvious that the production was made with extraordinary intelligence and care and vision. The “making of” segment that followed last night’s broadcast plainly showed how devoted everyone was to authenticity on every level: architecture, wardrobe, etc. So it was all the more disappointing to see that the script took liberties with the historical facts themselves, even when there was no need to. I’ll give a few examples.

1. The series opens with the Boston Massacre, which strikes me as a good idea. Adams at the time was a rising Boston lawyer with strong patriotic leanings; his reputation for impartiality was greatly enhanced when he took on the defense of the British soldiers who fired into a mob and killed five people. As Tom Hanks, one of the executive producers, said in the “making of” segment; if he had learned as a schoolboy that John Adams, a chief architect of the Declaration of Independence and future U.S. president, had defended the British soldiers after the Massacre, it would have blown his mind. As it was, Hanks and most of us never knew that fact until McCullough’s book. It is, on its own, a startling fact. But the HBO series takes it a step further: it shows Adams personally showing up on the Massacre scene while the victims are still bleeding into the snow. Dramatic, yes; but true? There’s no mention of it in McCullough’s book (look at pp. 65-66 of the paperback), so I would assume not.

2. The HBO series has a scene in which the colorful Henry Knox is shepherding the guns of Ticonderoga toward Boston, a remarkable and audacious feat that helped drive the British from the city. This adventure was told beautifully in another McCullough book, 1776. In the HBO scene, the guns are paraded right past the Adams home in Braintree. John’s wife Abigail, home alone with the kids while her husband is off at Congress in Philadelphia, is shocked and delighted to see her friend Henry and runs out to celebrate his accomplishment. Unless I am very mistaken, nothing like this happens in either of McCullough’s books. (Perhaps it really did happen but McCullough didn’t write about it?) Indeed, it is John, not Abigail, who rides out to inspect the Ticonderoga guns (p. 73 of the paperback of John Adams). It’s a nifty scene, sure, to have Abigail holding down one fort while Knox shows off the cannons from another, but if it didn’t really happen, why is it in this series?

3. In the McCullough book, Abigail Adams packs up her family and leaves the Braintree farm (pp. 142-143 of the paperback) to go to Boston and have everyone inoculated against smallpox (not, as Stanley wrote in the Times, measles). Unless I was mistaken, the HBO series has the family staying behind at Braintree for the inoculation, which might seem like no big deal except that, considering the severity of the illness and the relative density of Boston, you’d want to get this right.

I am sure that all of these additions and revisions were made with care, perhaps even with McCullough’s approval. And I don’t mean to be an ingrate: it’s a great delight (and a testament to economies of scale) to be able to sit in my living room and watch a full-blown filmed version of a book that represents such a vital piece of U.S. history.

But because it is history, and particularly because McCullough does such a masterful job of rendering history fact-by-fact, blow-by-blow, I’m not looking for embellishment when it’s not necessary. Sometimes it is necessary. In the Boston Massacre trial, for instance, McCullough writes that “Adams’s argument for the defense, though unrecorded, was considered a virtuoso performance.” If you are filming a trial whose chief argument is “unrecorded,” you have to re-create what happened, and you do your best. I understand that. Nor did I mind that in real life there were two separate Massacre trials — one for the commanding officer and another for the soldiers, whereas the film made them one. (By the way, one of my favorite quotes of all time came from one of these trials, when Adams argued that “facts are stubborn things.”)

When such dramatic license isn’t necessary, however, and it’s used anyway — Abigail Adams and Henry Knox meeting cute on the Post Road in Braintree — it makes me feel that the filmmakers are trying too hard to do something they shouldn’t be trying to do. It makes me feel that they are trying too hard to make the characters richer than they need be, that they are desperate to “get inside the mind of” the characters, as people like to say.

But what makes McCullough, in my opinion, one of our best living writers is that he doesn’t work that way at all. Instead, he accumulates stubborn fact after stubborn fact — an act of accretion that borders on alchemy — and presents such a robust portrait that there is no need for the sort of psychobabble noodgery that fills up lesser books. Is there enough drama in such a book to fuel a seven-part film without resorting to a dash of fiction? Before last night, I would have thought so.


hild

I'm still trying to process the fact that Tom Hanks is aparently much younger than I am. During the winter of 1964-65, pretty much everyone in the country watched the television adaptation of "Profiles in Courage," one episode of which was about John Adams and the Boston Massacre trial. Hanks looks old enough to have experienced that.

Jane UK

The tales told by 'historical' films are not infrequently marred by misrepresentation or ommissions of known facts. Prime examples of this sort of distortion for dramatic purposes include for example 'The Other Boleyn Girl', and (the risible) 'Braveheart'.
You're annoyed when it's the USA messing with USA history and texts - I can vouch for it being even more annoying when it's foreigners doing it to one's own national history.

John Squire

Thomas -

At the time of the incident, the Massachusettes colony was English, and the Army was lawfully present. It was certainly not "a land not their own". The movie trial included in incontroverted fact (I don't know if it's true in real life and no one knows if it was introduced in the real trial) that the on-duty army isn't obliged to retreat before using force to defend itself.

I don't defend the Alien and Sedition Acts on principle, but I do note that "Sedition" was defined only to include "false, scandalous, and malicious writing"; similar to the modern libel standard, notwithstanding the Warren court's statement that it was somehow distinguishable from NYT v. Sullivan.

Petr

Suppose an armed intruder came into your home, brandishing a gun, and demanded money. You refuse, and throw the nearest sharp kitchen implement at hand at the intruder.

Your grasp of history, as well as analogy, is lacking in both strength and heft. It was not, in 1770, 'your home'. In 1770, the Colonies belonged to the King. Like it or not, everybody, from John Adams to George Washington recognized the fact of monarchy and the right of the King to place troops where-ever in his colonies he deemed appropriate. (It was only later, when more troops landed, that persons were forcibly evicted in order to quarter the troops)

That was the underlying absurdity of Adam's arguments defending the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre. They were the King's soldiers, sent there to occupy Boston and enforce the King's edicts, against the will of the legitimate landowners. They were the initiators of violence, in a land not their own, and should have been held accountable. It amazes me that the court did not recognize this.

You should learn to hold your tongue before speaking about that which you demonstrably know little. You will save yourself more than a little 'underlying absurdity' if you practise this.

The Kings soldiers were not 'occupiers' and the landowners in Boston and other colonies were 'legitimate', in 1770, only insofar as the King recognized their legitimacy. It is what it is. John Adams would not have agreed with you. The radical departure from monarchy into independence is that much more stunning when you realize that John Adams was born a subject of the Crown and spent his adolescence and early adulthood saying 'God Save The King," at every opportunity. The revolution began not with violence, but with a change of heart, upon the part of those whom we now term 'founding fathers.' Just exactly what is it that you think they founded?

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Paul

Harsh, Stephen, harsh. I think that a lot of the criticisim of Giamatti's portrayal of Adams is due to factors that are completely not his fault. Stanley, in her review in the NYT highlights this clearly as she mentions his iconic role in Sideways the next sentence after mention of his name. Sideways is one of my absolute favorite movies and I've probably seen it at least 20+ times. It's because of this that when watching some of the touching moments between Giamatti and Linney (who should certainly be up for an Emmy if last Sunday is an indication of what we have to look forward to) that I can't help but be reminded of the same pathetic, self-loathing moments of Giamatti's character in Sideways.

However, as this is a period piece about a well known historical figure, the authenticity of the look-and-feel of 1770's America they've accomplished trumps, at least in my mind, any anchoring of Giamatti to his Sideways role.

If only this could be the same for all actors! As a "child of the '80s" I have been unable to "buy" Carrie Fisher in any of her post-Star Wars roles.

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jonathan

As a longtime Adams admirer, I liked it. Yes, there were many inaccuracies but it's a movie. What I find missing is enough of Adams the annoying, cajoling talker whose brilliance compensated for his lack of tact and stubbornness. The Congress scenes are nice but restrained - and perhaps the slavery discussion might have showed the depth of division and rancor, as well as how the various interests and personalities interacted in necessity to forge compromises (some that Adams never really accepted).

Watching the first two parts I sometimes wondered why would Adams be considered the man after Washington, after the military leader who held together the army. He was the first VP and the second President for a reason but other than his speaking as much as John Dickinson (who gets somewhat of a bad rep in this version), you don't see the force of his work.

I highly recommend visiting the various Adams sites in Braintree, from the tiny farmhouse to the big farm to Abigail's family's house.

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Peter

I haven't watched it yet, but I plan to dial it up on HBO OnDemand should the Knicks start getting blown out tonight.

A pretty safe bet that you'll get to watch it.

Thomas

Suppose an armed intruder came into your home, brandishing a gun, and demanded money. You refuse, and throw the nearest sharp kitchen implement at hand at the intruder. He then shoots you dead. By the arguments made in the film, John Adams would have defended the intruder on the grounds that he was "provoked" into firing his gun!

That was the underlying absurdity of Adam's arguments defending the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre. They were the King's soldiers, sent there to occupy Boston and enforce the King's edicts, against the will of the legitimate landowners. They were the initiators of violence, in a land not their own, and should have been held accountable. It amazes me that the court did not recognize this.

Adams was clearly a conflicted individual, in his defense of essential liberty in the Continental Congress, but then did his best to take it away again as the Federalist 2nd President - his "Alien and Sedition Acts" ranking right up there with the Military Commissions and Patriot Acts today. This helped, in the end, to propel his rival, Jefferson, into office to undo the damage.

I'm enjoying the series, but must admit I view it with a bit of a jaundiced eye.

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dave

Well if I remember correctly this was sold is a 'docudrama' and by definition there are usually liberties in the "docu" facts to allow for smoother flows to the drama part. If anyone remembers I think Mr.McCullough also came under some scrutiny for some of the facts he presented in his book. That all being said, I have read Mr McCullough's very well written book and seen the first two segments of the and have found them both to be entertaining.
FWIW --- The route that Henry Knox took from Fort Ticonderoga roughly follows MA Route 20 from the New York border to Dorchester Heights http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/services/KnoxTrail/images/knoxtrailmap.gif. The the closest that the entire expidition came to Braintree is the final destination in Dorchester -- about 10 miles away.

Mark Burgh

I thought the entire production listless, pedestrian, and ill-cast. Paul Giamatti is a fine actor who portrays the confused, the disappointed and the alienated with excellent pathos (the Illusionist, Sideways, American Splendor), but for the successful, driven, and eloquent, he seems wrong. The series is shot with odd, canted angles that recall Batman, and shakey documentary-like shots. Who then for Adams, if not Giamatti? Try any of the cast members of The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about another revolution replete with passionate and obnoxious people.

But HBO has a bad track record for miscasting their biopics: Robert Duvall as the twisted genius Stalin; Gary Sinise as Truman; Aiden Quinn in Bury My Heart. Good choices: Alan Rickman as the driven, passionate and cold heart surgeon Alfred Blalock in Something the Lord Made, with Mos Def playing a bright, repressed genius himself.

Do I plan to watch the rest of the series? If I am free, and it is on, maybe.

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Laura Knight

I made it through part one (went to do dishes then read my book; which is quite good- Fallen by David Maine). I was squirming in my seat. I found the whole thing aggressively boring! It felt like E.T. in wigs. I agree, also found Giamatti totally miscast. I just couldn't shake the drunk loser character that he usually plays. Linney was annoying as well, just substitute June Cleaver...
I was very disappointed, because it would have been a good opportunity to expand my knowledge of the period (but now I hear that even that is off).

Nina

I have to disagree with you on the 'Tom Wilkinson being a less-known actor than Paul Giamatti'.

Being a film lover, I can already tell you that it's inaccurate. You're looking at it from an exclusively American point of view. Outside of the United States, he's as known or better known than Paul Giamatti, since he was in movies as diverse as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (as the creator of the procedure that erases memories), "The Patriot" (where he plays the General who loses his dogs to Mel Gibson), "Sense and Sensibility", "Batman Begins" and, most recently, an excellent turn in "Michael Clayton".

I do agree with you, though, when you say that he would have been a better choice to play John Adams than Giamatti. Far better.

jim

This thread of questions brings up a particularly interesting question... how important is it for historically-based movies to stick to the facts?

Some here suggest that as long as people are watching, thus being more engaged in knowing history, who cares? Others say that the facts are the most important things, and playing fast and loose with them is irresponsible.

I am New York... I abstain. On one hand, anyone is allowed to do whatever they want with historical figures. We could really play up the Jefferson/Sally Hemmings thing (someone wanted more sex, right???) and be entirely historically accurate, but still push an agenda. We could attempt to write a screenplay that is accurate to the smallest detail (is that the steeple of Old North Church in the background? shouldn't it be a little more to the east of Haymarket Square???).

My problem with the series (based on the first two episodes) is not that the facts are not as precisely accurate as they could be (no way in the world the guns actually went by way of Braintree, where Abigail could walk out into her yard to see them) but that when they were ignored, they made for a less interesting story (seems like Abigail freaking out over her unconscious son would make for more drama than her tender attention to her daughter's scabs, and would also drive home the anguish over deciding to inoculate her children).

I liked it, and I will continue to watch it. And I thought Giamatti makes a fine Adams. But I'm left wondering why they chose some simple, sappy, and inaccurate story lines when the real thing would have been more engaging. I think that's one of the things Dubner is lamenting as well.

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Larry Clark

Growing up in Boston, we are very familiar with and proud of John Adams. Without Mr. Adams and his cousin, Sam there would be no United States and we would be under British rule. I find it amazing that there are monuments to Madison and Jefferson but none for Adams, without whom we would have never heard of the the American Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

Harry

I find your comments about the program to be niggling and pedantic--I, too, read the book (a fine piece of history and writing) and noticed some discrepancies in terms of the "fact" but your column really seems aimed more at showing us how much YOU know about John Adams than about how much the program got right about the man's life, his relationship with his wife and the inherent drama connected with revolution and independence.

If anything, I found the program dramatically a bit slow. But, as others before me have commented, it's truly remarkable that in the age of American Idol and the Bachelor a 12 hour series about one of the most complex, and frankly least telegenic, founders was made at all. So I'm willing to overlook the fact that to provide some narrative drive or compression of time the director and writers collapsed some historical sequences and whether there was actually one or two trials for the Boston Massacre.

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Andrew M

Overall I loved the show! But you do need to be at least vaguely familiar with the broad historical strokes in order to even follow what was going on. I had some well-educated foreign friends over who gave up on the show because I had to explain what was going on, what was being alluded to, and who was who (Caesar Rodney, for instance.)

This is clearly a show that only Americans will understand; I wonder what the economic ramifications are of a show that's so non-exportable.

bassetwrangler

Giamatti was better than I thought he would be but what threw me off were added moments of political correctness. Specifically, Adams reaching to caress the hand of the black man testifying during the trial and Abigail encouraging her son to pretend shoot the Redcoat toy soldier with his toy cannon. I've also read conflicting details about the number of participants precipitating the Boston Massacre and the results of the trial. Not the movie Pearl Harbor ludicrous but why?

Kal

What was this blog about again?

nick

dude, chill out. put the fevered fanboy in you to rest.

Jota Efe

Hi all, everyone is entitled to their opinion on television series, so you should let Stephen have his. Incidentally, I was looking for the Freakonomics blog, does anyone know where I can find it?