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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.