Friday, January 16, 2009

HBO's John Adams: Balancing History and Drama

Had David McCullough never written his best-selling (and Pulitzer Prize winning) biography of John Adams, it is unlikely that HBO Films--or any motion picture studio, for that matter--would have thought of making a biopic about a founder father who enjoys neither the popularity of Thomas Jefferson nor the name recognition of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Indeed, thanks to McCullough, Adam's life and political career (and reputation) have been salvaged from the dust of history, packaged and delivered--in the best-selling form of popular narrative history--for the rabble masses that Adams often mistrusted. McCullough, therefore, also deserves further credit for HBO's recent mini-series on Adams, which is based on McCullough's book and also brings the founder's important and often over-looked legacy into the homes of those who were too lazy to read the book.

Admittedly, I am one of those who fall into the latter category. While I have owned the book since 2003, I was only able to read about 125 pages of it before I became distracted with another book (which tends to happen  a lot to me, since I try to read three or four books at a time). Still, my interest in finishing John Adams has never really diminished, and now, having watched all seven episodes of the HBO series, I have more of an interest in finishing it than ever.

HBO's John Adams, is a dramatic retelling of the United States of America's first 50 years. Adams, of course, is at the center of the action, along with Abigail Adams and the rest of the Adams family; Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and Hamilton are very much secondary characters. Each episode of the series stands on its own; unlike other mini-series, no one episode leads smoothly into the next. Often, a lot of history is sacrificed on the altar of dramatic necessity--which is to be expected when 50 years of history is condensed into nine hours of film. Fortunately, the filmmakers did a fairly good job in making a project of this scope work. John Adams could have easily been fourteen episodes long, but that would have been a lot to ask from an audience. Overall, John Adams is a nice compromise.

The strength of this mini-series is its characterizations of the founders. Adams is a complex figure who has as many obvious flaws as he has extraordinary talents. The series makes much of his vanity and compulsive tactlessness, as well as his devotion to those whom he considered to be his best friends, namely Abigail and Jefferson. Also, it spends significant time on his struggle with parenthood (some of the best-acted scenes in the series, in fact, involve his role as a parent). Its characterizations of Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington are also excellent and do much to make them not appear like the marble statues they have become in our historical memory. Only Alexander Hamilton, who comes closest to being the "bad guy" of the series, comes across as being a little one-dimensional.

John Adams does have some shortcomings. Occasionally, the series depicts a historical event that, while action-packed, does little to advance the general story line. Adam's participation in an amputation during his first crossing of the Atlantic, for example, makes for an interesting scene--but little else. Personally, I wish the series gave more attention to politics than pageantry; the episode involving the Continental Congress, for example, seems incomplete, as does the episode involving Washington's presidency. That said, no episode entirely disappoints.

The tag-line for the series is "He United the States of America." At first, I thought this was a pretty clever piece of movie studio hyperbole. Now, however, having learned more about Adams and his contributions to America's founding, I think the line is appropriate. Adams, however vain and obnoxious he may have been, believed in doing what he felt was right, even if it wasn't always popular. When his contemporaries were separating into political parties, for example, or crying out for war against their European enemies, he resisted the trend and chose to follow a much more moderate path. The mini-series argues that doing so lost him the election of 1800 (and a more prominent place in popular history), yet ensured the stability of the new nation. If such was actually the case, Adams deserves all seven episodes that HBO has allotted to his life.

1 comment:

  1. I am not likely to read the book - but I may ask to borrow the movie from my son.