Pass the Clicker: John Adams


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently I finally got around to watching the HBO mini-series John Adams. It’s very good and you should watch it!

But I think this material would have been better as, say, three or four separate movies rather than one long story. Because three or four separate stories is pretty much what you’ve got here. There is some overlap, especially between Adams’s political career and his marriage. But the multiple storylines would have come out better if we’d been able to focus on one at a time.

I’ve increasingly come to think that the “biopic” is a poor format for storytelling, becasue no human life meets the demands of narrative structure perfectly enough. Instead of focusing on “the life of John Adams and the big stories that he saw,” what you want is to tell each of the stories.

Adams & Washington

One of the stories is about Adams’s political career, and here you have the makings of both classical tragedy and triumphant epic rolled up into one narrative. Tragedy, in that Adams had the makings of a great statesman but he was constantly undermined by his own vanity and stubbornness. Triumphant epic, in that he repeatedly disregarded his own self-interest to accomplish great things for his country. From his first significant political act (defending the innocent British soldiers falsely accused in the “Boston Massacre” case) to his last (keeping America out of an unnecessary war with Napoleon), he repeatedly chose to do the right thing in the teeth of extreme pressure from popular opinion and political interests alike.

Real Hamilton 1Hamilton 1

One story I especially enjoyed seeing was the gradual development and then explosion of the scorpions-in-a-bottle rivalry between Adams and his keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer political ally, Alexander Hamilton. It’s a story I don’t think anyone else has ever taken a crack at on the screen, and it’s well worth seeing. I have to say Hamilton gets something of a bad rap in a show where our sympathies are meant to lie with Adams. But the exceptionally talented Rufus Sewell makes Hamilton into an effectively menacing villain.

John & Abigail

The second story, also combining triumph and tragedy, is Adams’s family life. Just his famous marriage to Abigail alone would be more that sufficient to carry a movie by itself, and Laura Linney’s outstanding performance matches Paul Giamatti’s step for step.

Real AbigailJohn & Abigail at meeting

Different productions have chosen different approaches to the John and Abigail relationship. The musical and movie “1776” went the cereberal route, depicting the relationship through the letters they famously exchanged (inevitable, perhaps, given that the story takes place while they were separated) with an emphasis on how these two equally sharp minds fenced and parried with each other.

John & Abigail alone

The HBO production, by contrast, periodically references Abigail’s intellectual impact on John, but focuses on two other aspects of their relationship. The first – and here is the overlap with the strictly political story – is the way she effectively tempered John’s fatal political weaknesses. When John and Abigail are living together, his ego is kept in check. She persuades him to minimize the rhetorical excesses of his defense speech in the Boston trial. She advises him to drop his extremely ill-advised campaign to add a quasi-royal honorific (“his excellency,” “his majesty,” etc.) to the presidency. But when they are apart, as they frequently are for extended periods, John’s demons keep rising to the surface.

The other focus is on John and Abigail’s role as parents, another story I don’t believe anyone has told on screen before. John’s stern insistence on controlling his children’s lives (especially his eldest son John Quincy) and his extended absences from the family both create extreme emotional burdens for Abigail and the children alike. As is well known, John Quincy turns out as well as his father, but we are made to see the dreadful price his father made him pay for it; as is not well known, his other children lived broken lives, his son Charles dying of drink and his daughter marrying a man with a tendency to lose money on speculation, and who ends up having to flee his bad repuation by moving west and starting over while his wife and children remain behind.

 Jefferson, Adams & Franklin

The third – and perhaps fourth, depending on how you count – story concerns the friendship and rivalry of Adams, Jefferson and Franklin. Here is where the series really shines; we see how these three very different men – Adams the blunt man of law, piety, and conservatism; Jefferson the quiet man of philosophy, romance, and radicalism; and Franklin the wry man of science, humor, and sensuality – at first become brothers bound by a common cause, and are then slowly but surely forced into opposition against each other by the divergent demands of their consciences. By far the two best scenes in the movie occur when Jefferson arrives in Paris, where Adams and Franklin have been serving as diplomats. Jefferson, after the deaths of his wife and child, is becoming cold and (even more) distant; Franklin and Adams have become rivals since Franklin felt he had no choice but to ask Congress to remove Adams from the French delegation due to his ineptness at diplomacy.

Real FranklinFranklin

Tom Wilkinson absolutely steals the show as Franklin. It’s hard to make Franklin fresh to an American audience, but Wilkinson does it, aided of course by the scriptwriters.

You could count the Adams/Jefferson/Franklin friendship as either one or two stories, since Franklin’s death leaves us with only the famous Adams/Jefferson relationship on screen, and the dynamic changes. Meanwhile, the Adams/Franklin story is equally worth telling, and (yet again) a story I don’t think we’ve seen on screen. On the other hand, the rivalry that develops later between Jefferson and Adams isn’t dramatically interesting unless it’s preceeded by their friendship, and Franklin was central to that part of the story.

Real JeffersonJefferson

Regarding the later rivalry between Jefferson and Adams, the thesis of the movie is that Jefferson hardened his heart after the deaths of his wife and daughter, and this is what led him to shrug his shoulders and make excuses as the French Revolution became more and more barbaric, distrust his former friend Adams as a liar and a cheat when their disagreements over France became politically critical, and ultimately permit his retainers to print scandalous lies about Adams in order to secure his election in 1800. I have always preferred Adams over Jefferson, even before it was cool, but it must be said that this storyline, while it works as drama, is unfair to Jefferson. It is clear in the record that he recovered emotionally from his wife and daughter’s deaths, as his famous “dialogue between my head and my heart” love letter to a French lady shows pretty clearly.

The case against Jefferson was much more effectively made in the David McCullough book on which the HBO series is based. McCullough tells us that when Jefferson was born, he was placed on a pillow and carried out of the room by a slave, and “he was carried by slaves for the rest of his life.”

As Matt might say: BOOOOOOOM!

Someday, someone needs to make a movie of the Adams/Jefferson relationship. “Thomas and John” would make a great title. (Get to work on that, Hollywood readers.)

There’s so much more packed into this mini-series that I can’t hope to include it all. There are constant little touches history buffs will smile at and history novices will find intriguing – in fact, some of the eccentricities of the real historical characters have actually been softened so that they could be presented without seeming implausible. The stiff and uncomfortable formality of Washington, the shyness of Jefferson, and the eccentricity of George III have all been noticeably toned down so that they could be presented without the audience feeling like they had been exaggerated.

It will take a significant chunk of your time to watch it. And it is not thrill-a-minute stuff. But if you make the investment, you will be rewarded.

Especially if you plan to take the citizenship exam.


6 Responses to Pass the Clicker: John Adams

  1. Um, “I have always preferred Adams over Jefferson, even before it was cool…”

    All the really cool kids I knew preferred the Jeffersons.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    All the really cool kids you knew?

    So that’s past tense, then?

    (Not to mention the selection bias involved…)

  3. Collin Hitt says:

    The most nuanced part of the movie was Jefferson’s reaction to his Declaration of Independence. Particularly brilliant was the portrayal of his shyness as it was read publicly in his presence. The Declaration was the most consequential piece of individual penmanship in our nation’s founding, and the man appears more unnerved than emboldened for having written it. A brilliant bit of acting and directing, in keeping with the historical record.

    • Greg Forster says:

      That was a brave decision on the part of the filmmakers, because a shy character is all the more difficult to make interesting on screen. That’s why you don’t get shy Jeffersons very often.

      But, as I mentioned, the real Jefferson was even more withdrawn than he was depicted here. When I was in college the scholarly consensus was that Jefferson probably had a serious speech impediment. I get the impression that’s no longer a consensus view – I was in college at the height of the disability consciousness fad in the early 90s – but in any event that theory is clearly closer to the truth than the happy-go-lucky Jeffersons we get in productions like, say, “1776.”

  4. Patrick says:

    As troubled as Jefferson may be for his issue and support of slavery I am still in favor of Jefferson over Adams, especially considering Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts so shortly after we fought a war to end such barbarism in government.

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