Thursday, April 24, 2008

John Adams: The Book vs. The Miniseries


The Book
The Basics

Number of Pages: 752
Release Date: May 22nd, 2001
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Synopsis:

Like his masterly, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Truman, David McCullough's John Adams has the sweep and vitality of a great novel. It is both a riveting portrait of an abundantly human man and a vivid evocation of his time, much of it drawn from an outstanding collection of Adams family letters and diaries. In particular, the more than one thousand surviving letters between John and Abigail Adams, nearly half of which have never been published, provide extraordinary access to their private lives and make it possible to know John Adams as no other major American of his founding era.

As he has with stunning effect in his previous books, McCullough tells the story from within -- from the point of view of the amazing eighteenth century and of those who, caught up in events, had no sure way of knowing how things would turn out. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, the British spy Edward Bancroft, Madame Lafayette and Jefferson's Paris "interest" Maria Cosway, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the scandalmonger James Callender, Sally Hemings, John Marshall, Talleyrand, and Aaron Burr all figure in this panoramic chronicle, as does, importantly, John Quincy Adams, the adored son whom Adams would live to see become President.

Above Photo: David McCullough, two-time winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, he is widely referred to as a "master of the art of narrative history."


The Miniseries

The Basics:

Total Run Time: 7 hours
Aired on: HBO
Available on DVD: June 10th, 2008
Amazon Listing Price: $59.99
Current Amazon Sale Price: $38.99




John Adams is a sprawling HBO miniseries event that depicts the extraordinary life and times of one of Americas least understood and most underestimated founding fathers: the second President of the United States John Adams. Starring Paul Giamatti (Sideways Cinderella Man HBOs American Spendor) in the title role and Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me Kinsey) as Adams devoted wife Abigail John Adams chronicles the extraordinary life journey of one of the primary shapers of our independence and government whose legacy has often been eclipsed by more flamboyant contemporaries like George Washington Thomas Jefferson Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Set against the backdrop of a nations stormy birth this sweeping miniseries is a moving love story a gripping narrative and a fascinating study of human nature. Above all at a time when the nation is increasingly polarized politically this story celebrates the shared values of liberty and freedom upon which this country was built.

Some Film Facts or Little Details That Make HBO Productions So Damn Good

-
Many civilian costumes were previously used in UK public television productions. The magic-markered letters "BBC" were visible inside many pairs of trousers.

- The old-fashioned stout beer sloshing from mugs as townspeople merrily cheer George Washington outdoors at his inauguration is actually bottled-water darkened with cola.

- For a more authentic look (and smell) of a real working quay, around two truckloads of oyster shells were heaped around the set of the Dockside Welcome Home Mr Adams Scene

- A very nice detail, often overlooked in historical movies, is that as John Adams ages, his teeth get progressively more stained and dark, especially near the gums and the interstices of the teeth.


Key Differences: the book and the movie

Abigail Arrives in France

The movie: The film depicts Abigail's emotional arrival at John's French residence at Auteuil, perhaps most important, she arrives alone without any of her children who were quiet young when we last saw them.

The book: Abigail arrives with her daughter Nabby where they first land in England, staying in London where John Quincy meets them. Later, still in England, they all unite with John. The family then travels to Paris, meets with Jefferson and his daughter and eventually rent a house, much like the one that John is living in at Abigails arrival in the film.

Nabby Gets Married

The movie: John Adams rejects Colonel William Smith's proposal to marry his daughter Nabby after his return to America. The marriage, however, happens while Adams in Vice President. Later, John refuses to help William get a position in the army.

The book: McCullough indicates in the text that William Smith and Nabby Adams were married in England, while John was still serving as a minister and ambassador. Interestingly, there were no objections to the marriage put forth by either John or Abigail. Later, John attempts to help William to get a job in Senate, a job William never got because of the fact that he had earlier filed for bankruptcy and was therefor unable to serve.

Learning the French Language

In the movie: John Adams arrives in France, attends events and meets the king, all without being able to speak a lick of French. Which is interesting because John's eldest son John Quincy attempts to help teach his father French while sailing towards France, a journey that, despite the one storm shown in the film, was probably pretty boring at times and provided some down time. John is constantly mocked for not speaking the language which leads, in part, to the terrible relationship that develops between himself and the French people.

In the book: In the text, John Adams learns the French language and is eventually able to speak it. Upon learning the language John finds out that Benjamin Franklin, a much loved figure in France, doesn't speak the language very well at all.


The Film's Historical Inaccuracies


Numerous sites have boldly declared that history buffs will love this miniseries. But do history buffs ever like movies about a historical person or period?

As usual, some dedicated television watchers have poured over the miniseries to look for factual inconsistencies and by the looks of it, that wasn't too difficult of a job. Here are some of the more interesting alleged historical inaccuracies:

- The film shows all troops acquitted for the Boston Massacre, however two men were found guilty of murder because they were found to fire directly into the crowd. John Adams was able to have their charges reduced to manslaughter due to a loophole in British law by proving the men could read. The two solders were punished by branding on their thumbs.

- When the militia man is telling Abigail Adams about the "Battle of Bunker Hill" and when John Adams is telling of General Warren's death, both say that the battle took place on Bunker Hill. The militia man would have known that the battle actually took place on Breed's Hill (adjoining Bunker Hill), and John Adams probably would have known the difference as well.

- After the death of Abigail there is a scene where Dr. Benjamin Rush is consoling John Adams and encourages him to write to Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Rush died 5 years before Abigail. (What a bedside manner!)

LA Times Makes a Mistake (a kinda funny one, too!)

Speaking of factual errors, an LA Times reporter should be forced to take a high school American history class for reporting an inconsistency where George Washington was concerned. The reporter, Mary McNamara, wrote: "George Washington (David Morse) so quickly tired of the infighting among his Cabinet and vagaries of public opinion that he stepped down from the presidency after a single term." Here is a link to the entire article.

Ouch. We know, of course, that George served for two terms but decided to step down after that, because of the infighting, backbiting, and public opinion. Okay, so Mary did get a few things right. What's the punishment for a crime in colonial America? Ah yes, according to historian James A. Cox's "Bilboes, Brands and Branks: Colonial Crimes and Punishments", one form of punishment was the "Gossip's Bridle" which was a metal caged placed over the head with a flat tounge of iron that was to be placed in the mouth. Harsh! Lets hope that Mary got off with a few public whippings. Actually, Mary wrote a pleasant apology in which she states her thanks, "for the six or seven people living in the Los Angeles Basin who did not e-mail to correct me, he served two terms, not one. And my daddy was a history teacher! Ever since the first e-mail hit my box (on Friday afternoon, about two seconds after the story went up on the website), I have been bathed in hot shame." So, Mary's okay in my book.

If you find that you are no enamored with the time period, here are some other interesting books about John Adams and his family:

My Dearest Friend
by Abigail Adams and John Adams
Foreword by Joseph J. Ellis
Editors: Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor

Abigail and John were prolific letter writers. The letters featured in this book are from the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Those interested in the private correspondence of these two fascinating figures won't be disappointed. In addition, learn more about the brilliant adviser that Abigail was to her husband throughout their lives.


The Adams-Jefferson Letters
by John Adams, Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson
Editor: Lester J. Cappon

Well, like I said, these guys wrote a lot of letters. The real appeal here is getting to see what Adams and Jefferson were writing to one another. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States, were the original American frenemies. With this book you can peer into the sometimes supportive, other times tense relationship between these two founding fathers.



Abigail Adams: A Revolutionary American Woman
by Charles W. Akers

Finally, a book about Abigail Adams herself. This book is part of the Library of American Biography Series and is a biography of Adams that details the life of a revolutionary, mother, activist and wife who engaged in the building of the America nation.



Please respond to this post to share your thoughts about John and Abigail Adams and their burst of television and literary fame.

What do you think about the John Adams book and/or movie?

Does it matter to you if historical movies/miniseries aren't 100 percent accurate as long as they are entertaining?

What other historical books or people would you like to see be featured in a movie or on HBO?

8 comments:

blake said...

I've done a couple posts up at my place, though mostly related to how the series has been a good proving grounds for homeschooling The Boy.

My own feeling is this: I'm very happy to see this sort of John Adams revival going on. He's always gotten short-shrift even though he behaved consistently honorably.

He didn't have Jefferson's words--and Jefferson and his operatives are surely responsible for the sullying of his reputation, along with Hamilton--but he acted nobly.

He sacrificed his political career to save the Republic. One would think this would be a minimum of decency, but as the series showed, there were plenty of people at the time who advised him otherwise.

And then--they don't really show this in the series--what Jefferson did to Adams, Jackson did to his son!

Yeesh.

Although it's drifted off-course over the centuries, their fundamental disagreement about the trustworthiness of men and mobs still forms a core political argument today.

Fun stuff.

marydoug said...

FILM MISTAKE --

The movie shows the portrait of Abigail Adams hanging in the White House while they lived there -- and then it is later presented to them after Nabby dies.

blake said...

Wow. Nice call!

blake said...

No, wait, weren't they made gifts of--

I think they were painted while the Adams were in the White House, and they hung there, but after they moved out they were presented as gifts.

So I think that was deliberate.

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