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What's Wrong with HBO's Dramatization of John Adams's Story

            In the last episode of HBO’s recent and much-lauded miniseries, “John Adams,” the aged former president is taken to see artist John Trumbull’s enormous new painting, depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Adams scoffs at its distortion of the real event’s complexity, warning that it falsifies history for the sake of dramatic presentation.  “Do not,” he chides the artist, “let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license.”

            It was a curious admonition for the screenwriters to include, for the HBO series itself does, consistently and often egregiously, exactly what Adams is shown warning against.  This scene itself is actually partly fictionalized: the quote comes from a letter written several years earlier, when Adams first heard of Trumbull’s project.  Such a change is not unreasonable in a dramatization.  But, from the very start of the series, far more serious and gratuitous distortions abound, simultaneously exaggerating Adams’s centrality and the hostility he faced.  These problems do not stem from David McCullough’s book, on which the series claims to be based.  I have issues with McCullough’s interpretive scope – the degree to which he situates Adams in the political context of his time – but his factual narrative, though somewhat skimpy before 1776, is solidly researched, well-presented, and reliable.  Yet, just as scriptwriters adapting great literary works for the screen often seem to think they know better than the authors themselves, the “John Adams” screenwriters seemed to think they could improve upon the actual past McCullough had chronicled.

            Some degree of compression and alteration is, of course, unavoidable in any dramatization: history is too complex to be rendered literally on film.  Using quotations from letters as the basis for spoken dialogue is, for example, a reasonable technique, allowing a historical figure’s attitudes and ideas to be accurately reflected.  Likewise, it is sometimes necessary to restage an exchange of letters as a face-to-face discussion, to roll longer events into a single scene, and to compress people’s coming and goings.  But it is truly astonishing how often “historical” dramatizations make changes that are simply unnecessary, that rewrite fundamental historical reality to create ‘dramatic’ moments, which are, in fact, no more dramatic than the real events would be if depicted honestly.  Fictional motivations and incidents are created as if historical actors were fictional characters, to be defined and depicted in whatever manner best suits the script.  Yet historical dramas, as Adams might have said, should not delude posterity with fictions under the guise of poetical, graphical or cinematic license.


As a drama, HBO’s series is generally first-rate, including an impressively authentic evocation of the 18th and early 19th century physical environment.  Recently, it has been liberally bedecked with Emmy awards.  Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson deserved their acting trophies; purely as a drama, the series deserved its best miniseries win as well.  Such accolades, however, only compound the problem: since the show was well-done, dramatic, entertaining and widely praised, it will be all the more widely seen, and its audience will all the more readily assume it is definitive.  Undoubtedly, it is already being used in classrooms.

            Fictionalized history can gain traction with alarming ease, spreading both factual errors and fundamental misconceptions: people tend to believe what they see on the screen.  Wikipedia has already provided a depressing piece of proof.  The last episode of the series depicts the death of “Nabby” Adams, the daughter of John and Abigail, from breast cancer.  An on-screen caption marks the start of Nabby’s ordeal as “1803.”  In fact, the cancer was diagnosed in 1810; her mastectomy followed in 1811.  What purpose does this flat-out distortion serve?  Did the scriptwriters feel entitled to rewrite history simply to avoid an unwanted ten-year gap in events?  Yet, as I write, Wikipedia’s entry on Nabby dates her diagnosis to 1803.  Wikipedia records all past revisions, revealing ironically that Nabby’s entry used to include the correct date of 1810 – but it was altered to 1803 in late August of this year (the “John Adams” series had been released on DVD in June).  Whoever made this erroneous “correction” clearly assumed that television had provided truer facts: the reviser noted a “change of date for diagnosis” to replace previously “false information.”

            Last Spring, when the “John Adams” series first aired, I wrote a review of its opening segments, covering the Boston Massacre and its aftermath.  I was greatly concerned by the blatant (though all too typical) distortions of the early liberty movement in Massachusetts, particularly the appallingly wrong-headed depiction of Samuel Adams as a dangerous and corrupt mob-master, complete with a fictitious schism between ‘Sam’ and his more ‘moral’ cousin John.  Unfortunately, matters did not improve in later episodes.  The film’s continued deviations from fact – both in events and in characterization – are, indeed, so pervasive, it would be impractical to describe them comprehensively: the catalogue of distortions that follows is necessarily selective, focusing on particularly significant issues.

            Following the Massacre trials and their aftermath, John Adams is depicted as still suspicious of his cousin Samuel and Samuel’s allies, worried they are plotting to take over the government for their own ends.  In reality, John was in these years a consistent political ally of Samuel; indeed, John’s most frequent concern after 1770 was that the people were growing complacent, and might lack the will to resist British oppression.  The series continues to highlight this fictitious contrast between John and Samuel with an entirely invented scene, set in late 1773 during the Tea Act crisis, in which one of the tea-ship captains (or possibly a customs officer) is tarred and feathered at the direct urging of John Hancock, while John rails against such immoral lawlessness and Samuel struggles to defend it.  Despite popular mythology, tarrings were never common in Revolutionary Boston, and were not promoted by the opposition leadership.  The entire sequence is pure and pernicious fiction.  After the tea’s destruction (usually called the “Tea Party,” though this is an anachronistic and derisive 19th century coinage), we see John converted at last to the Revolutionary cause by Britain’s harsh response, the Coercive Acts.  In fact, he needed no converting.  (Curiously, after this point, with John now an ally, Samuel – despite his previously villainous depiction – is suddenly presented as a principled opponent of tyranny.)

            History is continually and casually altered as the program proceeds.  When Adams joins the delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774, the delegates listed are actually those sent to the second Congress the following year.  Later, Adams is shown riding into the immediate aftermath of the bloody fighting at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775; this is simply false – by his own account, he only rode out some days later to the militia encampment at Cambridge.

            The distortions prove much more fundamental when Adams returns to the Continental Congress after the battle.  There he encounters tremendous hostility to Massachusetts and to himself.  Most other delegates accuse Massachusetts of forcing the colonies into war, insisting reconciliation can yet be achieved if the “Boston insurrectionists” are repudiated and a humble olive branch is offered to Parliament; such a petition is then passed as a direct slap at Boston, supported by all the colonies outside New England.  News of Bunker Hill, sent by Abigail, is shown as the turning point, allowing John to rally the Congress and achieve the establishment of a continental army, with George Washington as its commander.  In reality, this pivotal sequence is severely distorted in order to set Adams up as a heroic voice in the wilderness, ultimately triumphant in turning the other colonies towards resistance almost single-handedly.  John Adams – as McCullough correctly notes – returned to Philadelphia in May to find a virtual armed camp.  While some delegates did grumble that New England had incautiously pushed too far, Congress quickly voted to ready the colonies for military defense – and, only nine days into the session, Massachusetts’s John Hancock was elected Congress president.  Adams was central in urging the creation of a continental army, but Congress voted to do so on June 14, appointing Washington its commander on the 15th – two days before Bunker Hill even happened.  It was only after these military moves that John Dickinson’s Olive-Branch Petition was passed, a last-ditch appeal to British reason with war already joined; the petition, indeed, was accompanied by the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms – also co-written by Dickinson, but never even mentioned in the series.

            Events are continually manipulated to keep the Adams family front and center.  We see the militia, withdrawing from Bunker Hill, passing directly by Abigail Adams’s door; she sees the mutilated body of Joseph Warren drawn by in a cart.  In reality, Bunker Hill was on the opposite side of Boston Harbor, and the Adams home was entirely off the militia’s line of march.  Later, General Henry Knox conveniently rides by Abigail’s door with the cannon captured from Fort Ticonderoga, soon to be crucial in forcing the British evacuation of Boston; in fact, his route took him nowhere near her.  Surely, there were better ways to reveal these events to the audience.  In the real world, all roads did not lead to Braintree.

            Back in Congress, news of the Boston evacuation is shown directly spurring Virginia to back independence in June 1776; but Boston had actually been evacuated in mid-March, while Virginia instructed its delegates to vote for independence in mid-May.  Although the furious debate on Richard Henry Lee’s June 7 resolution for independence is represented reasonably accurately, the committee to prepare a declaration of independence is shown being authorized almost as a casual afterthought: in fact, this committee was established by a proper vote of Congress, revealing a greater willingness in the delegates to consider independence than the program wishes to admit.  The renewal of debate on July 1 is again distorted to make Adams appear more beleaguered and more central than he actually was.  Dickinson did oppose him, but the New York delegation – shown here violently hostile to Adams and his opinions – actually supported independence, though they still lacked authorization to vote for it.  The initial vote was not 9-4, but 9-2 with two abstentions (New York and Delaware).  Pennsylvania’s Dickinson and Morris did agree to absent themselves for the sake of unanimity, but not as part of a deal to appease New York.  Despite his concerns that the colonies were moving too quickly, the hostility of South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge is exaggerated, and there is no evidence of his making a crucial deal with Adams: he also suppressed his doubts about immediate independence for the sake of unanimity.

            The smallpox inoculation of Abigail and the children is meanwhile much manipulated for the sake of drama.  They did not undergo the ordeal in isolation, but with relatives in Boston; the virus was not taken from the gory pustules of the dying, as the program so graphically depicts, but from those less severely afflicted, in hopes that inoculation would produce as mild a reaction as possible; the inoculation is also shifted back some days to make it coincide more neatly with the climax of the independence debate in Philadelphia.

            The series shifts from July 1776 to John’s departure on a diplomatic mission to France – again no date is given, but it was actually early 1778.  The Atlantic crossing is predictably overdramatized: a British warship that unsuccessfully pursued Adams’s ship is conflated with an armed merchantman that Adams’s vessel actually outclassed and captured; Adams did not fire the first shot in the engagement; the officer shown dying in the fictionally desperate fighting was actually wounded later, when a cannon exploded while saluting a French vessel, and the stricken officer only died a week after that.

            Adams’s conflicts with Benjamin Franklin in France involve much compression of events, some of which is justifiable in a dramatization.  But Adams’s open and undiplomatic quarrels with French officials are significantly and needlessly exaggerated: to stress the forthrightness of plain-speaking John, the program seriously overstates his diplomatic insensibility.  Much is made, too, of Adams’s lack of French: while this was true at first, he quickly became proficient – this is never suggested, presumably since it would again undermine the ‘plain, simple John’ image the program so carefully cultivates.

            After his removal as joint minister to France – less of a personal insult than the program insinuates – Adams was, as the series shows, left without instructions, neither recalled nor reassigned.  But he did not, as the screenplay has it, then go to straight to Holland in search of loans: he instead returned briefly to Massachusetts.  The scriptwriters doubtless considered this short return dispensable in the interests of dramatic compression.  But the omission is actually extremely unfortunate, since this interval included probably the greatest single achievement of Adams’s career.  Arriving home in August 1779, he was almost immediately elected to the convention drafting a new Massachusetts state constitution.  The Convention in turn asked Adams to draft the document all but singlehandedly.  The series, indeed, shows Adams and Jefferson in 1776 discussing the importance of the new state constitutions, which Adams says he hopes will form the inspiration for a federal compact – it is extremely odd to include such a scene, then omit Adams’s vital achievement in fulfilling precisely that aim.  His document did indeed influence the federal constitution, and today remains the oldest written constitution still in effect in the world.

            The omission of John’s 1779 return to Massachusetts also leads to another serious distortion, an invented theme which is then made the basis of much later conflict and character development.  Throughout the series, John and Abigail’s dissipated son Charles makes much of his childhood separation from his parents, as first John and then Abigail left for Europe, “abandoning” him, he says, to the care of tutors.  This purported desertion is made the central fact of Charles’s life, the root of his eventual personal dissolution, and a seemingly justified reproach that John struggles to evade.  In reality, in October 1779, after John completed his service with the Massachusetts constitutional convention, he was sent back to France by Congress, appointed to negotiate peace-terms with Britain should opportunity arise.  He took his son John Quincy with him, as he had in 1778.  He also took Charles.

            Adams’s second stay in France is, of course, omitted, as the program has already had him depart directly for Holland.  He placed his sons in school, maintaining close contact with John Quincy and the supposedly “abandoned” Charles.  It was at this time that Adams broke more seriously with the French court, over monetary matters, and was excoriated by both the court and Franklin as rude and intrusive, though these quarrels – moved in the series back into Adams’s first stay in France – are exaggerated in the screenplay.  Only in the summer of 1780 did Adams leave on his own initiative for Holland, again with both sons; he later learned that Congress had coincidentally sent orders for him to do exactly this, but this official backing is omitted in the series, lest Adams seem less persecuted or unappreciated.  After his severe illness in Holland – chronologically manipulated to make it match the arrival of news from Yorktown – Adams is triumphantly appointed a peace commissioner to negotiate with Britain.  Ironically, given the program’s tendency to exaggerate affronts to Adams, this sequence disguises a genuine affront: he had initially been sent back to Europe as sole peace commissioner, but, after complaints by Franklin and the French, this prestigious commission was revoked, and he was reduced to one of several negotiators.

            The program then jumps to “1784” – the only date given for some time – and John’s plea for Abigail to join him.  The supposedly “abandoned” Charles had, by this time, returned to his mother by his own choice, having become homesick.  He was not, however, abandoned now either: he and his brother Thomas had already been placed with relatives, to be prepared for Harvard.  Nor was their sister Nabby abandoned, for she went with Abigail to Europe.  The program makes much of Abigail’s first meeting with John in France – but in reality, she first rejoined him in London, in a scene quite dramatic enough to serve the scriptwriters without falsification.  Only later did they take a house in France and go there together, along with Nabby and John Quincy.  Abigail’s ambivalent reaction to France and the budding friendship between her and Jefferson are represented fairly; both Abigail and Jefferson, however, specifically discuss the painful absence of their children – in fact, two of Abigail’s were with her, and one of Jefferson’s daughters had accompanied him.  Another dismal moment occurs when Franklin introduces Madame Helvetius to Abigail, and the latter remarks that Franklin has often proposed marriage to her.  Abigail cuttingly mentions the “inconvenience to Mrs. Franklin,” drawing an angry glare from Benjamin.  He would more likely have pointed out that his wife Deborah had died ten years earlier.

            When Adams is reassigned as America’s first minister to London, we see, frustratingly, how good this series could have been had it more frequently recognized the drama of real events.  Adams’s audience with George III is perhaps the finest moment in the series, precisely because it follows Adams’s own account of their words almost verbatim.  The King’s final remark – hoping America will not suffer unduly from its want of a monarchy – was actually made to Parliament when he conceded American independence in 1782, but this is not an unreasonable conflation: it is certainly something he might have said to Adams.  The subsequent mockery of Adams in the British press is inevitably compressed, yet is accurately suggested.

            But of course, Nabby’s presence in England is omitted (John Quincy had now returned to America), as is her courtship in London with Adams’s aide, Colonel William Smith, whom she in fact married there in 1786.  To make the marriage fit with Nabby’s invented absence, the scriptwriters must later insert an equally invented meeting and courtship in Massachusetts, including a further fictitious scene in which Adams indignantly objects to Smith’s proposal.  When Abigail (at an again unspecified later date) urges a return from London to Massachusetts, she is shown remarking that the children, now adults, have been without their parents too long – again, a point is made of the invented “abandonment” of the children.  This is further harped upon by Charles upon their return, his long-nursed hurt being made the explicit root of his increasingly self-destructive behavior.

            After the first presidential election and Washington’s inauguration, problems surface again with the controversy over proposed aristocratic “titles” for the president.  Adams did not, as the program suggests, single-handedly propose such titles, or the specific grandiose possibilities.  As the writers were elsewhere quite aware, the vice president could not (and cannot now) introduce business to the Senate.  Adams was not, as the writers wish to make him, a lone figure defying all others in defense of his idiosyncratic beliefs: he actually supported proposals made by others, and endorsed titles first suggested by a Senate committee.  (It is, however, perfectly true that Adams drew much ridicule for backing the idea, and the affair clearly damaged both his reputation and his relationship with President Washington.)

            Despite frequent violations of chronology, the start of the Federalist/Republican schism, Adams’s virtual exclusion from the government by Washington and his own growing split with Jefferson over the French Revolution are handled well, especially given the complexity of the issues involved.  But the centrality of the “Citizen Genêt” affair is needlessly exaggerated, made both a factor in the 1792 election (Genêt actually arrived in the Spring of 1793) and the direct cause of the dispatch of John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Britain (Genêt had lost his post well before Jay was dispatched in April 1794).  The real reasons for Jay’s mission involved crucial claims of trade, freedom of the seas, and the integrity of America’s borders.  It was the failure of the treaty to resolve most of these issues while nonetheless granting Britain special trade status that principally sparked widespread public anger.  This is a particularly important point since the unresolved issues of naval impressment and maritime freedom would ultimately culminate in the War of 1812.

            It is, however, the ratification of the Jay treaty that produces one of the program’s most painful and unnecessary fabrications, a distortion not only of fact, but of a fundamental constitutional rule.  We are shown a Senate deadlocked 15 to 15 on ratification.  Vice President Adams is thus forced to step in and cast the tie-breaking vote, saving the treaty for the Washington administration.  But according to the Constitution, then and now, treaties must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate.  There was not and could not be a “tie.”  The Jay Treaty passed with exactly the required two-thirds, 20-10.  Adams had no vote.  Such an invention, creating a fictional crisis and a constitutional absurdity for the sake of Adams-centered “drama,” is simply unjustifiable.

            After the 1796 election, we move to Adams’s 1797 inauguration.  Washington is shown declaring: “I am fairly out and you are fairly in.  See which of us will be the happiest.”  In fact, Adams only speculated – privately and somewhat bitterly – that Washington had been thinking such words; having the departing president actually say this is a very different matter, again painting Adams as the disrespected victim of others’ snideness.

            Given the series’ frequent departures from reality, the complex issues and events of Adams’s presidency are handled quite well, despite compression and simplification – much of which is, of course, unavoidable.  There are, however, several serious distortions, seemingly made in a conscious effort to burnish Adams’s image.  Adams, for example, is shown after his inauguration, suggesting that Jefferson serve as a special emissary to France – thus he is seen boldly transcending partisan feuds, while a more petty Jefferson rebuffs him.  In reality, Adams made this proposal months earlier, before his inauguration, when the split with Jefferson was far less advanced: he would certainly not have entrusted such a role to Jefferson by the Spring of 1797.  More serious is Adams’s purported reaction to the notorious Alien & Sedition Acts.  We see him apparently caught off guard by the bills when Congress sends them to him for signature; he seems anguished, reluctant to approve such harsh employment of government power to stifle dissent.  Finally, urged on by Abigail, he reluctantly signs them.  All of this is highly dubious.  While it seems to be true that Adams did not specifically urge the Alien & Sedition Acts on Congress, he was surely aware of them while they were under discussion.  Abigail did, indeed, support the acts, and Jefferson did, as shown, strongly resist them.  But there is no evidence that Adams disapproved of the Acts once Congress passed them, or that he hesitated to sign them.

            A third significant alteration is Adams’s relationship with his son-in-law, Nabby’s husband William Smith.  In the series, Adams angrily rejects Smith’s requests for posts in the new national army, declaring openly in the end that he has lost all confidence in Smith due to the latter’s financial speculations; Smith bitterly insists that a mere word from his father-in-law could repair all his prospects, but Adams maintains his principled objection to nepotism, whatever the cost to his daughter’s family.  These exchanges are pure fiction.  Despite reservations about his son-in-law’s character, Adams did recommend Smith for the new army’s general staff: it was the Senate that rejected the appointment because of Smith’s questionable private affairs.  Despite the embarrassment this had already caused him, Adams then pressed to get Smith a colonel’s commission, which the Senate reluctantly approved.

            The final months of Adams’s presidency involve irritating, and again entirely unnecessary, manipulation.  When Adams’s son Thomas brings word of France’s willingness to negotiate, he attributes the shift to Napoleon’s seizure of power.  But Thomas brought his news at the beginning of 1799 while Napoleon was still fighting in Egypt, almost a year before the future emperor took control of France; indeed, suggestions that France would parlay had arrived as early as 1798.  Adams’s careful retreat from war between 1798 and 1800 is thus shoehorned into 1800 (word of Napoleon’s rise arrived early that year) – again, why?  And, after the 1800 election, an odd omission follows: Adams’s crucial post-election appointment of John Marshall as chief justice, a move that dramatically affected American law and politics for decades, is never mentioned – as it easily could have been, given that Marshall is present as a character in the final scenes at the White House.

            The last episode of the series covers Adams’s retirement and death.  The major focuses are Nabby’s breast cancer and Adams’s renewed correspondence with Jefferson.  I have already discussed the strange relocation of Nabby’s diagnosis from 1810 to 1803.  The same sequence, furthermore, emphasizes Benjamin Rush’s personal examination of Nabby in Quincy, and his personal performance of her mastectomy.  In reality, the tumor was diagnosed before Nabby returned to her parents’ home, Rush consulted on the case only by letter, and the surgery was performed by local Boston doctors.

            But the handling of the renewed Adams-Jefferson correspondence, the defining act of both men’s retirement and probably the greatest epistolary exchange in American history, is far worse.  Here is what the series shows: Abigail Adams dies in 1818; John’s old friend Benjamin Rush urges that he write to Jefferson about his loss, hoping the two elder statesmen can provide each other with comfort in their final years; Adams does so; Jefferson’s first reply is dated to 1819; the correspondence flowers, friendship is renewed.  This sequence is wholly invented, and simply appalling.  Rush was indeed instrumental in renewing contact between Adams and Jefferson, but he was definitely not available to counsel Adams after Abigail’s death in 1818: Rush himself had died five years earlier.  Rush had, in reality, worked carefully to bring the two former presidents back into harmony, but his efforts had culminated in 1812 – it was then that the Adams-Jefferson correspondence actually resumed, and Abigail herself was personally involved in the exchange for its first six years.  Arbitrarily changing history, bringing Rush into the story years after his death, pushing Abigail out of the renewed friendship with a man who had, as the program itself had emphasized, been her friend as well – what possible reason can be given for such unnecessary distortions?  The real story is even more dramatic, and could have been presented in just as compact and televisually practical a fashion.

            This final example once again highlights the glaring problem that afflicts the entire series: such alterations and distortions of the historical record are both pointless and needless. Despite the inevitable need for compression and simplification in any dramatization, the basic facts can be respected, and have been in some notably successful historical films.  Screenwriters can and should evoke the real drama of real events.  They should not gratuitously fabricate historical events and motivations, as if they know better than history how events should have unfolded.  Nor are the series’ many fictions mere changes of detail.  Reality is consistently rewritten to mold Adams’s image to the writers’ needs, and to exaggerate his centrality, frequently at the expense of his contemporaries’ achievements and reputations.  Adams does not need such revision: he was a great man despite his flaws, a fascinating and important man without being the sole driver of events.  He would emerge quite well from an accurate account of his life – one that respected McCullough’s factually solid narrative, rather than recasting reality to suit the scriptwriters’ own sense of drama.  Yet many people, like the anonymous “reviser” of Nabby’s Wikipedia entry, will believe what they see on screen –  and too often, what they will see in this series is simply not the truth.  HBO’s “John Adams,” despite fine drama, excellent acting and impressive production values, is – sadly and unnecessarily – seriously compromised as a depiction of history.