April 2008

Liz Miller


Appeal to Heaven: John Adams the Book Versus John Adams the Miniseries

Over the next few weeks, pay TV subscribers (and industrious media pirates) will be enjoying the conclusion of HBO/Playtone's epic miniseries telling the story of John Adams. Much has been made of how the source material for this series is not any random collection of accounts, but rather David McCullough's Pulitzer-winning biography of arguably the most under-appreciated of our founding fathers. But when you see such a remarkable recreation of the time period and its narrative, one wonders -- as books fade from dominance, and movies and TV become the preeminent reference points for our culture, is this miniseries meant not so much as an adaptation of a great book, but an ultimate replacement for it?

This idea isn't much a stretch, for the record. After all, when forced to choose between two versions of John Adams'  life, which are people more likely to choose: the 700 page biography, or the 7-part miniseries starring Hollywood actors? Let's face it -- these days, more and more people are leaning towards the latter option.

It's easy to overreact and say that this is a sign of cultural apocalypse, and at least for books, it's not an absurd assumption. But let us consider the counterpoint. What do those who choose the miniseries over the book gain? Are they perhaps just more with the times, choosing a vibrantly evolving medium over a stagnant one? Considering both sides of the equation is never an easy task. But let's give the notion fair consideration. John Adams would demand nothing less.

Advantage #1, to replacing John Adams the biography with the miniseries: It's got a better beginning. 
McCullough focuses the first part of his book on Adams' work at the first Continental Congress, with John and Abigail already separated for a period of several months. But the miniseries chooses to begin seven years earlier, focusing on an event to which McCullough devotes only four pages -- Adams's defense of the soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre. By starting on the Boston Massacre, the audience gets a fuller appreciation of the events leading up to the Revolution, as well as a greater understanding of John's character and John and Abigail's relationship (the scene where Abigail critiques a draft of John's closing statement is sheer delight).

Counterargument: It's hard to say at this point if devoting so much time to the Boston Massacre is a valuable use of the miniseries' "real estate" -- especially when episodes three and four end up compressing a period of about ten years into two hours. Then again...

Advantage #2: It skips over the boring bits.
Understanding that it's hard to make negotiations and diplomacy very engaging for an audience, the third and fourth parts of the miniseries condense a very large amount of material, and move quickly to solve the biggest problems of Adams' life from a narrative point of view -- specifically, that his time in Europe removes him both from Abigail (the emotional heart of his story) and the business of nation building (the dramatic heart). By the end of Part 4, Washington is President, Adams is Vice-President, and a nation is just beginning to take shape. The remaining three chapters promise to be exciting stuff.

Counterargument: In making those choices to condense, basic facts are altered willy-nilly. It's impossible to list the many ways in which writers Kirk Ellis and Michelle Ashford manipulate events, but everything from little details, such as where Abigail and the children stayed while being inoculated for smallpox, to big moments, such as the time, place, and nature of John's reunion with his children, are different. Perhaps this is fine for dramatic purposes, but when we consider the idea that these fictions will be replacing real facts for audience members, it's definitely a cause for concern.

Advantage #3: Hot Adams on Adams action.
McCullough at his heart is a first-person-source man, which helps him tremendously when depicting the periods of their separation. But the audience spends a great deal of time waiting for John and Abigail's reunion, and when the book chooses to discreetly close the bedroom door, covering their meeting in France with only an excerpt from one of Abigail's letters to her sister, it's a bit of a letdown. The miniseries, meanwhile, devotes considerable time to their reunion. Considerable sexy time. And sure it's a little awkward to watch a Founding Father get down to business. But the actual execution is real and sweet and rewarding.

Counterargument: Shirtless Paul Giamatti. Also, while scenes of intimacy that McCullough had no way of describing are beautifully portrayed, the miniseries decides to avoid the cliche of letter-writing montages, and we lose the bulk of John and Abigail's early letters as a result. And the reality of their words to each other, the verbatim text, is a definite loss.

Advantage #4: Great men come to life.
The only reason we can have this conversation about replacing one John Adams with another is that the level of quality executed in the first four episodes is beyond reproach. And this especially extends to acting. There are many standouts in the cast: David Morse is the perfect George Washington, Danny Huston as Samuel Adams, Justin Theroux as John Hancock are stand-outs, and Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are just crazy good. Their scenes together sell their relationship as one of the great love stories in American history. On a very base level, it's a thrill to see figures from history books dramatized as real flesh-and-blood people. It takes these historic events and makes them immediate.

Counterargument: Seeing an actor's take on a particular character, real or fictional, makes an impression on an audience that words on a page can never match. For example, Tom Wilkinson's Benjamin Franklin is a great performance, but he kind of portrays him like a jerk. Appropriate to the period of history being discussed, maybe, but unfair to the man's full and rich life.

The Founding Fathers have been depicted before and they'll be depicted again, but for those watching this miniseries with no other points of reference, it's hard to imagine that future impressions of these historical figures will be uncolored by these performances. Perhaps this would be fine if the American Revolution were like Shakespeare, where different interpretations of iconic characters and stories are encouraged. But that is the exact difference between fiction and nonfiction. Perhaps there is really no such thing as a certain history. But historians are always chasing that horizon.

If we are, in fact, in the middle of the book apocalypse, then these are dangerous times that demand difficult choices. And while there will always be a place for books, what's important is keeping these stories alive for everyone -- readers and non-readers alike. And that's why we should honor the quality adaptations, encourage more of them. Because given the choice between never knowing about John Adams, and knowing HBO's version of him, I suppose I'd prefer the American public experience the latter.