Analyzing Adams Adaptations: History/Film Lecture Transcription
A bit of a different animal I’ll be publishing today. I recently did a lecture at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela. I’ve done a few, but this is the first time I actually recorded what I said and decided to put it on my Medium. I’ll attach the PowerPoint slides that I made and put, word-for-word, all of what I said in a 35-minute lecture looking at the leap made from paper to film regarding HBO’s John Adams miniseries and relating it to real-life history as well. If you feel like plagiarizing it, good luck, because this is extremely easy to find with a plagiarism checker since it’s published online, and as a bonus, it has a slew of cussing and non-professional jokes. If you want to cite it, great, feel free to go ahead, I give you my permission. Maybe I’ll use this as a portfolio piece, spice up the résumé. Oh, and the best part I’ll FLEX with? I didn’t use any notes, and I read off the slides only twice for long quotation.
Now, this features a lot of history about the American Revolution, so if you need a quick recap, here’s a clip.
All right, so, I’ll be presenting on John Adams. It was a biography that was turned into an HBO show. I’ll be talking about the comparison and contrast of the two of them. And I’m going to be talking a bit about history. So, this is kind of like my beautiful bread and butter. My film and history majors are coming together to analyze this adaptation. I’ll just hop into it with a really quick summary about John Adams. And I promise you this really matters. And a lot of this is taken from the book, which is by David McCullough. He was not a historian, technically speaking. He actually has an English degree and then he applied himself to history and researched and did all this stuff. To my knowledge, he doesn’t actually have a history degree, but he’s really good at researching and compiling his stuff for general audiences. I’ll talk more about him in a minute, but first let’s talk about the second president of the United States, John Adams, as you can see here in his lovely portrait. He’s a bit old there. He is a really underrated figure in American history, especially as a Founding Father, a lot of people just kind of take them for granted or don’t even know who he is.
Adams was responsible for like a lot of stuff, a lot of things that people don’t really pay attention to. And he was there for, you know, early, early parts of the process of the stuff leading to revolution and every step of the actual American Revolution. Quick facts about him:
He’s from Massachusetts, you know, the state that looks like a claw, on the East Coast. He was a Puritan. And if you don’t know, Puritans are a denomination of Christianity, they’re a Protestant group that basically follows things that are strictly in the Bible, the rest is heresy for them. They’re very harsh on themselves, a little hard on punishment. They’re very old school and strict in some areas. Adams was a Federalist, which means that he believed that the United States should not be made of individual states, but should be one union of all the states. He was an abolitionist. This is really important. He hated slavery. The the first 12 presidents all had slaves, except for John Adams. Washington had slaves. Jefferson had something like 600 slaves. Even all the way up to Ulysses Grant, the 18th president, he had a slave, and he was Abraham Lincoln’s top general. Anyways, Grant had s slave just before the Civil War. At any rate, besides all this, John Adams was also pretty bad at communicating with his colleagues. A lot of people could not stand him, because he was very direct and straightforward. Too blunt. He did not know how to handle himself around people very well. And fun fact, I read during the whole book, he’s a really bad dancer, like famously bad. On this slide, I also have his whole career laid out, very impressive. I’ll kind of dive into that later, but long story short, he went from being a lawyer to being the second president of the USA.
And during his time, Adams did a lot of critical things like nominating George Washington to be a leader of the Continental Army, which would help make him the first president because everyone would know him. As president, he avoided war with France, as best as he could while other people like Alexander Hamilton, who he might all know from Hamilton were kind of warmongering. Adams actually navigated the American Navy during that Quasi-War really well, which is why his nickname is “Father of the Navy.” He successfully avoided like full-out war with France right after the American Revolution happens. He did do something pretty bad, though. Adams passed the Alien and Sedition acts, which basically allowed you to jail people for criticizing the president and allowed you to deport immigrant without reason if they were against the state. He was pressured into this, but that doesn’t excuse it. He did not utilize the deportation at all, but he did utilize the jailing of critics. Interestingly, his son, John Quincy Adams, actually became sixth president of the United States, and his son was extremely progressive for his time. Great statesman. Quincy was kinder to Native Americans and African Americans, and wrote the Monroe Doctrine, despite the name. He was very much an abolitionist, very hardcore. And he actually died giving a speech to Congress decrying slavery. So that means John Adams’ son was also pretty cool, and I think that has to do with who raised him.
At any rate, McCullough’s book is basically is made up of letters between Adams and his wife. He was a hopeless romantic, he adored his wife, and she adored him back. They were the best friends ever. I mean, they were everything you’d want in a partner. Abigail called him “The tenderest of husbands, my good man.” Uh, and so as you can see down here, McCullough describes Adam as “A great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal — all traits in the New England tradition — he was anything but cold or laconic as supposedly New Englanders were. He could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity”
Remember that. Very humanizing, right? And this is going to play a big role in how the book and how the show will go.
And his wife, Abigail, who again, is a critical part of this book, I would argue maybe the main focus of the book, is really working behind the scenes. I mean, she was the only person in the world that he could take criticism from, and that he was horrible at taking criticism. She was very good at handling things. Everyone loved this. Wherever she went, she charmed the pants off of people. Not literally, that’s more like Ben Franklin. But people just loved her. She was so charismatic and so smart. She was self-taught, her mother had tutored her, and she learned a lot with access to this massive library that several members of her family had inherited. And, you know, all at the same time she was raising multiple kids. And for much of their marriage, they were not in the same place very often. John was in Europe doing diplomacy, which we’ll get to it, while she was, back home in the soon to be states, dealing with all this other stuff. When we go through these letters, we get a very different look at who Adams was, because, and this needs to be underlined mentally, was not paid attention to by historians because he was so unpopular with his colleagues at his time that no one wanted to talk about him or write about him, and I guess that tradition kind of stayed for a while. People were more interested in Jefferson, Ben Franklin, George Washington, these are names probably everyone knows, but John Adams? Pfft.
Abigail was also a big feminist for her time. She insisted on her husband “remembering the women,” when he was on the committee for the Declaration of Independence, yes, John Adams was one of the five people that worked on the Declaration of Independence. She was also very politically active to the point that folks gave her the nickname, “Mrs. President.” She started off as a very sickly child, which is why she never had like, a formal education. She was at home all the time, but she absolutely overcame that. In the book, McCulllough describes her as “Abigail had been a shy, frail fifteen-year-old. Often ill during childhood and still subject to recurring headaches and insomnia, she appeared more delicate and vulnerable than her sisters. By the time of her wedding, she was not quite twenty, little more than five feet tall, with dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a fine, pale complexion…But where the flat, oval face in her husband’s portrait conveyed nothing of his bristling intelligence and appetite for life, in hers there was a strong, unmistakable look of good sense and character. He could have been almost any well-fed, untested young man with dark, arched brows and a grey wig, while she was distinctly attractive, readily identifiable, her intent dark eyes clearly focused on the world.”
There’s another bit here where someone described her in her youth as “a perfect Venus” Amazing, flattery, right? Then there’s John Adam, who’s like, “yeah, she’s my perfect Venus.” John Adams also said, and this tells you how much of a good husband he was, he said Abigail was “My best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world.” I mean, that’s freaking sweet. I’m getting a cavity saying it just from how sweet it is.
So, this is the book itself. That’s the cover, the original cover, because the HBO show got so popular that they’ve actually just straight up replaced it with the HBO poster. I never read this book or saw the movie despite having a history and film degree. I never got around to it. I don’t know why. It just popped up, I guess. This book is good, very, well-written. It goes into the narrative of these letters without getting too sanctimonious or confusing with its language, it doesn’t read like a historian writing it, it reads like someone with an English degree who knows how to write, which is really nice because sometimes with some historians, they get way too complicated or can’t write informatively and be interesting. Or they forget that they need to reach to a general audience and not only their fellow scholars. McCullough is really good at getting a general audience, even if he’s compiling things rather than discovering new stuff or doing deep analysis. The book did win the Pulitzer Prize, which is among the biggest awards that a book like this can get. But it is kind of questionable why it won it because this was published in 2001 in the spring and the prize was rewarded in 2002. I don’t know about you guys, but there was kind of a big event in 2001 for the United States. And after 9/11, everybody wanted to celebrate the most American things they could. So there was a lot more attention than usual, you could argue, but that doesn’t take away from the book being good, but yes, it was plastered everywhere more than usual, post 9/11. And Dave McCullough, has also done shows, he got a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is incredible, he’s a visiting scholar, and a lot of the higher up schools in the United States. He’s still kicking, he’s still around, he’s still writing. He wrote books about Anne Frank, the Johnstown Flood, tons of things, mostly United States history. Fun fact, he was independent his whole life until Trump came along. And then he came out and spoke against him called him a monstrous clown with a monstrous ego.
Now, the show. It came out in 2008, it’s 7 episodes, based on the book. The book is good, the praise is well-earned. As for the show? It’s good. But, um, is it 23 Emmy nominations and 13 wins level of good? No way. It’s pretty well-written but that year, instead of having the usual five nominees, the Emmys only had four for the miniseries category, and look at the competition. Cranford, a show from the UK that nobody in the USA was watching. It was a UK show, one so obscure that Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t even have a single rating. Has anyone here heard of it, since the UK is near us? No? OK. This show is from 2001 and no one’s written a single review about it. There’s also Tin Man, a weird Wizard of Oz reimaging with Alan Cumming. Nobody really liked it that much or paid attention to it, and once again, critics haven’t reviewed it, and the audiences reviewed it with only a 60%, which is like, yeah, sure. It’s fine! But “Best Miniseries” worthy? Hell no. And worst of all, Andromeda Strain was nominated, an adaptation of a book of the same name by Michael Crichton, my favorite author. Guy who wrote Jurassic Park. Well, the Andromeda Strain was critically panned, and nobody watched it. I saw it. I can confirm it sucks. So that’s what the competition was. Of course, John Adams was going to win all this crap. Also, the director, Tom Hooper. I’m not a big fan of Tom Hooper. I like one of his movies, The King’s Speech, but not so much for the direction so much for the really good performances.
Directors get a lot of flexing, but they’re not really completely responsible for everything that goes into a movie either though, and that’s even more true to television sometimes. I think a screenwriter has a lot of power too, I think producers do. The director is critical. Don’t get me wrong. But in this show, the direction is insignificant. Tom Hooper, in case you don’t know, he did the Les Misérables with Hugh Jackman, which some people like, some hated. I tried not to fall asleep. It’s fine. I’d rather watch the stage version. I wasn’t in the mood that day, but it was fine. He also did the Cats movie. Don’t groan. You should watch Cats. Oh, it’s worth it, I promise it’s worth it. Cats is a horrible movie, but it’s so bad it’s good. So definitely check it out. It’s like a lesson in what not to do. And Tom Hooper allegedly wanted the cat people to have buttholes. And thankfully someone said “no.” I wish I was kidding. Weird director. But, uh, back to John Adams, it swept the Emmys, it is a good show, but it’s good, not all-time great.
So now we’ll get to the book and the actual show’s really quick summary. This map is in Spanish because when I looked for a map of the 13 colonies, it was like, maps for babies. They were highly inaccurate maps and they would show the colonies as the states that they are today. Like it shows Maine as its own thing, when Maine was part of Massachusetts back then. So, the map’s in Spanish, deal with it, I’m sure that’s hard here in Galicia. The colonies looked very different from the states that they are today, but these are the original 13 colonies. Adams was from here in Massachusetts, born and raised. He never set foot out of Massachusetts until the American Revolution came and he was called to come down to Philadelphia. OK, time to move on to the next slide.
Yay! People dying, that’s exciting. The Boston Massacre. Okay, let’s talk about it. The Boston Massacre is almost like the first case of police brutality in the history of the United States. March 5th, 1770. The British had occupied the colonies because they had just gone to what is arguably the first world war in human history.
The Seven Years’ War, nearly every major country in the world and all their colonies were fighting each other. At the time, the British came out on top. To protect themselves from any possible incursions from their rivals, they occupied the colonies and on top of this, they were bankrupt after this war. So they started taxing nonstop and unsurprisingly, people hated this. The British passed had previously The Stamp Act in 1765, and absolutely everything that you could buy, food, education, legal fees, any kind of supply, even a stamp. Plus, you had to pay in coins, not paper, just as an extra annoyance. It was nuts. And the colonists had no representatives to speak for themselves about this. The Stamp Act was repealed after a lot of people, including John Adams, spoke out or wrote against it. And then guess what the British did. They said “We still need money, taxing the colonies like that didn’t work. Wait, here’s an idea, let’s tax the colonies!” And then that’s where we get the Townshend Acts starting in 1767, which were even worse than The Stamp Act. So, many colonists hated the British at this point, and the ones that didn’t still had their grievances.
Anyways, the night of the Boston Massacre, a bunch of kids were going around throwing snowballs at a lone British soldier, reinforcements come. The mob gets bigger, hundreds of people, sources vary, and they start throwing rocks. Some of them have clubs. They start throwing oyster shells too. And then at some point, somebody, no one knows who, walks behind the soldiers and yells “fire!” And there were bells going on at the time during the mob’s formation, which normally meant that there was a fire somewhere in town. So no one knows for certain if this was like someone just saying “fire,” to dare the troops, the captain saying “fire,” as a command, most likely not, or someone saw an actual fire or thought there was one, and was trying to warn people. It was a mess, and the soldiers shot five people in their panic.
This did not help the British case at all. They were already in hot water as it was. And this is really where the Americans started to decide that they had to make real change. The weirdest thing is that John Adams was the defense lawyer for these soldiers and successfully got them off charges. The soldiers that first fired the shots, they got brands on their thumbs. That was it. The rest of them got off scot-free. He proved their innocence basically. What’s weird about McCullough’s book is that he has two vague paragraphs about his. That’s all he talks about regarding the Boston Massacre. I did a Ctrl+F key search on my laptop because I had a PDF of the entire book, and I read the book and I was like, “where’s the Boston Massacre?” It’s a big deal. And this is what made John Adams famous. It is only brought up six times by name in the book. It basically just tells you John Adams defended them. And this is the largest amount of it. It doesn’t even tell you that he got them off or anything. Weirdly lacking. Yeah, very strange. Maybe it was covered too much but for a book for general audiences, you need the basics and critical events too!
It’s hard to say, but it was weird for me that he just ignored that. And, there is this quote by John Adams, basically explaining why he did what he did and defended the soldiers, even though he was a Massachusetts man, because he was an impartial person and he just wanted to do what he felt was right. Innocence is innocence, I don’t care who side it is, basically. A thought that everyone has a right to a free trial and hey, guess what? That stuff makes it into the constitution of the United States. This quote makes it into the miniseries too, more or less.
The miniseries is very different. The Boston Massacre is the first episode. It is the pilot episode. Later in the series, Adams sort of starts to take a back seat in his own story in this show, a small complaint, but the first episode is completely about John Adams, a hundred percent. Don’t get me wrong. He’s the main character, but they start to kind of focus on the other Founding Fathers a lot too, especially Jefferson and Franklin, and sometimes they make it seems like Adams had a passive role, not a critical one. Anyways, this first episode focused exclusively on Adams and the filming techniques that they use for this episode are neat. I think the first episode is well-directed and well-shot, but the rest of the series? It starts to abuse the camera techniques I’m gonna show, and they get egregious or lose effectiveness fast. But this first pilot is a strong pilot. And for TV, your pilot is so important, because a movie, you buy the movie tickets, you’re seeing the movie, you know, you’re done, you paid the guy. A TV series? You have to ensure that you have a consistent audience. So your pilot has to kick ass, or you’re gone. So luckily, the John Adams pilot goes kick ass. I mean, they tar and feather, a guy in the pilot. That’s pretty wizard. I’ve never seen that on TV. Tarring and feathering was, if you found someone you didn’t agree with, you dumped them with burning tar, which doesn’t kill them, but it hurts like hell. And then you put feathers on it, maybe make them ride through town on a wooden beam like that. In the show, this was done to demonstrate the things John Adams was taking a risk for by defending these soldiers during the Boston Massacre. To illustrate the tension in the world at the time. There’s another scene where there is a black witness telling people about the colonists’ role in antagonizing the troops, and everybody’s staring at him and the camera just zooms in on him. And people’s clenched knuckles are surrounding him. All of these close-ups and focus. And in the show, Abigail Adams, reads some of his defense he’s preparing. She gives some good criticism too, which serves him well, because speech was filled with all of this classical junk, quotes and philosophy, and it’s very scholarly and she’s like, “No one doubts that you’re a smart guy, but you need to stop showing off, like just defend the guys in focus.”
There is a weird choice in the pilot. John’s cousin, Samuel Adams, is kind of a mean and steamrolling guy in this pilot. They make him a little antagonistic. More than he was in real life. He actually encouraged John Adams to defend the soldiers in real life. But in the show, he’s like,
“What are you doing, defending these soldiers?” He’s representative of the Sons of Liberty’s pushback against the British, certainly, but poor Samuel Adams, regulated to a mediocre beer in real life and a fair trial hating jackass on screen.
And then you get the actual trial itself and, you know what, people love trials in film, My Cousin Vinny, A Few Good Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, all those and more, trials are an just easy way to get interest because it’s fun to debate. Oh, see this part of the clip, where it looks tilted? That’s called a Dutch angle. It’s a filming technique where basically you tilt the camera to create a sense of unease. This is the technique I mentioned earlier that the show abuses. I don’t mind it in the pilot. It’s utilized well in the pilot, to show you how chaotic things are, but the rest of the series, like there’ll be having a plain conversation, and the Dutch angles are giving me vertigo. It’s so needless and dare I say…pretentious? Tom Hooper is obsessed with Dutch angles. This show reeks of his worst tendencies sometimes. Go watch the scene of Anne Hathaway singing in Les Misérables and amplify all those techniques to be less restrained and for 500 minutes. That’s John Adams.
The miniseries also compressed the timeline a lot to the Boston Massacre’s fallout. These soldiers were not on trial until months later, but in the show, it’s like, the next day, you can see this soldier, he’s still bleeding from his head and in reality, the actual trial didn’t start until I think November or sometime around then. And the Massacre happened in March. I’ll play this clip of Adams seeing the Massacre. Fun fact, while it loads, one of the five people shot in the Boston Massacre, the very first one shot was a free black man named Crispus Attucks. He’s considered the first person to die for the revolution, a black icon in the modern era. (this clips plays) Over the shoulder shots while we follow his point of view. As you can see, they love the chaotic handheld camera and the Dutch angles to create that sense of unease. The shot of him, you know, walking into the square, tracking over his shoulder, gives you a more personalized viewpoint of it. John Adams himself actually wasn’t at the Massacre. He was in Boston at the time, yes. But he didn’t get to the spot until the next day. There were no bodies by the time he got there. He didn’t witness them shot the colonists or anything like that. But this is done again to invest your interest with our protagonist and to highlight that while he thought what happened was awful, he put truth and justice above all. I mean, when you’re doing historical dramas, it’s okay to compress things, to get the general idea across what really matters. For instance, Amadeus is not a historically accurate movie, but it captures Mozart’s personality perfectly. That’s who he was. He was an annoying little shit, but brilliant.
Another interesting event portrayed in the series is the first meeting of the Continental Congress. This time, the Continental Congress was brought up several times in this case in the book, unlike the Boston Massacre, but it’s kind of scattered throughout the book, a moving timeline, it’s brought up when relevant. The first Continental Congress was 56 delegates from 12 colonies. Georgia is the only state that didn’t send anybody because they were terrified the Native Americans they were at conflict with would attack them, so the British wouldn’t help them or would also attack them if they sent anybody to the Congress. They were way down south and kind of in contested territory there. The Continental Congress first met in Philadelphia in 1774 and these guys were not polite with each other. They were constantly bickering. You think US Congress now is bad? Yeah. But back then, everybody actually had different opinions and were allowed to express those opinions. Versus nowadays, it’s two stupid sides, you know, saying the same thing in unison, each one dunking on the other side. These guys were some of the most enlightened people of that era, all with very different plans and ideas on how to enact on them. All talking in the same room without air conditioning, and you put, you know, 56 people in a room like that together from different places…Well, you’re going to be working all day and night, especially when debating how to run a country and if to start a revolution. Unhinged stuff.
It should be noted, all the MVPs I’ve listed here were in the First Continental Congress, including John Adams. In the Second Congress, a lot of big names came along in second place. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe. Alexander Hamilton, two of these men are presidents and two of them are some of the best-known Founding Fathers ever. And they did critical things. But poor John Adams, whatever, they just kind of kept overlooking him. But he loved his country and was such an idealist that he sacrificed so much time away from his family and his good relationship with the British monarchy. He never even wanted to be in politics.
John Adams wanted to be a farmer and live a simple life, but his dad said “Nope, you’re getting an education.” And then in a scene in the show, John Adams is farming with one of his kids, and his son says “I like farming! I’ll do this when I’m an adult.” And then John tells his son “Nope, you’re getting an education.” That was a cool little parallel.
I also really liked the scene where Thomas Jefferson is presenting the freshly written and out of the oven Declaration of Independence and he’s saying, “all men are created equal.” Then, Ben Franklin and John Adams, both abolitionists, stare at him and they’re like, “Okay, what about slavery?” Again, Jefferson had 600 slaves. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant, amazingly educated, and clever man, but the man had 600 slaves, but he felt that no one would be ready for slaves having freedom. He said, “let’s focus on independence, not emancipation,” basically. And he almost definitely had a child with a slave mistress. “Slave mistress” translates to “raped,” here. So yeah, that’s Thomas Jefferson, very bad stuff staining the great achievements. The show touches on it a little but doesn’t get too bold.
Look at these guys in this photo. They’re screaming at each other. That’s great. This photo here, I like George Washington. He’s like, meekly quiet the whole time. He’s all humble, huh? And here we see a wigless Adams, sweaty. It’s again, very humanizing of these guys, screaming at each other all day, day in and day out. There’s a speech here when John Adams gets elected to the First Congress where they accept him. Odd speech because they borrow from a lot of other famous Americans and Adams’ letters, kind of to go straight to the point that John Adams is a lot like these modern speakers, he didn’t say these quotes exactly, but they’re giving him these quotes to kind of show you like the roots of like, you know, progressive thoughts in America. (this clip fails to play) Damn it. Okay. I’ll just spoil it for y’all, then. Who cares about the clip when you have me? Basically, Adams says something along the lines that all men are created equal, which is a Jefferson line. He also let freedom reign, which is a Martin Luther King Jr line. He gives this fiery oratory speech that borrows a lot of interesting ideas that come in much later parts of American history, but they’re trying to show you how good John Adams was with this stuff and how ahead of his time he was.
Onward to the next section, the third and final one I’ll talk about. The trip to Europe. This part’s fun. You guys must be excited for this. In the book, this is probably the biggest section of the previous two I just presented. This is the one that McCullough focuses on a lot because it really strained his marriage. Not that it’s strained his marriage in the sense and like they were in trouble of divorcing or anything, but Johnny lover boy was devastated that he had to be so far away from his wife, and Abigail was freaking lonely at home, and she was raising several children without him. Six kids, 4 of them lived to adulthood. Colonial era longevity, what a bitch it could be.
John Adams was doing his duty when he agreed to go to Europe, that was what he said, like, “That’s my destiny. I hate this. I don’t want it, but I have to do it. I don’t trust other people to do it. I got to do this.” Regarding the American Revolution, there was zero chance that the Americans would have beaten the British, if they did not have foreign help. And John Adams was sent over, along with Benjamin Franklin, to go talk to the French. And the French would wind up being the most important ally of the United States during the war, along with the Spanish. The French sent troops over, they trained American men, they gave money, they gave ships, they were critical. John Adams, it was freaking terrible at dealing with the French. If it was up to Adams, maybe the French wouldn’t have helped, and we could blame him for losing. I’m saying “we,” like I’m not the only American in this room. Anyways, if you thought John Adams was bad at talking to his fellow Americans, because he was too blunt, well, he was really, really bad at dealing with the French. Europeans…oh, I love you guys, but you guys love to talk. John Adams liked to get to the point, like an American, you can just get straight to the point, I promise you, I’m team Adams on this one. Sorry Spain, just don’t get all pee-pee hearted over it. Evidently, there’s no dilly-dallying in conversation in US culture since the colonial era, and John Adams was culture shocked when he saw the French, but Benjamin Franklin, oh, he loved it. He knew how to play the part. He went up in a costume, trying to look like a stereotypical American Sounds a little familiar. Can’t hear you mock my stars and stripes denim jacket over my freedom, sorry. But Benny boy, he went all out. He sleeping with all the women, charming all the royalty, making jokes and speaking philosophy, and he could speak French. He was in paradise. Adams was miserable, albeit impressed. He didn’t cheat on his wife, unlike Franklin. I’ll save us some time, but this is all brought up in the book, and yeah, there’s so many countries that helped the United States out: France, Spain, Denmark, Russia, Norway, Portugal, and the Netherlands.
Now this one’s important. John Adams was so bad with the friends that Benjamin Franklin basically kicked him out. He was like “You don’t know how to talk to these people. You’re being rude. You’re going to ruin it. We’re sending you somewhere else.” So he sent him to the Netherlands. Where there? Well, because for getting aid from another nation, it’s smart to throw everything at the wall and ask everyone around, see what sticks, look at Ukraine today, but also because the Dutch culture is a lot more similar to American culture than like French culture. Dutch is the closest language to English by a landslide, and the Dutch weren’t as snobby as the French. They founded New York City, you know. For Adams, it was much harder to deal with the French, especially when you’re getting out shined by your buddy, Benjamin Franklin. A perfect example of how to do it, whereas Adams was a human disaster. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie to fight Britain at the time. The British were not very liked, I guess some things never change, but they weren’t liked because they were just victorious in the Seven Years’ War. Plus, everyone at the time was kind of catching on to these ideas of enlightenment and freedom. The French aristocrats would regret that pretty soon. And then, who wouldn’t want a new trade partner with access to a giant continent with weird new spices and animals, right?
In the miniseries, Adams’ culture shock is well-portrayed. He’s on the verge of saying “Wow, these guys really like to waste money and just do nothing all day. Don’t they? And we have a war where people are dying. I’d like to get some ships, please.” And then he basically does at one point! There’s a shot I added of poor, lonely Abigail cleaning, trying to keep herself busy and not think about missing her husband when she’s not trying to help him with the revolution. She was writing him letters and he wasn’t writing them nearly as much in return because he was so busy. She must have dreaded things or worried if he still loved her or took another woman too, because Ben Franklin was notoriously a womanizer and adults. I have a photo of Franklin in his stereotypical getup for seducing monarch and ladies alike. Then here we are with a photo of the decadent Louis the 16th, who is a condescending brat! He’s in his twenties at this point and he runs the nation and does nothing all day. He gets his head chopped off soon, good news.
I saved the best for last. My favorite scene in the series is when John walks in on Benjamin Franklin in the bath naked with a mistress playing chess and behind him, there is a bust of himself. Adams tries to avert his poor eyes at the sight, and Franklin just doesn’t care. Then, Adams tells Franklin that Franklin was appointed as the sole delegate for France, so Adams has basically been fired from this job. Gee, I wonder who was responsible, well, it’s obviously Benjamin Franklin, since he’s the only guy who can testify to Adams’ performance in France. So Adams is telling his just-laid boss, “You successfully fired me.” What a flex by Franklin.
There is this clip that I wanted to show. I hope this clip works, cause this one’s good. It’s John Adams talking to the Dutch and again- oh, sweet, it works. Here we go. (this clip plays) The Dutch experience was very different from the French experience. At first, he failed to get the Dutch to give loans to the Americans to get money for the war. He actually did succeed later. I love this scene because it’s so funny. Like, he’s just completely out of his element. I love these shots of him completely in the dark, literally and visually. He doesn’t know quite what to do. Weird that there aren’t many Dutch angles when he meets the Dutch, right?
John Adams was this awkward man who really wanted to do the right thing, but had no idea how to play the game. Which is why he only served one term. Thomas Jefferson beat him in his re-election campaign. First election campaign, actually, since Washington just sort of took two terms without issue. They had among the nastiest campaigns in US history until the 2016 and 2020 campaign. They were friends and they’d worked on the Declaration of Independence together, but at one point Adams and Jefferson just did not see eye to eye, especially with federalism and abolition. Jefferson’s team called John Adams, a hermaphrodite, fat, a British sympathizer, all that. And Adams’s team accused Jefferson of sleeping with a slave and a hypocrite. That’s actually true. But they also did nonsense attacks of Jefferson being dangerous or an atheist. They were really like throwing everything they could at each other. But when you weirdly enough, they reignited their friendship much later via letters and kept up a correspondence. They both died on July 4th. Really! John Adams’ last words were “Jefferson lives!” because he knew he was about to die, and Jefferson outlived him.
Anyways, I’ll wrap up rather than indulge in nerd stuff. The book is this compilation of letters and the timeline kind of jumps a little bit or ignores big moments, maybe it doesn’t ask hard questions too much, but it’s very focused on its purpose. The show is more straightforward, but it compresses the timeline to make it more exciting, or shoehorns in big names people are familiar with to make big ideas more clear for average TV viewers. Here’s John Adams, he’s indecisive, but being indecisive in the American Revolution…well, not making a decision was a BIG decision, because guess what? That means you weren’t on the colonist’s side, soon to be victorious. John Adams was very hesitant to get into it, but he did. And many people were hesitant. Most Founding Fathers saw independence as a last resort, especially war.
The book definitely dives into this, and it goes back and forth. It also shows that John couldn’t have done it without the support of his wife, he would not have been able to succeed so much. The show does this too. Abigail was his best friend. She pushed him to be better. They learned everything they could from each other, and it worked. When he was left to his own devices, man, he did not know what he was doing. And as president, he was constantly getting criticized or found himself without support or allies because he alienated people too often. He was only able to do those few achievements. That’s not very much for a president, and one of the big “achievements” was pretty bad, but he was pressured into that achievement cause he was trying to get popular again and then it made him more unpopular. Alien and Sedition Acts sucked.
Overall, I think McCullough’s book is better than the show it inspired, but the show’s not bad. 23 Emmy nominations, get out of here, but it’s good, especially for people that aren’t familiar of this era. So it actually does a really good job of honoring the book’s purpose of making history come alive for a worldwide general audience. For decades in the United States, the Founding Fathers, people would do this glorified history of them. Even to this day. They also just wouldn’t talk much about John Adams and on top of that, this show made it a lot more humanized. I mean, the lighting is nice and clean, candlelight stuff, basically. At least it tries to be accurate. It’s a big difference from other movies or shows. Has anyone seen The Patriot with Mel Gibson? There’s a scene where the British redcoats lead a group of people into a church, close it and burn it down, like it’s the Holocaust. Straight out of Come and See. That never happened in the American Revolution. They make them like Nazis! And there’s a great scene in The Patriot, a huge guilty pleasure for me, but there’s a great scene where Mel Gibson spears an evil British officer’s horse with the American flag. That’s fucking awesome. But you get my point, historical adaptations can be wild, and John Adams is not like that. It’s a lot more grounded, and while it’s a nice change, we also shouldn’t take it as actual history. Woof, I’ve talked enough. Thank y’all for listening.
“David McCullough.” Academy of Achievement, January 31, 2022. https://achievement.org/achiever/david-mccullough/.
Dwyer, Jim. “Scholars Steeped in Dead Politicians Take On a Live One: Donald Trump.” The New York Times, July 12, 2016.
Ellis, Kirk. John Adams. Miniseries. 1, no. 1–7. New York, New York: HBO, 2001.
“First Continental Congress.” ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association. Accessed April 28, 2022. https://www.ushistory.org/declaration/related/congress.html.
“First Lady Biography: Abigail Adams.” National First Ladies’ Library. Museum/Saxton McKinley House. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=2.
McCullough, David G. John Adams. Alexandria Library, 2001.
Petry, Jerry. “2008–60th Emmy Awards.” Emmys. Television Academy. https://www.emmys.com/awards/nominees-winners/2008/outstanding-miniseries-or-movie.
Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved April 23, 2022.
Sherman, Jerome L. “Presidential biographer gets Presidential Medal”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 16, 2006.
Stern, Jeremy. “What’s Wrong with HBO’s Dramatization of John Adams’s Story.” History News Network. Columbian College of Arts & Sciences. http://hnn.us/article/56155.