Book & Miniseries Review ‘John Adams’

Ben Miles

During this pandemic period – with the duel illnesses of racism and COVID-19–I’ve been using the downtime to indulge in a homemade study of American history. I’ve coupled the reading of David McCullough’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “John Adams,” with watching the 2008 HBO miniseries based on this McCullough masterwork.

The miniseries was lauded with 13 Emmy awards, including for Outstanding Miniseries, Outstanding Directing (Tom Hooper), Outstanding Lead Actor (Paul Giamatti, as John Adams), Outstanding Actress ( Laura Linney, as Abigail Adams) and Outstanding Supporting Actor, (Tom Wilkinson, as Benjamin Franklin).

Though it’s a challenge to adapt a 751-page historical tome into a seven-part miniseries, Kirk Ellis was also rightfully awarded an Emmy for the task of transforming McCullough’s detailed biography into a teleplay.

The miniseries begins in Boston in 1770, as Adams, in the spirit of justice, accepts his lawyerly duty to defend the British Soldiers who shot and killed five colonists, three more were injured. Many historians mark this bloody encounter, which came to be known as the Boston Massacre, as the first casualties of the Revolutionary War.

Due to Adams’s courageous display of legal acumen on behalf of the British infantrymen – six of the soldiers were acquitted and two were found guilty of manslaughter with their guilt to be literally branded on their hands – Adams is brought to the attention of other colonial dignitaries.

The intensity of Adam’s commitment to law and justice is embodied in Giamatti’s sturdy performance. The man who would become a pillar among the Founding Fathers of our nation and would serve as our country’s second president came to the attention of the colonists far and wide as well as to the attention of the King of England. Indeed, John Adams was an American original; as a persuasive orator and as a keen legal mind his rhetorical skills and intellectual abilities helped form the notions of the fledging republic.

The devotion that John and Abigail Adams held for one another is underscored throughout the book and the miniseries. In the book, Abigail points out at that after 14-years of marriage, she and John had spent seven years apart. Nevertheless, their marriage endure for over five decades, until her death in 1818.

Together John and Abigail brought six children into the world, including John Quincy Adams – who became the sixth president of the United States.

Also made evident in both the book and the miniseries is the profound frenemy-ship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Jefferson was leery of a strong central government, while Adams favored – like Alexander Hamilton – a powerful federal authority. Both men, however, are among those who forged our nation. Jefferson and Adams each departed the earth on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

What’s less clear in the miniseries but detailed through McCullough’s meticulous research is Adams’s family tree. John Adams’s father (also named John Adams) was a clergyman, a path that the younger John was thought likely to follow. Adams’s time at Harvard College is given scant notice in the miniseries but was, according to the book, life-shaping for Adams. Nor is the time Adams spent as a schoolmaster addressed in the miniseries, though it comprises a significant part in the shaping of Adams’s character, according to McCullough.

Even a seven-episode miniseries can’t have the scope of a 700-plus page book. Still, coupling the reading of the book “John Adams” with a viewing of the miniseries “John Adams” provides a multi-sensory lesson in American history. McCullough’s work gives us a scholarly perspective of John Adams, while the miniseries provides a more aesthetic portrayal of the life and times of John Adams. Together the book and the miniseries yield a powerful insight into our country’s history.

“John Adams,” the book is available in libraries and wherever books are sold (ISBN Paperback: 978-1-4165-7588-7; ISBN Hardcover: 0684813637).

“John Adams,” the HBO miniseries is available on demand to HBO subscribers.


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