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One for the Books

The writer of HBO's 'John Adams' on when it is acceptable to rewrite history.
John Adams

The "truth" I sought to illuminate in the miniseries was emotional and intellectual rather than literal. With every historical project I've done, the next-day bloggers often make the assumption that filmmakers alter "facts" either out of ignorance or negligence. In fact, a good deal of soul-searching goes into every deviation from the record; nothing is arbitrary. Some changes are made deliberately from the outset, with an eye to the overall structure of the piece; others arise as a result of production exigencies. But all aim to further the broader goal of making "history" accessible in dramatic form.

A screenwriter always seeks economy in storytelling. Of course I knew that there were two Boston Massacre trials, not one. But the audience would not have thanked us for devoting the whole of the first episode to an examination of courtroom procedure, with two separate verdicts rendered. The key dramatic points are Adams's decision to defend Captain Preston and his soldiers, and his success at exonerating them on the charge of murder. Both points are "factual." Has there been some manipulation involved in the dramatization? Absolutely. But the outcome of the proceedings has not been altered.

Similarly, while it is "history" that Adams made not one, but two trips to France between 1778 and 1780 (and the second trip, involving a perilous winter crossing of the Pyrenees, is arguably even more dramatic than the first), the miniseries depicts only his initial crossing in 1778 on the frigate Boston. As with the compression of the two Boston Massacre trials, showing both crossings would have unnecessarily elongated the dramatic story, and the crossing on the Boston, with its chase-on-the-high-seas action, stands in for the dangers Adams encountered on both voyages. That first crossing was the only time in which Adams directly participated in the war--firing as a common marine at the pursuing armed British merchantmen--and thus seemed the natural choice.

Other changes are necessitated by structure. John and Abigail are our only conduits through which to witness the principal action, and their story takes precedence over any other. John Quincy and Nabby are left out of the Paris and London scenes in order to emphasize the emotional renewal of the Adams marriage and the burgeoning friendship with Jefferson, the mercurial course of which provides the emotional and thematic underpinning of the latter episodes.

Are mistakes sometimes made? Sure. In Part 5, Adams is shown breaking a Senate tie over ratification of the Jay Treaty. That never happened: The treaty passed with a two-thirds majority, as required by the Constitution. Adams did cast more tie-breaking votes than any other vice-president, and always on the side of the administration. But in retrospect, the scene now seems too much of stretch, the one example of "manufactured drama" in the miniseries; we should have reconsidered its inclusion.

A script must be fluid as it moves off the page and onto the shooting floor. Two weeks before we were due to wrap shooting in Hungary, where daytime temperatures often exceeded 107 degrees, one of the two soundstages on which we had built the interiors for Adams’s house in Peacefield was consumed in a fire. As even a one-hour delay in shooting was out of the question, scenes originally set inside the house were restaged outside. Unexpectedly, without a single change in action or dialogue, the scenes played more autumnal, more elegiac than they would have indoors, greatly adding to the completed episode's mood and tone. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the set caught fire on July 2 last year, the same day in 1776 that the Second Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain, and the day Adams always thought should have been celebrated as our true Independence Day. I like to think of it as the ghost of John Adams encouraging us to strive ever harder for "truth, nature, and fact.")

Experience has taught me to listen to actors' and directors' insights and to be flexible as far as changes are concerned, especially when such precise actors as Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are involved. Bad actors often clamor for more dialogue; it is the good ones who understand the need for less. In the course of shooting, some 30 percent of the originally scripted "pillow talk" between John and Abigail fell away; at times--as in the reunion scene that opens Part 4--it vanished altogether. The characters' very inarticulateness said more about the awkwardness of their situation than any words possibly could.

I have repeatedly read reviews to the effect that "every word of dialogue is taken directly from the Adams letters." Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the signature speeches in the show--notably Adams's oration for independence--are largely invented. While the letters provided a guide to thought and vocabulary, nothing could have been drier than a direct recitation. Rather, the effort was to get beneath the text of the letter to their intellectual and emotional core and render those thoughts in the majestic language of the period.

An example: Frustrated by Adams's long silence in Europe, Abigail writes that she fears he "has exchanged hearts with some frozen Laplander" and worries of a cooling of his affections--a wonderful phrase that once had a place in the script itself. That, along with so many other epistolary moments, is absent from the finished film. But that letter underpins the lovely scene in Part 3 where young Nabby finds her mother obsessively scrubbing windows in the middle of the night, resulting in Abigail unburdening herself to her daughter and finding some solace.

Some people--too many, for my taste--have called the film "slow" or "pokey" as a result of its emphasis on such moments. How a miniseries that opens with the Boston Massacre--and goes on in its first two-and-a-half hours to include a brutal tar-and-feathering, the aftermath of Concord, and the writing of the Declaration of Independence--could ever be described as "slow" still eludes me. The miniseries is by no means lacking in incident or spectacle, but it doesn't dwell on those events that pass for action in today's frenetic society. Yes, it demands an audience pay attention--but that's not the same thing as being "slow." We never thought it necessary to condescend or talk down to our audience. The program's deliberate pace reflects that of the period it depicts, a time when people were more contemplative, more attuned to responsibility and the consequences of their actions, and not afraid of patience and perseverance, of eloquence and erudition.

"Facts are stubborn things," noted Adams (quoting Jonathan Swift) in his Boston Massacre summation. But well-told history is also drama. David McCullough, upon whose masterful book the miniseries is based, understands this; it's what has made his books best-sellers--and eminently adaptable. Though they may not have said it outright in our exchange on this site, Steven Waldman and John Patrick Diggins both seem to agree with this assessment of history. The process of screenwriters, academics, and popular historians, I think, is much the same. We make our choices from the historical record to tell the story that best suits our purposes. The line between "history" and "drama" is a fine one, indeed. It is in the intersection between those two different, but not always mutually exclusive, realms that our John Adams miniseries exists. Hopefully, our viewers will utilize it as another tool to construct their own vision of our founding past.

Kirk Ellis is the screenwriter and co-producer of the HBO miniseries.

By Kirk Ellis