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Exchange: Ellis On The Fourth Hour Of 'John Adams'

Adapting a book is largely a process of omission.
John Patrick Diggins, author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series, Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, and Kirk Ellis, writer and co-executive producer of the HBO miniseries "John Adams," are discussing the show on This is the eighth entry in their conversation. (Follow their complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.)

Click here to read the previous entry in the discussion.

Dear Steve and Jack,

Happy to be part of the discussion. Thanks to both of you for your continued enthusiasm for the miniseries--and for the provocative questions.

Steve, you make facetious reference to that scene of "Founding Father sex" that opens the main action of Part 4. Critic Tom Carson in GQ called that moment "the nerviest scene Tom Hanks has ever okayed," and truth be told, the opportunity to show the Adams’s lovemaking was very much on all our minds from the outset. John and Abigail were a passionate couple, and their letters are often spiced with sophisticated sexual innuendo. My favorite example comes in reply to one of Abigail's letters to John while he is serving as vice president in Philadelphia. Reminded that he is 60 years old, Adams insists, "If I were near I would soon convince you that I am not above 40."

I'll admit that my early drafts had the couple hopping into bed a trifle more frequently than they do in the finished program, but John and Abigail's reunion in Paris seemed to be the one natural place to dramatize their physical as well as intellectual ardor. Research? Oh, good heavens, as Paul Giamatti's Adams is wont to say. Sometimes you can rely on the fact that people are just people. At this point in the series, John and Abigail have been physically apart for over three years. What I love about the way that scene plays out on film--how the director, Tom Hopper, staged it and how delicately Paul and Laura Linney play it--is that the sex must be deferred until after all the protocol of Abigail's arrival has played out, that uneasy stratification of public and private spaces that was so much a part of the 18th-century lifestyle. (Regarding the darkness and semi-audibility of those intimate Adams/Abigail scenes you mention, Jack, that's probably more a function of the review copies you received; it's all sharp and clear in high-definition, which is, I suppose, why it's called "high-definition.")

Jack, you regret the loss of Abigail's sea crossing. Adapting a book and life that are so rich in material is largely the process of omission, and all deletions are painful. I'd outlined Abigail's journey in my original treatment, but it was one of the first things to be jettisoned, especially in light of the vividness of Adams’s own, even more perilous crossing. Sometimes one event must stand in for all such similar events--and that sequence would have been hard to top. On a side note, Adams’s sea crossing survived the various budget and creative discussions for an important reason: It is the one moment where we see Adams become physically active in his patriotism; unlike, say, Jefferson, he picks up a gun and fires it in defense of his country.

I'm not surprised, Jack, that you worry we've given the Constitution too short shrift. The single greatest challenge facing me in adapting David's book was the inescapable historical fact that both Adams and Jefferson remained abroad during the Constitutional Convention, and that our Adams-exclusive point of view did not allow for cutbacks to the debates in Philadelphia. Originally, I'd attempted to solve that dilemma by expanding David's lovely account of Adams and Jefferson's English garden tour into an extended sequence during which the two men's very different views on government would be discussed in the context of their knowledge of the foment at home, including Shay's Rebellion--yet another instance of unfettered public expression that helped to reconfirm Adams in his distrust of human nature and the necessity for strong executive governance.

I loved those sequences (I still do), but Tom Hooper saw them--rightly--as a long detour, and one that pointed up the very problem they were trying to solve: namely, calling attention to the fact that Adams and Jefferson weren't in Philadelphia and first saw the Constitution in their respective ambassadorial posts. Some of the dialogue from that garden tour found its way into that equally pastoral scene with Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin that you've commented upon. But mostly the material was reconceived in the action that informs the next two episodes, dealing with Adams’s vice presidency and presidency, during which I think you'll be satisfied that all three of your very salient points about Adams are addressed. And if you think Jefferson already looks like "the Trotsky of the 18th century" (wonderful phrase, that), stay tuned--you ain't seen nothin' yet.

For the next entry in the conversation, click here.

John Patrick Diggins is a professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series. Kirk Ellis is the writer and co-executive producer of HBO's John Adams. Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief of and author of the newly released Founding Faith.

By John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, and Steven Waldman