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BY EMMA EDWARDS
Historical dramas often provoke exasperation among historians for what they perceive as gross inaccuracies and simplifications. Both Tudor historian David Starkey and Hilary Mantel, award winning author of the historical fiction series that offers a new perspective on the life of Thomas Cromwell, criticised Showtime’s The Tudors for straying too far from the chronology and realities of the court of Henry VIII. While most historians would concede that tv dramas and films need to deviate somewhat from the recorded timelines for dramatic effect, producers should not patronise or underestimate their audience. People who are driven to watch historical dramas tend to have a wider interest in and knowledge of history and appreciate narratives that are receptive to the complexities and nuances of the past. Good historical drama can provoke a deeper awareness that history is not black and white and can propel viewers to further reading to gain a more complete understanding of the subject matter. Excellent historical drama reminds viewers that history itself is often the result of competing interpretations, deviating enough from stale mainstream versions to explore the political and social forces that confer a mythic quality to certain events and actors.
HBO’s often overlooked 2008 miniseries John Adams achieves this level of sophistication with intelligent writing and superb acting with Paul Giamatti as the eponymous lawyer turned reluctant revolutionary and second president of the young United States and Laura Linney as his wife and chief counsel. The story is refreshingly told through the eyes of a figure central to its history but often overlooked by historians. Running through the series is an implicit awareness that it is not Adams that history has recorded as one of the chief architects of an independent American state and we watch as the son of a Massachusetts farmer has to come to the terms with the fact that, even in his own lifetime, he was being squeezed out of the holy trinity of the revolution by the higher profile figures of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. The drama flies in the face of the hyberbole and excessive romanticism surrounding the War of Independence, depicting the revolution not as a sudden spark (which must be tempting in tv land) but as a slow burn of indignation against the intransigence of the metropole. The opening episode devotes much time to Adams’s successful defence of the soldiers who took part in the Boston massacre. A later scene finds Adams wondering at his unlikely transformation into ambassador to the Court of St. James’s on behalf of the newly formed ‘States United’; as he is presented to George III the viewer can appreciate his inner turmoil as he speaks to his former sovereign in the guise of a foreign diplomat.
While the drama takes some liberties with the timeline, the dialogue is largely based on correspondence from the time-the many letters that passed between Adams and his wife Abigail form an important commentary on the course of the revolution and the foundation and beginnings of the new state. Historians have accused the writers of over-exaggerating a rift between Adams and his somewhat wayward son Charles but they cannot claim that the drama over-emphasises the friction between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. While their political disagreements and rivalry is depicted, so too is their understanding of each other and their attempts at reconciliation. This drama is also stripped of the glamour, gloss and sheen that is often an implausible feature of historical dramas. Instead makeup is minimal, clothes are soiled and teeth blacken and disappear with the passage of time.
What the drama does brilliantly is capture the process by which history transforms into myth. An aging Adams despairs of ‘modern history’ and the inaccuracies surrounding the revolution and its leaders, for the better and for the worse. One of the dramas most thought-provoking scenes involves a very elderly Adams being shown the artist Trumbell’s famous painting which depicts the committee’s presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. Adams lambasts the painting as a falsehood; at no point, Adams asserts, during the summer of 1776 were all the celebrated figures presented in the painting, in the same room, at the same time-rather signatures were affixed whenever the delegates happened to be in Philadelphia. Thus John Adams is as much about the process of history as it is about chronicling the life of a farmer’s son, lawyer, revolutionary, diplomat, vice president, president and father of a president.
John Adams: Written by Kirk Ellis, based on the book by David McCullough and directed by Tom Hooper.