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





For good or ill, most people today receive their historical knowledge from television rather than the written word, especially as today's news quickly becomes tomorrow's history. In writing the HBO miniseries John Adams, my intent was not to portray the "external facts" of the American Revolution (as Thomas Jefferson phrased it in one of his late-life letters to Adams). Rather, it was to depict an internal history, an epic of thoughts and ideas refracted through the singular prism of one man who helped shape those events. I have always tried to be scrupulous in my approach to the historical record, whether the subject be John Adams or some of my previous subjects, like Judy Garland, Anne Frank or, yes, even the Three Stooges. A dramatist's "truth," however, often involves departing from the letter of that record in order to personify the spirit of the people and the times more fully.

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....

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