Sunlit Water

March 25, 2008


Filed under: Culture,Language,Politics — by teofilo @ 9:07 pm

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying both HBO’s John Adams and Matthew Yglesias’s posts on the strategic issues involved in the Revolution taking the miniseries as a starting point (though I think there are some serious problems with his understanding of the British perspective).  With regard to the show as a whole, I think Jill Lepore’s take is basically accurate: the production values and attention to historical detail are first-rate, while the portrayal of Adams himself is pretty far off.  Not only is Paul Giamatti not much like Adams in any way, his role in events does seem a bit overemphasized.

That said, I think Lepore’s interpretation of the way events are portrayed is a little off, or at least not necessarily the only way to see it.  She sees the series as showing Adams as the hero who is always right, and his adversaries (Dickinson in the second episode, Franklin in the third) as villainous rogues out to ruin Adams and his plans.  While this is certainly how Adams sees things, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to conclude that this is how we the viewers are intended to see them as well.  It basically requires the assumption that, because the makers of the show decided to make a miniseries about Adams, his perspective is the one they want people to take.  While Adams certainly does come across as something of a hero with this assumption in mind, if you take it away there are many other ways to interpret the portrayal of events, and I see no particular reason to adopt it.  The rich detail naturally supports many alternative readings of the complex events shown, and as Yglesias points out in the first post linked above, Dickinson actually comes across rather well in the second episode if you listen to him from a neutral rather than a pro-Adams perspective.  Similarly, in the third episode, it’s easy to see how Adams feels betrayed by Franklin and uncomfortable with the decadence of the French aristocracy, but it’s totally clear that Franklin is right that the support of that aristocracy is crucial for the American cause (and it’s also fairly clear that Adams understands this).  Basically, my interpretation of the show is that we are definitely meant to sympathize with Adams, but not necessarily to agree with him.

It remains true, however, that Giamatti’s Adams is considerably more likable than the historical Adams, and while this may be a result of basing the series on McCullough’s book (which I haven’t read), it also seems pretty necessary to make him a suitably sympathetic character.  As I said to Ari, however, I don’t think this is necessarily a fatal flaw.  You just have to suspend disbelief a bit and treat Adams as a mostly fictional character who just happens to do all the things the real John Adams did.  It’s the other characters who really make the show come to life.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the language component, and I was interested to see that the “mixed” accents of most of the characters were deliberate, to portray the actual mix of dialects and the similarities between those of the British and American characters.  I had noticed that many of the Americans sound somewhat “British,” which I had assumed was partly due to most of them being played by British actors, but it seems that this is actually to obscure the usual sharp linguistic division between the British and the Americans in dramatizations of the Revolution.  This is certainly an admirable attitude to take, and I think they pull it off pretty well.  My only quibble is that it seems the attempt to create “mixed” accents has resulted primarily in making the Americans sound more British, while in my understanding of the English of this period (and I’m hardly an expert) is that it was actually more like modern American dialects.  That is, while the various dialects of England and America were more similar then than they are now, it’s actually the British dialects that have changed more in the intervening 200 years, so it’s more likely that the British would have sounded more like modern Americans than (as the show has it) that the Americans would sound more like modern Britons.  Like I say, though, I’m no expert on this, and there are of course limits to how much can be known about it anyway, so it’s really a very small point that doesn’t detract from a very good show.



  1. I would just like to 1) say I, too, like these history posts, and 2) say I haven’t seen the HBO miniseries so I don’t know whether 3) my recommendation of The Age of Federalism (which I think I’ve made before) is relevant.

    Comment by eb — March 25, 2008 @ 9:16 pm |Reply

  2. It probably is, but the series hasn’t gotten that far yet. The third episode ends in 1781 or so. There are likely going to be some pretty dramatic leaps in time coming up.

    Comment by teofilo — March 25, 2008 @ 9:30 pm |Reply

  3. Basically, my interpretation of the show is that we are definitely meant to sympathize with Adams, but not necessarily to agree with him.

    I agree 100%. Especially in the third episode, the viewer can sympathize with Adams’ frustration with being placed in a role to which he is clearly ill-suited, but at the same time the viewer is provided with ample evidence that every criticism that Franklin levels against him is wholly justified. Adams is a terrible diplomat, and one wonders how it came about that anyone in America thought sending him to France was a good idea. Maybe they just wanted to send him as far away as possible?

    Comment by My Alter Ego — March 26, 2008 @ 10:48 am |Reply

  4. Yeah, I think the third episode is the one that most clearly shows Adams’s flaws, which I expect will likely become more pronounced in future episodes.

    Comment by teofilo — March 26, 2008 @ 5:40 pm |Reply

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