John Adams: Historical Accuracy And Artistic License

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

HBO's current miniseries "John Adams," which is based on historian David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the same name, is earning praise from television critics for an historical accuracy and gritty realism that is as close to the real thing as we are able to imagine.

Jeffrey Hyson, Ph.D., assistant professor of history at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, says the art direction creates a stunning portrait of life during the Founding Era. "The series really helps viewers appreciate the grittiness and difficulty of daily living in the late eighteenth century – from primitive smallpox inoculations and grisly amputations to the omnipresence of animal manure both on farms and in cities."

As an historian of popular culture who has researched the portrayal of the Revolution and the Founders in both movies and television, Hyson has high hopes for the success of this series. "The track record for Revolutionary-era movies and TV is pretty miserable, and no one's quite sure why," he says. "Are the Founders too 'perfect' to seem human? Too conservative? Too radical? Are the wigs too goofy?"

As John Adams, Hyson says actor Paul Giamatti has captured his all too human passion and bluster quite well. But in terms of historical accuracy, he notes a quibble. "After seeing the first few episodes, I have to say the series does occasionally make Adams seem more central to every 'Great Event of the Founding Era' than he really was."

For instance, says Hyson, Thomas Paine's Common Sense was crucial in pushing colonists from resistance to rebellion in 1776.

"But in HBO's version, Adams almost single-handedly engineered the fight for independence," he says. "To be sure, Adams did lead the pro-independence faction in the Continental Congress. However, it would have helped if the series had pointed out some of the influences beyond Congress that were moving colonial opinion toward revolution."

Perhaps, adds Hyson, television may not be the best medium for capturing the history of ideas. Hyson is available to discuss "John Adams" at jhyson@sju.edu, 610-660-1746, or by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-660-1222




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