HBO's "John Adams" Doesn't Go Hollywood

Bill Steigerwald
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Posted: Mar 10, 2008 3:55 PM
HBO's "John Adams" Doesn't Go Hollywood

When Hollywood's movie-makers and docu-dramatists get their hands on American history, accuracy, reality and truth often are tortured beyond recognition. But starting at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 16, HBO Films will be delivering the seven-part, nine-hour mini-series "John Adams." Co-executive produced by Tom Hanks, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams, it is by all accounts a high-quality, historically accurate and meticulously faithful adaptation of super-historian David McCullough's blockbuster 2001 book of the same name. McCullough, whose 2005 best-seller "1776" is also in development by HBO, is a two-time winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His "John Adams" biography -- a huge critical and commercial success -- reminded the masses that the often-forgotten second president of the United States was a major intellectual force and a courageous political player in the country's miraculous founding. I recently talked to McCullough about the making of the HBO series by phone from his home in West Tisbury, Mass.

Q: I presume that by now you've seen the final cut of "John Adams"?

A: I have not seen the final cut because there is still editing being done for the last hours. But I have seen the evolution of the project from the very beginning, all the way along over the last three, nearly four years. I've seen every version of the script for each episode and I have seen the preliminary rough cut, the secondary rough cut and so forth for all of the episodes. I can tell you that I am more than pleased with the quality, the look, the integrity of it all. It is superb.

Q: What is the most important message or point of the book that you wanted to make sure was going to be carried forth by the mini-series?

A: I wanted very much for the medium, which is a very different medium from a book, to convey the reality of those times -- the hardships and sufferings that the protagonists experienced and all that they went through -- and to catch particularly the character of John and Abigail Adams. When you make the decision to turn a book you have done over to filmmakers, you are really trusting in their integrity. And after meeting Tom Hanks and spending time with him, and talking about the book, and talking about particular characters and particular scenes in the book, I was convinced that he was the right person to do the job -- and I have had no reason whatever to change my mind.

I think that they have not only been meticulous in every detail to achieve authenticity -- every prop, all the costumes, every set, every interior and exterior view -- but they've also been true to the vocabulary of the time, the language, so that one feels very much transported into a different world.

It's going to be the 18th century -- and particularly, of course, the 18th century in this country -- as Americans have never seen it before. It's not a costume pageant; it's the way life was. You are going to see people with bad teeth and dirt under their fingernails. You are going to see a man tarred and feathered and it's going to be hard to watch, it's so awful. It wasn't just a sort of high school prank. Tar-and-feathering was torture. People died from it. You are going to experience the horror of smallpox and of someone having a leg amputated without anesthetics. It's very real and entirely in keeping with the way it was.

Q: When you met with Tom Hanks was there anything he said that especially impressed you -- anything he saw in the book or a part of the story that he wanted to tell that told you "He gets it. He understands John Adams, the book, the man, the times"?

A: Yes. He understands that character is what counts, above all. We met in a little cafe in Ketchum, Idaho, for breakfast one morning. He had a copy of the book in which he had underlined scenes -- pages after pages, and he had written marginal notes. The thing looked like an autumn-leafed blizzard of Post-its all the way through it. So I knew he had really done his homework and that he knew exactly what he hoped to achieve -- and he wanted my opinion. As he later told the director and the cast and the screenwriter, "This is to be David McCullough's John Adams." He never varied from that. I must say, too, that one of the things that he has done that is so important is that he has brought enormous talent to this project. The performances by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are, to my mind, works of art. They are breathtaking. And the screenplay, by Kirk Ellis, could not be better.

Q: This is an amazing miracle considering what Hollywood ...

A: My wife tells me I have to hold back in my praise for what they have done, but I can't. It's everything I could have dreamed for, hoped for, and then some. It's nine hours -- they didn't try to compress everything into an hour and a half. I've been on the sets. I've been working with Kirk Ellis the whole way through. Very often, filmmakers will buy the rights to a book and then they'll keep the author as far in the distance as possible.

Q: They don't want the author to see the damage they are doing to his book.

A: They don't want you to see what they are doing. They don't want you to be putting your two cents' worth in. It was exactly the reverse. They paid me the honor of asking me, again and again and again, what I thought of a certain scene, or certain lines or the deletion of something which they couldn't include because there wasn't enough time, or so forth.

Q: You know, obviously, the history of Hollywood and how it treats history -- it's not a very good one.

A: That's right. Well, I have been down this road before with books being optioned. I've only had one other book turned into a film, and it was also done by HBO, and they did a superb job. That was "Truman," where Gary Sinise played the part of Harry Truman. I have great respect for the quality and integrity of HBO productions of this kind -- and their "Band of Brothers" production, which Tom Hanks had done.

Q: Everything Hanks touches is good. But HBO has an advantage because it doesn't need to appeal to 18-year-old kids. It doesn't need to have John Adams in shootouts with Redcoats to get people in the door. HBO almost always does excellent work.

A: Well, they've gone all-out for this book. They've spared no expense. They've done everything in my view that they could possibly have done to make it as good as possible. I don't think that people who see this film will ever think of the American Revolution in the same way again. It's not just that they will know more than they've ever known about the individual characters involved and what happened and why, but they will have a feeling for what those people went through that they don't have now.

Q: If someone asked you, "What is the political or philosophical message of your book and does it come through in the movie?," what would you say?

A: I think so. One is that our obligations to our country are unending and that we are a government, as Adams said, of laws and not of men; that we believe in equal justice before the law; and that honesty, integrity, character, one's word, all matter immensely in the long run. I think also that he is a shining emblem of the transforming miracle of education. His father was a farmer and a cobbler. His mother was illiterate. He grew up under circumstances as humble as those of Abraham Lincoln. But because he was awarded a scholarship to go to Harvard at age 15, he, as he said, discovered books and read forever. He became the most widely and deeply read American of that very bookish Age of Enlightenment. He had the courage of his convictions. But it's also about Abigail, and you can't understand him without understanding her. In many ways, my book and this movie are as much about her as they are about him.