Movie Review: John Adams – the HBO Miniseries

I purposely waited until I had finished reading the book by David McCullough before I watched the movie. And it was worth the wait. After writing much about the book and adding a number of history vignettes in posts in the last couple of weeks, I won’t spend much time retelling the story and my impressions here. Let’s focus on the impact of the movie after I have read the book.

First I noticed that there were thousands of details missing. The movie had about 5% of the depth of the book, even though it was a 7 hour miniseries. So many things were skipped over, glossed over or omitted, but of course, that’s necessary to make it all fit.

Then I noticed that time just went by faster, and the viewer had no idea of the actual ordeals the people went through. In the beginning, when John Adams would travel to the continental Congress in Philadelphia, he would one day ride away from his house, and in the next scene he would be in Philadelphia. The viewer does not get the impression that there were four weeks of arduous travel between the two scenes. The same thing happens when Adams first leaves for Paris. He boards a ship, we see him seasick, and then he disembarks a coach and meets Franklin in Paris. The viewer does not realize that months of challenging travels occurred between the two scenes. I got the impression the characters traveled back and forth like we do today, in Boston one day, in Philadelphia the next.

I loved seeing how the costumes and living conditions came to life. You don’t realize how bad everyone’s teeth were, given that there was no dentistry, until you see all the gaps and black rotted teeth in people’s mouths. That was well depicted.

I enjoyed seeing the White House built in the middle of the bush, down a few hills from the Capitol. The entire area was surrounded by woods, hills, barren fields, and rough wagon trails. If only the first occupants could see it now.

The movie does a great job helping out the imagination and filling in details that would not have come out by reading. But watching only the movie, without reading the book first, would deprive the viewer of a tremendous wealth of detail. Overall, I am enriched by watching the movie, by fortifying my knowledge of the historical details. They did a fantastic job showing the characters age, with Adams starting out in his thirties at the beginning of the movie, and ending up 90 when he died. They represented this very realistically.

A tour de force. HBO did a remarkable job.

Rating: ****

Leave a Reply