John Adams (TV miniseries): Wikis


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John Adams

Television promotional poster
Approx. run time 501 minutes
Genre Biographical miniseries
Written by Kirk Ellis
Based on the book by David McCullough
Directed by Tom Hooper
Produced by Tom Hanks (executive)
David Coatsworth
Kirk Ellis
Gary Goetzman (executive)
Starring Paul Giamatti
Laura Linney
Stephen Dillane
David Morse
Tom Wilkinson
Danny Huston
Rufus Sewell
Justin Theroux
Guy Henry
Music by Robert Lane
Joseph Vitarelli
Country  United States
Language English
Release date March 16, 2008
No. of episodes 7

John Adams is a 2008 American television miniseries, chronicling most of President John Adams's political life and his role in the founding of the United States. Paul Giamatti portrays John Adams. The miniseries was directed by Tom Hooper. Kirk Ellis wrote the screenplay based on the book John Adams by David McCullough. The biopic of John Adams and the story of the first fifty years of the United States was broadcast in seven parts by HBO between March 16 and April 20, 2008. John Adams received generally positive reviews, and many prestigious awards. As of 2009, the show has won more Emmy awards, thirteen, than any other miniseries, and four Golden Globe awards.


Plot summary

Part 1: Join or Die

The first episode opens with a cold winter in Boston on the night of the Boston Massacre. It portrays John Adams arriving at the scene following the gunshots from British soldiers firing upon a mob of Bostonian citizens. Adams, a respected lawyer in his mid-30s known for his belief in law and justice, is therefore summoned by the accused Redcoats. Their commander, Captain Thomas Preston asks him to defend them in court. Reluctant at first, he agrees despite knowing this will antagonize his neighbors and friends. Adams is depicted to have taken the case because he believed everyone deserves a fair trial and he wanted to uphold the standard of justice. Adams' cousin Samuel Adams is one of the main colonists opposed to the actions of the British government. He is one of the executive members of the Sons of Liberty, an anti-British group of agitators. Adams is depicted as a studious man doing his best to defend his clients. The show also illustrates Adams' appreciation and respect for his wife, Abigail. In one scene, Adams is shown having his wife proofread his research as he takes her suggestions. After many sessions of court, the decision is made and the soldiers are found innocent on all charges of murder. The episode also illustrates the growing tensions over the Coercive Acts ("Intolerable Acts"), and Adams' election to the First Continental Congress.

Part 2: Independence

The second episode covers the disputes among the members of the Second Continental Congress towards declaring independence from Great Britain as well as the final drafting of the Declaration of Independence. At the continental congresses he is depicted as the lead advocate for independence. He is in the vanguard in establishing that there is no other option than to break off and declare independence. He is also instrumental in the selection of then-Colonel George Washington as the new head of the Continental Army.

However, in his zeal for immediate action, he manages to alienate many of the other founding fathers, going so far as to insult a peace-loving Quaker member of the Continental Congress, implying that the man suffers from a religiously based moral cowardice, making him a "snake on his belly". Later, Benjamin Franklin quietly chastens Adams, saying, "It is perfectly acceptable to insult a man in private... but when you do so publicly, it tends to make them think you are serious." This points out Adams' primary flaw: his bluntness and lack of gentility toward his political opponents, one that would make him many enemies and which would eventually plague his political career. It would also, eventually, contribute to historians' disregard for his many achievements.

Part 3: Don't Tread on Me

In Episode 3, Adams travels to Europe during the war seeking alliances with foreign nations, during which the ship transporting him battles a British frigate. It first shows his embassy with Benjamin Franklin in the court of Louis XVI. The old French nobility—at this stage in history in the last decade before the French Revolution consumes them—are portrayed as effete and decadent. They meet cheerfully with Franklin, seeing him as a romantic figure, little noting the democratic infection he brings with him. Adams, on the other hand, is a plain spoken and faithful man (particularly to his wife), who finds himself out of his depth surrounded by the entertainment- and sex-driven degeneracy which masks a highly sophisticated and subtle culture among the French elite. Adams finds himself at sharp odds with his friend Benjamin Franklin, who has adapted himself to French degeneracy, seeking to obtain by seduction what Adams would gain through histrionics. Franklin sharply rebukes Adams for his lack of diplomatic acumen, calling Adams's approach "a blunt demand followed by a petulant whine." Franklin ultimately has Adams removed from any position of diplomatic authority in Paris. (It should be noted that Franklin's approach is ultimately successful and results in the conclusive Franco-American victory at Yorktown.)

Adams, dismayed but learning from his mistakes, then travels to the Dutch Republic to obtain monetary support for the Revolution. Though the Dutch agreed with the American cause, they do not at first consider the new union a reliable and trustworthy client. At last, there is success at Yorktown, as the revolution is won and the Dutch financiers come through with the first loan to the American government. Adams ends his time in the Netherlands in a state of progressive illness.

Part 4: Reunion

The fourth episode shows John Adams being notified of the end of the Revolutionary War and the defeat of the British. He is then sent to Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783. While overseas, he spends time with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Abigail visits him. Franklin informs John Adams that he was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom and thus has to relocate to the British Court of St. James's. John Adams is poorly received by the British during this time—he is the representative for a recently hostile power, and represents in his person what many British at the time regarded as a disastrous end to its early Empire. He meets with his former sovereign, King George III, and while the meeting is not a disaster, he is excoriated in British newspapers. In 1789, he returns to Massachusetts for the first Presidential Election. George Washington is elected the first President of the United States and John Adams as Vice President.

Part 5: Unite or Die

The fifth episode begins with John Adams presiding over the Senate and the debate over what to call the new President. It depicts Adams as frustrated in this role: His opinions are ignored and he has no actual power, except in the case of a tied vote. He's excluded from George Washington's inner circle of cabinet members, and his relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton are strained. Even Washington himself gently rebukes him for his efforts to "royalize" the office of the Presidency. A key event shown is the struggle to enact the Jay Treaty with Britain, which Adams himself must ratify before a deadlocked Senate (although historically his vote was not required). The episode concludes with his inauguration as the second president—and his subsequent arrival in a plundered executive mansion.

Part 6: Unnecessary War

The sixth episode covers Adams's term as president and the rift between the Hamilton-led Federalists and Jefferson-led Republicans. Adams's neutrality pleases neither side and often angers both. His shaky relationship with his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, is intensified after taking defensive actions against the French due to failed diplomatic attempts and the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, Adams also alienates himself from the anti-French Alexander Hamilton after taking all actions possible to prevent a war with France. Adams disowns his son Charles, who soon dies as an alcoholic vagrant. Late in his Presidency, Adams sees success with his campaign of preventing a war with France, but his success is clouded after losing the presidency of 1800. After receiving so much bad publicity while in office, Adams lost the election against his former Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, and runner-up Aaron Burr (both from the same party). This election is now known as the Revolution of 1800. Adams leaves the Presidential Palace (now known as The White House), retiring to his personal life in Massachusetts.

Part 7: Peacefield

The final episode covers Adams's retirement years. His home life is full of pain and sorrow as his daughter, Nabby, dies of breast cancer and Abigail succumbs to typhoid fever. Adams does live to see the election of his son, John Quincy, as president, but is too ill to attend the inauguration. Adams and Jefferson are reconciled through correspondence in their last years, and both die mere hours apart on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; Jefferson was 83, Adams was 90.

Cast and Shooting location

The 110-day shoot took place in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia and Budapest, Hungary.[1][2] Some European scenes were shot in Keszthely, Sóskút, Fertőd and Kecskemét, Hungary.[3]

One location used in Colonial Williamsburg was the interior of Bruton Parish Church which was the site for the town meeting during which Adams gives a speech from the elevated pulpit. The brick wall surrounding Bruton Parish church was the backdrop for a separate outdoor scene.

Another scene shot at Colonial Williamsburg was the one in which Adams first meets the British soldiers accused of murder for their roles in the Boston Massacre which was shot at the "public gaol", or jail where lawbreakers were held awaiting trial.

Greenhow store exterior was used in place of a Trenton, NJ tavern that Adams frequented. The Wythe House stood in for the president's house in Philadelphia, though it was modified by a brick facade to mask the wooden fence.

The Palace Green was used for the scene showing a tent and 40 coffins to represent Philadelphia's 1793 yellow fever epidemic. Sand scattered on the streets masked the modern pavement. The Palace Green also was the backdrop for a public riot staged in front of the George Wythe house, which represented the president's residence in Philadelphia. Scores of extras were used in this scene.

British officers ransacked an abandoned Continental Army war room in a separate scene set in the Robert Carter house. Williamsburg's Public Hospital was in the background of the tent encampment of the Continental army which Adams visited in the winter of 1776, which was replicated using special- effects snow. The College of William and Mary's Wren Building represented a Harvard interior. Scenes were also filmed at the Governor's Palace. [4] [5]

Richmond, Virginia was the site of the set, stage space, backlot and production offices, in an old Mechanicsville AMF warehouse. Sets which included cobblestone streets and colonial storefronts were created for filming outdoor street scenes in colonial cities of Washington D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. Countryside surrounding Richmond in Hanover County and Powhatan County were chosen to represent areas surrounding early Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. [6] [7]


The score for the miniseries was composed by Rob Lane and Joseph Vitarelli. The two composers worked independently of each other, with Lane writing and recording his segments in London and Vitarelli in Los Angeles[8]. The soundtrack was released on the Varèse Sarabande label.

Critical reception

The critical reception to the miniseries was predominantly positive. Metacritic rates the critical response at 78 out of 100 based upon 27 national reviews.[9] Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly rated the miniseries A-,[10] and Matt Roush of TV Guide praised the lead performances of Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.[11]

David Hinckley of the New York Daily News felt John Adams "is, quite simply, as good as TV gets . . . Best of all are two extraordinary performances at the center: Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail . . . To the extent that John Adams is a period piece, it isn't quite as lush as, say, some BBC productions. But it looks fine, and it feels right, and sometimes what's good for you can also be just plain good."[12]

Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times had mixed feelings. She said the miniseries has "a Masterpiece Theater gravity and takes a more somber, detailed and sepia-tinted look at the dawn of American democracy. It gives viewers a vivid sense of the isolation and physical hardships of the period, as well as the mores, but it does not offer significantly different or deeper insights into the personalities of the men — and at least one woman — who worked so hard for liberty . . . [It] is certainly worthy and beautifully made, and it has many masterly touches at the edges, especially Laura Linney as Abigail. But Paul Giamatti is the wrong choice for the hero . . . And that leaves the mini-series with a gaping hole at its center. What should be an exhilarating, absorbing ride across history alongside one of the least understood and most intriguing leaders of the American Revolution is instead a struggle."[13]

Among those unimpressed with the miniseries were Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times[14] and Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle.[15] Both cited the miniseries for poor casting and favoring style over storytelling.

Historical inaccuracies

According to Jeremy Stern, writing on History News Network, the series deviates greatly from David McCullough's book, creating serious historical errors throughout.[16]

In the first episode, John Hancock, after being confronted by a British customs official, orders the crowd to "Teach him a lesson, tar the bastard". Hancock and Samuel Adams then look on while the official is tarred and feathered, to the disapproval of John Adams. The scene is fictional and does not appear in McCullough's book. According to Samuel Adams biographer Ira Stoll, there's no evidence that Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were opposed to mob violence, were ever present at a tarring and feathering, and so the scene succeeds in "tarring the reputations of Hancock and Samuel Adams".[17] Jeremy Stern writes that, "Despite popular mythology, tarrings were never common in Revolutionary Boston, and were not promoted by the opposition leadership. The entire sequence is pure and pernicious fiction."[16] According to Stern, the scene is used to highlight a schism between Samuel and John Adams, which is entirely fictional.[16]

Also in part one, Captain Preston and the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre are tried in a single trial in the seeming dead of winter and declared not guilty of all charges. In actuality, Captain Preston's trial took place on October 24 and ran through October 29, when he was found not guilty. The eight soldiers were brought to trial weeks later in a separate trial that concluded on November 29. Six of the soldiers were found not guilty but two, Hugh Montgomery and Hugh Killroy were convicted of manslaughter. They both received brands on their right thumbs as punishment.[18]

During the second episode, the first version of the Declaration of Independence read by Adams’s family was depicted as a printed copy; in reality, it was a copy in Adams’s own hand, which led Mrs. Adams to believe that he had written it himself.[19] In addition, the Battle of Bunker Hill is shown taking place before the nomination of George Washington as Commander in Chief, when in reality, it was the opposite.

Also in part two, General Henry Knox's ox-driven caravan of cannon (taken from Ft. Ticonderoga) is depicted passing by the Adams' house in Braintree, Massachusetts en route to Cambridge, Massachusetts. In reality, General Knox's caravan almost certainly did not pass through Braintree. Ft. Ticonderoga, being in upstate New York, is northwest of Cambridge, and Knox is assumed to have taken the most likely routes of the day: from the New York border through western and central Massachusetts via what are now Routes 23, 9, and 20; thus never entering Braintree, which is located approximately 15 miles southeast of Cambridge.[20]

In the second episode, there is another inaccuracy and a misrepresentation regarding the Adams family smallpox inoculation of 1775. When the doctor questions Abigail Adams if she has asked her husband, she knows he would approve without asking him because he himself was inoculated in 1764, so the doctor's question and her response were misleading. Inaccurate was the illness of the daughter following the inoculation. In fact it was their son, Charles Francis, who developed the pox and who was unconscious and delirious for 48 hours.[21][22]

In the third episode, during Adams's first voyage to France, his ship engages a British ship in a fierce battle while Adams assists a surgeon performing an amputation on a patient who dies. In reality, Adams helped perform the amputation several days after the capture of the British ship, following an unrelated accident. The patient died a week after the amputation rather than during the operation, as shown in the film.[23]

Part four depicts Abigail Adams reprimanding Benjamin Franklin for cheating on his wife in France, but his wife died seven years earlier in 1774.[citation needed]

In part five, then-Vice President John Adams is shown casting the tiebreaker vote in favor of ratifying the Jay Treaty. In reality, his vote was never required as the Senate passed the resolution by 20-10.[24] In the same episode, Adams is depicted chairing a meeting of the United States Senate, striking a traditional wooden gavel, when in reality the gavel he used was made of ivory and had no handle.[25]

In part six, Adams moves into the new Executive Mansion in Washington D.C. and the building is painted white. This is inaccurate as the building was not painted white until October 1817 due to the British taking control of the capital and burning the building, along with most other government buildings, in 1814, during the War of 1812. It was not labeled as The White House until 1901 by President Theodore Roosevelt.[citation needed]

In part seven, Adams is shown inspecting John Trumbull's painting Declaration of Independence (1817) and states he and Thomas Jefferson are the last surviving people depicted. This is inaccurate as Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who is also depicted in the painting, survived until 1832. In fact, Adams never made such a remark. In reality, when he inspected Trumbull's painting, Adams' only comment was to point to a door in the background of the painting and state, "When I nominated George Washington of Virginia for Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, he took his hat and rushed out that door."[26] In the same episode, Benjamin Rush is portrayed as encouraging Adams to start a correspondence with Thomas Jefferson after the death of Abigail Adams. Abigail's death occurred in 1818 but the Adams-Jefferson correspondence started in 1812, and Rush died in 1813.[citation needed]

The latter half of the series depicts Nabby Adams meeting and marrying Colonel William Stephens Smith upon her parents' return to America from London. John Adams is depicted as refusing to use his influence to obtain political positions for his daughter's new husband, though Colonel Smith requests his father-in-law's assistance repeatedly with an almost grasping demeanor. Mr. Adams upbraids his son-in-law each time for even making the request, stating that Colonel Smith should find himself an honest trade or career and not depend upon speculation. In reality, Nabby met Colonel Smith abroad while her father was serving as United States Ambassador to France and Great Britain, and the couple married in London prior to the end of John Adams' diplomatic posting to the Court of St. James. Both John and Abigail used their influence to assist Colonel Smith and obtain political appointments for him, although this did not curb Colonel Smith's tendency to invest unwisely.[citation needed]

Also, after then-President Adams refuses to assist Colonel Smith for the last time, Smith is depicted as leaving Nabby and their children in the care of the Adams family at Peacefield; according to the scene, his intention is to seek opportunities to the west and either return or send for his family once he can provide for them. Nabby is living with her family when she discerns the lump in her breast, has her mastectomy, and dies two years later. Smith does not return until after Nabby's death and it is implied that he has finally established a stable form of income; whether he was returning for his family as he had promised or was summoned ahead of his own schedule by the Adams' pursuant to Nabby's death is not specified.[citation needed]

In reality, Smith brought his family with him from one venture to the next, and Nabby only returned to her father's home in Massachusetts after it was determined that she would undergo a mastectomy rather than continue with the potions and poultices prescribed by other doctors at that time. Smith was with her during and after the mastectomy, and by all accounts had thrown himself into extensive research in attempts to find any reputable alternative to treating his wife's cancer via mastectomy. The mastectomy was not depicted in the series as it is described in historical documents. Nabby returned to the Smith family home after her operation and died in her father's home at Peacefield only because she expressed a wish to die there, knowing that her cancer had returned and would kill her, and her husband acceded to her request. Dr. Benjamin Rush was also not the surgeon who conducted the operation.[27]

Awards and nominations

Primetime Emmy Awards

John Adams received twenty-three Emmy Award nominations, and won thirteen, beating the previous record for wins by a miniseries set by Angels in America. It also holds the record for most Emmy wins by a program in a single year.[citation needed]

Year Category Nominee(s) Episode Result
2008 Outstanding Miniseries Won
2008 Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or Movie Kirk Ellis Episode 2, Independence Won
2008 Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie Paul Giamatti Won
2008 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie Laura Linney Won
2008 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie Tom Wilkinson Won
2008 Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or Movie Won
2008 Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Won
2008 Outstanding Cinematography For A Miniseries or Movie Episode 2, Independence Won
2008 Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Won
2008 Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series, Miniseries, Movie or a Special Won
2008 Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Episode 3, Don't Tread On Me Won
2008 Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or a Movie Episode 3, Don't Tread On Me Won
2008 Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Won
2008 Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries or Movie Tom Hooper Nominated
2008 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie Stephen Dillane Nominated
2008 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie David Morse Nominated
2008 Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie Episode 3, Don't Tread On Me Nominated
2008 Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries or a Movie Nominated
2008 Outstanding Makeup for a Miniseries or a Movie (Non-prosthetic) Nominated
2008 Outstanding Original Dramatic Score for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Episode 2, Independence Nominated
2008 Outstanding Single-camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries or a Movie Episode 2, Independence Nominated
2008 Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Episode 6, Unnecessary War Nominated
2008 Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or a Movie Episode 5, Unite Or Die Nominated

Golden Globe Awards

It was nominated for four awards at the 66th Golden Globe Awards and won all four.[28]

Year Category Nominee(s) Result
2009 Best Mini-Series Or Motion Picture Made for Television Won
2009 Best Performance by an Actress In A Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television Laura Linney Won
2009 Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television Paul Giamatti Won
2009 Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television Tom Wilkinson Won

Screen Actors Guild Awards

It was also nominated for three awards at the 15th Screen Actors Guild Awards and won two.

Year Category Nominee(s) Result
2009 Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries Laura Linney Won
2009 Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries Paul Giamatti Won
2009 Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries Tom Wilkinson Nominated

Other Awards

The show also won a 2008 AFI Award for best television series.[29]


  1. ^ Gary Strauss (2008-03-12). "For Giamatti, John Adams was 'endlessly daunting' role". USA Today. Gannett Company, Inc.. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  2. ^ Martin Miller (2008-03-16). "A revolutionary leading man". Los Angeles Times. Tribune Company. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  3. ^ "Tom Hanks a magyar stábnak is köszönetet mondott a Golden Globe-gálán" (in Hungarian). MTI (Hungarian news agency). 2009-01-12. Retrieved 2008-01-12. 
  4. ^ Filming for 'John Adams' begins Thursday in Williamsburg, By LARRY BONKO
  5. ^ Colonial Williamsburg, A Revolutionary Stage
  6. ^ http://A Presidential Production by Jennifer Pullinger;
  7. ^ HBO miniseries highlights Virginia, brings revenue to the Commonwealth;
  8. ^ John Adams at
  9. ^
  10. ^ Entertainment Weekly review
  11. ^ TV Guide review
  12. ^ New York Daily News review
  13. ^ New York Times review
  14. ^ Los Angeles Times review
  15. ^ San Francisco Chronicle review
  16. ^ a b c Jeremy Stern, "What's Wrong with HBO's Dramatization of John Adams's Story", History News Network, March 18, 2008.
  17. ^ Ira Stoll, "Bring Forth the Tar and Feathers", The New York Sun, March 11, 2008.
  18. ^ Douglas Linder, The Boston Massacre Trials, JURIST, July 2001
  19. ^ David McCullough, John Adams, Simon & Schuster, 2001, chapter 2. Part 2, 1:25:37.
  20. ^ The Knox Trail History, New York State Museum website 2008
  21. ^ John Adams: Smallpox Inoculation in 1764.
  22. ^ Blinderman, A. John Adams: fears, depressions, and ailments. NY State J Med. 1977;77:268-276. Pubmed. [a] pp. 274-275
  23. ^ David McCullough, John Adams, Simon & Schuster, 2001, pg. 186
  24. ^ Description of the Jay Treaty
  25. ^ C-SPAN's Capitol Questions
  26. ^ David McCullough, John Adams, Simon & Schuster, 2001, pg. 627.
  27. ^ Olson, James S. (2002). Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer, and History. The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801869366. 
  28. ^ "HFPA - Nominations and Winners". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  29. ^ "AFI Awards 2008". American Film Institute. 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-29. 

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