It is rare that we comment here about television, film or other entertainment, but in the case of HBO’s mini-series “John Adams”, we felt compelled to utter a few choice words… such as “What were they thinking?”
Shot in Budapest, Hungary, by a BBC team, this extraordinary series had much better graphics and music than facts or reality.
Though Paul Giamatti’s performance was quite convincing, we noticed a few ‘foibles’ in presentation… such as the acronym “BBC” written in laundry marker on the inside of British and American soldier uniforms, and on the latter, “USA” on the buttons. While HBO clearly strove for accuracy, we regret to inform the good producers of this film that the BBC did not exist in the pre-Revolutionary War era, and, much as it may surprise some, before July 4th, 1776, “USA” was not the standard issue on American soldier’s buttons. In fact, it did not appear until well after the Constitution was ratified in 1789… certainly not on military uniforms bearing “BBC” in the linings.
Most noticeably, I found it incredibly odd that Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and others had country British accents. Ol’ Tom Jefferson sounded more as if he were playing in a Thomas Hardy performance of The Mayor of Casterbridge than a biographical work of an American President. That thick Dorsetshire accent could not possibly be the sound of Thomas Jefferson, nor of Stephen Dillane, a London-born actor playing the role. And Alexander Hamilton, played by Rufus Sewell, sounded as if he just walked off a field in Shropshire. Who were they possibly kidding?
Benjamin Franklin, on these shores for many a decade before Independence day, sounded more like a Dorset farmer than an American patriot who once said that America had spawned a new language. Tom Wilkerson, who played Franklin, is an extremely well talented actor who knows how to do an American accent well. So who told him to sound like a country bumpkin from Poole?
Samuel Barnett, who played Adam’s son Thomas, though an eloquent and talented actor, was clearly as British as George III, yet you might think that the son of a Quincy, Mass. farmer cum President of the United States might have a more learned American, rather than British accent… no? All of this leads to one important question… who directed this film? Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Apologies to Mr. Hardy.
In point of fact, this British production was clearly executed by someone with little or no knowledge of American linguistic history. Tom Hooper, an otherwise talented director, and clearly a very British one, having directed Elizabeth I, Longford and many an episode of EastEnders, should have spent some considerable time researching language, as it is a major part of his craft. Clearly, he messed up with this key point – not knowing which side of the Atlantic his characters were supposedly living, among many others. This was, very evidently, sloppy directing and production, from the outset.
Some of the scenes were graphic for no reason other than to offend and possibly to get a woman’s top off. The scene in which Adams’ daughter undergoes as mastectomy was so appalling, that we literally changed channels for a time. Was that really necessary? Couldn’t they have used some greater degree of decency and consideration for the fact that some children might be watching this program? Just because it is cable, does it require HBO to have men groping women’s breasts and showing those so visually?
Scenes throughout the film were very badly shot. In one, the new White House is smoke filled, an historically accurate means of drying plaster in the 18th and 19th centuries… but would the smoke have lingered throughout a four year term in office? Almost every scene in the White House seemed smokey, and dingy. In fact, it looked more like a squatter’s habitat than the new home of the President.
Finally, we went to our map to find the Adams farm in Quincy, Mass, and its relation to Fort Ticonderoga. In one scene, while Mrs. Adams is fending off smallpox on the farm, and trying to keep her family alive, an American military expedition, heading to General Washington in Boston makes an exceptionally long detour of twenty miles to pass by the farm, laden with guns seized from the British. Given that there were no motorized transports or paved roads available at the time, does anyone really think they would possibly make such a long and time-consuming detour just to show Mrs. Adams their big guns? What was she supposed to do with the information, jump on her mobile and call John in Philadelphia with the news? Given the historical mess this film portrayed, we would not be surprised if that was the Director’s expectation.
This film distorted the facts extensively, and was, in too many cases, self-serving, badly written, extremely badly cast, with the exceptions of the actors playing John and Abigail Adams and George Washington. We found the direction poor, scenery badly set, and in general, were unfortunately disappointed with the overall production and presentation of the film.
Though we have usually had high praise for works by or involving David McCullough, clearly this one was out of his realm of influence.
We hope HBO Films does not repeat its errors in any other upcoming historical pieces.