Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Original Adams Family

I became captivated by the story of John and Abigail Adams after reading Irving Stone's historical novel "Those Who Love" as a teenager in 1973. It's a compelling page-turner told largely through the point of view of the heroic Abigail Adams who, alongside her husband, participated in the momentous events of the American Revolution and the first decades of the U.S. Stone was a fabulous writer, best known for his novels about Michelangelo – “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” and Van Gogh – “Lust for Life.”

At about the same time, “1776” offered a glitzy take on the struggle for Independence, replete with show tunes and dance numbers. Some of the songs were goofy, some inspired, like the haunting soldier’s lament “Momma, Look Sharp” and the searing indictment of the slave trade, “Molasses to Rum to Slaves.” Today, the musical conventions seem dated but the scenes of debate and conflict within the Continental Congress are quite gripping. At the center of the action is the single-minded, volatile John Adams, the leading proponent of American independence, memorably portrayed by William Daniels.

In 1976, PBS presented an outstanding multi-part series called “The Adams Chronicles,” newly available on DVD. A bit stagey but well-written and acted, this series charted the stories of John and Abigail; their son John Quincy, who became a diplomat and the 6th President; their grandchild Charles Francis, a diplomat; and their great-grandchildren Henry, a historian, and Charles Francis II, an industrialist.

The new generation of feminists embraced Abigail Adams for her early promotion of women’s education and her famous admonition to John that he and his colleagues “Remember the Ladies” in the code of laws they were devising for the new nation. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands,” she wrote him. “Remember, all Men would be tyrants if they could.” As pro-woman and outspokenly anti-slavery as she was, Abigail might be somewhat aghast at the extent of women’s “liberation” today. She was, at heart, the daughter of a Puritan minister, and had a conservative moral code and a strong belief in the traditional family.

Last fall, I read a new collection of the letters of John and Abigail Adams called “My Dearest Friend,” which was their most common salutation to each other. They were frequently separated due to John’s political and diplomatic career, so their letters were a lifeline. John’s are rather formal and detached; he worried they could be intercepted and used by the British and, later, by his political rivals. Still, they are a remarkable documentation of the almost daily thinking and activities of one of the Founders. Abigail’s letters are lively, intellectually probing and intimate. Her descriptions of the siege of Boston and other historic events are vital eyewitness accounts. Her expressions of love could melt anyone’s heart.

Concerned that her private thoughts not become public knowledge and probably self-conscious about her uneven spelling and grammar, Abigail repeatedly asked John to burn her letters. John, a scholar who respected his wife enormously, recognized their value and saved them for posterity. You’ve got to love a guy who chose such a great partner and remained true to her for 54 years – it almost makes you forgive him for signing the Alien and Sedition Acts!

With this Adams-mania in my background, I had high hopes for HBO’s series “John Adams.” HBO usually produces high quality drama, but this one... Well, some of the acting was outstanding. Paul Giamatti’s performance as John has been panned but I thought he built the character well and was quite moving as old John Adams in the final episodes. Laura Linney as Abigail? Give her the Emmy now. Who needs dialogue? Linney could teach a master class through just looks and gestures.

The costumes were great, but I concur with many others about the weak writing, uneven pacing, jittery camerawork and leaden direction by Tom Hooper. Tobe Hooper (“Poltergeist”) could have done a better job. There would have been much more blood, but more guts and glory too!

The history and timeline were dicey. Of course, they couldn't include every detail of John’s long, active life, but that doesn't excuse inaccuracies like all eight of the British soldiers charged in the Boston "Massacre" being found not guilty. Hello?! Two were found guilty of manslaughter and branded, a horrific scene Irving Stone used to great effect in "Those Who Love." Like the lack of discussion of slavery at the Continental Congress (dismissed in only a brief aside in the Declaration committee). Like Abigail reading of the surrender of Cornwallis on a lovely spring-looking day in Braintree (he surrendered in the fall; she would have received word in late October). Or the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts (there were four in all), repeatedly called the Alien Act and the Sedition Act. Then there was the weird casting and continuity snafu that had the same child actors playing the Adams’ kids in 1775 and in 1781, none of them apparently having grown an inch.

And what about that family life? In the HBO script, John and Abigail bark one-word orders at their children unremittingly until the kids become hopelessly compliant or dysfunctional adults. Reality check: John and Abigail were New England Puritans with a strict moral code who demanded a lot of their children, their friends and their colleagues. But they were also revered among the same for their wisdom, humor and generosity. Abigail in particular was famous for her warmth and constant caregiving for others. They had a large and loving extended family of Adamses, Smiths, Quincys, Boylstons, Cranches and Shaws, all of whom, at various times, took in each others' kids, helped work each others’ farms, bailed each other out of debt, and held huge holiday and funeral gatherings. John was certainly politically isolated at times, but depicting John and Abigail as utterly isolated from any larger social network or community misses a big part of their identity.

I was not looking for an idealized portrait. Indeed, the HBO series made clear John’s vanity, temper and occasional political obtuseness. His renunciation of his son Charles and his inability to comfort Abigail when Charles dies was played out like the tragedy it was. The later episodes dealt forthrightly with the infirmities of old age, although they could have dispensed with the goopy make-up. Surely, pros like Giamatti and Linney could be trusted to act old.

The best scene had the old John Adams viewing Trumbull’s famous life-size portrait of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams clearly thinks it’s bad art and, worse, that it’s bad history. The summer of 1776 was chaotic, he says. In the midst of revolution and war, Congressional representatives streamed in and out of Philadelphia to sign the document at different times. They certainly never gathered all at once and posed for a formal portrait. John mourns that the true history of the Revolution is lost forever. The scene was a sly, perhaps defensive comment by the series' chief writer, Kirk Ellis, about the vagaries of historical re-enactment.

The old PBS series "The Adams Chronicles" is now available on DVD. I haven't seen it in 30 years, but remember it fondly. I also recommend PBS's American Experience episode "John & Abigail Adams," now on DVD. It contains great detail and insight and is only two hours long.