Thursday, August 7, 2008

the error of HBO



I just finished watching HBO's "John Adams". while I first enjoyed the visual accuracy of the story, two major shortcomings dismayed me.

first was a simple error.
in the movie, abigail adams dies and then benjamin rush urges adams to resume his friendship with thomas jefferson.
in reality, adams wrote his first letter to jefferson in 1812 (source)... abigail didn't die until 1818 (source).

this kind of sloppiness might almost be tolerated, if only they didn't have benjamin rush tell adams as he grieves abigail's death:
"what about mr jefferson? I am sure he will wish to share your sorrow ... "

in reality, adams actually told jefferson:

"All of my family, whom you formerly knew, are well..." (no mention of any dead wife.)
adams also recounts how his daughter had successfully undergone a mastectomy, which the film does relate. she went on to die the following year, according to wikipedia. in fact, wikipedia also says rush died in 1813. (that means hbo was off by five years.)

this is not consistent with great film making. I thoroughly appreciated the subtleties such as the characters' filth and disgusting teeth. but, if you're going to devote such energy to details such as historic costumes and the pestilence of the time, you might as well get the basic sequence of events right.

"I don't think any film that's been done about this all-important part of our story has every been done with such authenticity," David McCullough solemnly blathers in a self-congratulatory documentary on the DVD. I wonder how many millions of dollars he will make from this project, when it's all said and done.

second grievance: little was done to tell the bigger historical picture. good costumes and sets are one thing, but the writers didn't use minor characters and sub-plots to show the passage of time. there is no mention of the constitutional convention or the death of alexander hamilton, for instance.

I think as a result, they spent a lot of time and money accurately portraying mud, smallpox, and pre-modern breast removal. I would have preferred a little more historical context. getting the basic facts right would've been nice as well.

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