HBO’s ‘John Adams’ Takes Fresh Look at Founding Father

March 12, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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A new HBO miniseries based on a Pulitzer-Prize winning biography by David McCullough aims to present an authentic portrayal of the life and times of America's second president, John Adams. McCullough and actor Paul Giamatti, who plays Adams in the series, discuss the production.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the life of a founding father comes to life on television. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps the least known and honored of the nation’s founders gets the star treatment in a new seven-part series on HBO beginning Sunday.

John Adams of Massachusetts was a lawyer, a revolutionary, diplomat, the country’s first vice president and second president.

He was, it’s said, vain, irritable, funny, hugely stubborn, brave and brilliant. And he carried on a lifelong love affair, captured in letters, with his equally remarkable wife, Abigail.

Here’s a brief scene in which Adams argues for declaring independence from Britain.

PAUL GIAMATTI, Actor, “John Adams”: I see hope. I see a new nation ready to take its place in the world, not an empire, but a republic, and a republic of laws, not men.

Gentlemen, we are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of the world. How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves?

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Giamatti plays John Adams and joins us now. He’s well-known for many screen roles, including “Sideways,” “Cinderella Man,” and “American Splendor.”

Also with us is the historian who played a major part in bringing John Adams before the public. David McCullough’s 2001 biography won the Pulitzer Prize and is the basis for the new series.

Well, Paul Giamatti, let me ask you, as the one coming to John Adams anew, or perhaps for the first time, what struck you most about him? What was the key to capturing him?

PAUL GIAMATTI: Well, as you say, it was all fairly new to me. I knew shamefully little about him. I suppose, bearing in mind his essential humanity — I mean, he seemed to be less good at shaping a persona for himself than, say, Jefferson or Washington or having other people do it for him, so he was a very openly human man.

And he was an essentially decent guy. So underneath all the pugnaciousness and the arrogance and the vanity, there had to be an essential decency and kindness underneath it. So I just had to bear that in mind all the time and not get too carried away with the argumentative side of the man, I suppose.

Letters show a remarkable marriage

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you have a chance to read many of those letters we mentioned? And what did you see in them?

PAUL GIAMATTI: Well, I did. I got to read as many of the Abigail and John letters, which are extraordinarily intelligent and loving. And she's an extraordinary -- kind of more extraordinary than he is, in a lot of ways, I mean, stronger in a lot of ways than he is.

The Jefferson letters are fascinating, in a lot of ways because you definitely sense that they're guys who know that they're going to be taken by posterity and examined in depth. You know, they're talking for the historical record, in a way, which is fascinating, but very wonderful debates.

JEFFREY BROWN: David McCullough, it was the letters between John and Abigail that really gave you a way into your book, wasn't it?

DAVID MCCULLOUGH, Author: Yes, I'd read a lot that other people had written about John Adams, other historians and biographers. And they're very good, many of them superb.

But it wasn't until I got into what they themselves wrote that I realized how much, as Paul just said, how much humanity is there and that I wanted to tell that story. I wanted to give credit where I felt was long overdue, one of the most remarkable -- two of the most remarkable Americans ever.

And what a story. It's a biographer's dream. And I've had subjects that I've greatly enjoyed. I've been very lucky in my subjects over the years. But I don't think I ever had a book out of which I learned so much or during which I had such a wonderful time being in that 18th century, being with those brilliant people.

More human look at a founder

JEFFREY BROWN: Why was he so overlooked? And what was it that you wanted to bring out?

DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Just as Paul said, his humanity. And let me say that -- and I hope, Paul, that you'll forgive me for this. John Adams was a brilliant man. And I'm not sure how many actors could convey the mind at work.

This is a drama about ideas, and dramas about ideas are very hard to do, unless you truly understand what it is you're saying. And the soliloquies, if you will, in the unfolding of the story are at times almost Shakespearean.

And Paul can do that in a way that transports me personally. I'm thrilled with how it's turned out, and especially, too, because of the screenplay, where the vocabulary is authentic. There are no 20th century expressions or words or 21st century idiomatic cuteness or anything.

It's the real thing. And I think it reminds us of a lot that we've lost from the way we speak and the vocabulary we use.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, another thing that's hard to do, Paul Giamatti, is there's a long history of putting history on the screen. And sometimes history is well-served, and I guess other times it isn't. What were you aware of or worried about at all about trying to tell such a big story about such famous characters on the screen?

PAUL GIAMATTI: Well, I think, in a funny way, I had less of a burden in a way than David Morse, who plays Washington, or Stephen Dillane, who plays Jefferson, or Tom Wilkinson, who plays Franklin.

Those guys are on the money. They're literally on our money. And there are statues of them. And they're everywhere.

And Adams is not. And he's a bit of a cipher for a lot of Americans, I think, which gave me more room to feel like I could create a character. I had more wiggle room.

Hanks wants to 'do it right'

JEFFREY BROWN: David McCullough, what do you think of this question of bringing history to the screen? Were you wary of what happened? Because you write in a very vivid way scenes yourself. Were you wary about putting it onto the screen, when actors start to inhabit these characters?

DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes, I was very wary. I was very hesitant about saying yes. But after an hour-and-a-half, two-hour breakfast conversation in a little cafe in the west one morning with Tom Hanks, I realized...

JEFFREY BROWN: Who is the producer, we should say.

DAVID MCCULLOUGH: ... who is the producer, that this man is a solid fellow of real ability and integrity and that he would do it right. And that kind of focus, that kind of commitment to doing it right permeated the whole production. And I was involved, in one way or another, through three or four or five years, as far as I remember.

And, again, it isn't just that the sets are right, the costumes are right, but the interpretation of the story and the desire to show that character counts, that courage counts, that we are trying to recall a time when brilliance came to the fore in our political system.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read, Mr. McCullough, that you're celebrating your 50th anniversary in publishing, so congratulations on that. But I wonder if you see any resurgence of interest in history because of your work and many others and films like this?

DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes, there is a resurgence in history, I think particularly in the popular sense, the success of the Ken Burns "Civil War" series, the success of the History Channel, the wide audience that books of the kind that I and others write.

But we have been raising for about 25 years or more young people who are by and large historically illiterate. And it's not their fault. We can't blame them for not knowing what they haven't been taught.

And so I think that to me one of the most gratifying results of this magnificent production is that it will be going into the homes of so many Americans everywhere. And home is really where education does begin.

So it isn't just that young people will be seeing the film, but their parents will, and their grandparents will, and their teachers will.

And it isn't a lesson; it isn't a lecture. It's a drama. And you feel it. You come away with a feeling for those people and their times that I don't think any viewer that sees it will ever forget.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David McCullough and Paul Giamatti on John Adams, the man and the series. Thank you both very much.