Thursday, 10 December 2009

John Adams Is Wrong

So, I finally go around to watching the acclaimed HBO mini-series John Adams (also Recount and Generation Kill, that's some strange distorted look at the USA right there) and it turns out it's all lies.
But the handling of the renewed Adams-Jefferson correspondence, the defining act of both men’s retirement and probably the greatest epistolary exchange in American history, is far worse. Here is what the series shows: Abigail Adams dies in 1818; John’s old friend Benjamin Rush urges that he write to Jefferson about his loss, hoping the two elder statesmen can provide each other with comfort in their final years; Adams does so; Jefferson’s first reply is dated to 1819; the correspondence flowers, friendship is renewed. This sequence is wholly invented, and simply appalling. Rush was indeed instrumental in renewing contact between Adams and Jefferson, but he was definitely not available to counsel Adams after Abigail’s death in 1818: Rush himself had died five years earlier. Rush had, in reality, worked carefully to bring the two former presidents back into harmony, but his efforts had culminated in 1812 – it was then that the Adams-Jefferson correspondence actually resumed, and Abigail herself was personally involved in the exchange for its first six years.


And, again, hmmmmm.

Fairly recently, while visiting England, I caught a program called "The Long Walk to Finchley", sort of Thatcher - The Early Years, which was all manners of wrong from the ground up given that the remit was, seemingly, to make That Woman sympathetic (and have Ted Heath lusting after her). Highlighting the many ways in which TV drama looking back only 50 years can fudge things (and outright fabricate others) in the name of the story.

But we should know this, part of Doctor Who's remit has always been to tell "historical" stories, but no right thinking person would believe that these were a true history. Kids, I think, intuitively grasp this. Adults, it seems, are fooled by it having HBO on the front and the date popping on screen every so often. Just as wikipedia is OK so long as it is only the starting point of your research, TV Dramas can give you the broad strokes of a man's life. Necessarily drama reduces people to certain aspects of their character and only a limted number of viewpoints. Citizen Kane shows how people change when viewed through the lens of other people and Welles himself has been many things to many biographers.

Going back to John Adams, there were many points where it was obvious some sort of ellision was taking place -- the wordier the conversation, I'd guess, the more likely it was an exchange of letters. There was also the oddness of the Adams' front porch abutting a road that only ever seemed filled historically important traffic. You can come up for dramatic reasons why that might be (good or not).

That said, I do feel a little more knowledgable about the American Revolution now, but I will still base my actual knowledge on something more concrete than a TV show. Specifically, my three playthroughs of Day of the Tentacle and endless games of various iterations of Colonization.

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