Kirk Ellis Interview on HBO’s John Adams
As HBO prepares to roll out its six-week, seven-part miniseries John Adams, based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book of the same name, Kirk Ellis, screenwriter and co-executive producer for the program, consented to an interview with armchairgeneral.com and HistoryNet.
Armchair General/HistoryNet: You’ve developed an admirable reputation for scripting historical works for television, such Into the West and Anne Frank: The Whole Story. What are some of the special challenges you find in creating something that will appeal to a broad audience looking to be entertained while you still remain true to historical reality?
Kirk Ellis: If the story is good story to start with, I never have to worry about its relevance to an audience. I always look for stories that have that component of accessibility.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the process of research and trying to get at the truth of a particular time. The job is to merge differing agendas and opinions into something that reflects the truth, at least the underlying truths.
ACG/HN: There’s a wonderful line near the beginning of the fourth episode of this miniseries in which John Adams says "Thanks be to God that He gave me stubbornness … especially when I know that I am right." One American history textbook describes Adams as austere, aloof, and rigid. How were you able to present such a personality in a way that will make viewers want to follow his story for six weeks?
KE: That is my favorite Adams quote in the entire program. It speaks of why we made the show: "conventional wisdom" is often flat-out wrong.
I don’t know where some of this characterization of Adams comes from. I suppose it comes from our American iconography. We want to categorize individuals rather than letting them be human.
Adams was many things. Rigid? He was a principled man, even when it cost him. Of all the founding generation, he is the most human because he’s the most flawed. For a dramatist he’s wonderful—you don’t want a character who is all one thing. This is John Adams as his contemporaries knew him.
We have this strange obsession with voting for the president we’d most like to have a beer with. Like that’s ever going to happen. You actually could have a beer with John. He liked hanging around taverns, listening to people talk. Often he concealed his identity—easy to do in an age without photographs—to hear what people had to say.
It is interesting that Jefferson has come down to us as the great populist. Adams was very earthy. I don’t know any of these men were populists as we think of it—voting was only for landed gentry.
Adams said, "Mister Jefferson tells people what they want to hear. I tell them what they need to know."
Jefferson would retreat to Monticello; Adams would roll up his sleeves and get into the fray. He was on the bucket brigade when the Treasury Building burned. We were going to use that scene in episode six, but it didn’t make it into the final version of the script.
ACG/HN: In one scene, John Adams calls Thomas Jefferson "a walking contradiction." Wasn’t the same true of Adams himself?
KE: Adams believed government was the ordering of contradictions we find in our character. He himself needed a check and balance in his own personality. That’s a very Puritan way of thinking, and it informs how he came up with the American form of checks and balances government. It derives from Cicero, but Adams refined it. We live under Adam’s government, and it starts with this idea of contradiction. It’s good for government that the Senate and House often disagree. It keeps bad bills from becoming law.
We didn’t have to impose a lot of contemporary thinking on this material. It’s already there. This IS a contemporary period. The concerns of Adams and his contemporaries are still our concerns. Adams defending the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre can be said to compare with lawyers defending Guantanamo prisoners today.
I grew up in Texas and thought the Western myth was the defining myth of our culture. I discovered Adams’ period, which only gets superficially taught, is the most vibrant period in American history, and we need to understand it to understand our own times. These were larger-than-life individuals, yet they transcended their era to create a whole new government.
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