HBO's decision to premiere "John Adams" in an election year, during a hotly contested Democratic presidential nomination campaign, may prove to be a boon to the premium cable channel.
Based on the biography by David McCullough, this history of America's second president shows the hardships the Founding Fathers faced, as well as parallels to modern issues.
"One of the things I have tried to avoid throughout my career is imposing a personal or modern sensibility on the thoughts and actions of people who lived well before I did," said Kirk Ellis, screenwriter and co-executive producer of the seven-part, nine-hour "John Adams" (8 tonight). "The gift David's book provides is that this incendiary time at the founding of our country just has parallels with things happening today."
Ellis pointed to a scene in tonight's premiere of Adams (Paul Giamatti) agreeing to take the case of British soldiers. "Counsel is the last thing an accused person should lack in a free country," Adams says.
"That came straight out of [Adams'] lips," Ellis said. Some viewers might apply Adams' words to modern times and the divergent opinions on how to adjudicate suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay. "It just happened to be part of the time when Adams was living and we are living."
Executive produced by Tom Hanks, who performed a similar role on HBO's acclaimed "Band of Brothers" and "From the Earth to the Moon," "John Adams" filmed from February to July 2007. Many exteriors were shot in Virginia at Colonial Williamsburg (playing the role of Colonial Philadelphia). The production also built sets on a soundstage and created a backlot outside Richmond, Va., before moving to Europe to film in Hungary for scenes of Adams in France.
"'Adams' is by far the largest project I've ever been involved with in every respect," said Ellis, who also scripted the TNT miniseries "Into the West." While that story was told on a large canvas, Ellis said "Adams" offers a more intimate tale. "It's structured so we see things only as John or [his wife] Abigail would have witnessed them directly. That makes for a much more personal story. This story is about people first and events second. ... We're essentially doing one man's very personal and very eccentric story of times and events he was embroiled in."
Ellis said Hanks insisted the miniseries remain true to the spirit of McCullough's book, not turning the story into a costume pageant or "prettifying it."
Adams is well known for his correspondence with Abigail while the two were apart, and early drafts of the script featured excerpts from those letters in voiceover narration. But Ellis said producers ultimately opted to drop the epistolary style.
"It was felt, especially by our director Tom Hooper, that hearing the letters being read over scenes of Adams and Abigail separated actually brought them closer together and mitigated the drama of their separation," Ellis said in a recent phone interview. Instead, Ellis took some content from the letters and dramatized them once the pair were reunited. Other scenes show John and Abigail separately as Abigail obsessively cleans windows or fights with her daughter, sublimating the anger she feels toward her husband.
For Giamatti the role of Adams represented a rare opportunity.
"It's a Shakespearean character," Giamatti said in a conference call with reporters earlier this month. "I get to run the gamut of emotions, highs and lows, depressive and exultant, enormously intelligent and earthy. He's all of these things."
The actor recalled some of the first advice he received from McCullough: Don't forget that Adams was both a farmer and an example of someone who's been well-educated. Adams didn't live in an ivory tower; he was of the common people.
"He has a huge capacity to take everything in and examine it and try to understand it and break everything down," Giamatti said.
Unlike other cast members who portray better-known historical figures -- George Washington (David Morse), Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) and Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) -- Giamatti said Adams was more of a clean slate.
"I did feel in some ways those other guys have a bit more of the kind of marbled, buffed burden on their shoulders," said Giamatti, known for his roles in "Sideways," "American Splendor," "Howard Stern's Private Parts" and, more recently, "The Nanny Diaries" (also opposite Linney) and "Fred Claus." He was Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in "Cinderella Man."
Given the current American political climate, Giamatti said he couldn't conceive of Adams surviving modern politics.
"I can't imagine him faring too well with his unfailing ability to just say what is on his mind constantly."
Perhaps, but Ellis is thrilled with the prospect of "John Adams" airing in the midst of primary season.
"None of us anticipated the electorate would be so incredibly engaged in the process," he said. "One of the points the film makes repeatedly is in this period of the late 18th century, duty and responsibility weren't just bywords. They were a way of life. These people lived and breathed and died for the cause of civic responsibility, and that is a point that cannot be too heavily stated in this series."
TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1112. First Published March 16, 2008 4:00 AM