Posted by: GeekHiker | July 7, 2008

Thoughts On John Adams

Mention the topic of “history” to a lot of people, and you’ll immediately watch their eyes glaze over or roll into the back of their heads. Memories, no matter how distant, of boring lectures and the memorization of rote facts (the ‘ol names, dates and places) will cross their face. Probably mixed with a look of horror.

Unfortunately, this is the result of so many, many history classes being mis-taught, as history, more than any subject perhaps, is the story of people. The story of us.

Had someone told me that when I rented “John Adams” that I would find it not only riveting entertainment (this I somewhat suspected) but that I would, in fact, see some kinship with the title character, I would have thought them stark raving mad.

Oh, who am I kidding. I would have only thought that after running to Wikipedia to refresh my memory of who Adams was, as his name is not quite so well known as Washington, Jefferson, and the like. Oh, yeah, sure, I was an AP History student in high school (heck, I even passed the test), but that was… oh, never you mind how long ago that was.

As a miniseries, John Adams is, in my humble opinion, quite fantastic. Beyond the acting (Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, ’nuff said), the series shows the initial, floundering steps America took in more realistic terms than one usually sees.

The production design, costuming and effects on the film are universally good. The New England of the time looks probably close to what it was: muddy, dirty, cold, often uncomfortable. Watching what happens to people’s teeth over the 50-year timespan of the film will not only send you running to your dentist, you’ll want to give him a hug out of sheer gratitude.

Even more, the film gives a better sense of the uncertainty of the times than I ever remember being in the history books. The debate between those who wanted to stay with the mother country and those who wanted to rebel. The decisions made and the unsureness behind them. The fact that, as elevated as the status of those at the center of those times today, they were real people, flawed and human, just doing the best that they could in uncertain times.

“John Adams” is history as it should be told. The author of the book on which the film is based, David McCullough, states it best in the short documentary on him on the DVD:

“History is not about dates and quotes and obscure provisos. History is about life. About change. About consequences. Cause and effect. It’s about the mystery of human nature. The mystery of time. And it isn’t just about politics and the military and social issues, which is almost always the way it’s taught. It’s about music and poetry and drama and science and medicine and money and love.”

I started watching on Friday. I finished all nine-plus hours by Sunday. And never lost interest.

* * *

At the center of it all was John Adams. Not a fictional character, but a real man, with all the positive and negative qualities that we all come with. As the series continued, it dawned on me: I was starting to feel a kinship with this man. I understood him.

Not because I’m the things he was. I’m not. I’m no great speaker, I’m not a good lawyer (or even a lawyer, for that matter), I’m not intelligent enough to participate in the birthing of a democracy in an age of monarchies. We certainly don’t look anything alike, either.

Personality-wise, though…

John Adams, seemingly unlike the other pedestal mounted men of the era, was quite imperfect, quite human. He sometimes had a quick temper, as do I, though not to his degree. He sometimes became frustrated when people didn’t understand him, as do I. He could sometimes be a difficult man to deal with as, I suppose, I sometimes am. He could often frustrate even his closest friends, as I know I on rare occasion certainly have.

Adams wasn’t always liked by people, especially when he spoke his mind more fervently, and honestly, than people were comfortable with. On the first page of McCullough’s book* he writes “…he loved to talk. He was a known talker. There were some, even among his admirers, who wished he talked less. He himself wished he talked less…”

I know that exact feeling. So often I have been in social situations, talking more than I should, with a little voice in my head screaming “shut up, Shut Up, SHUT UP!”, but seemingly unable to stop myself.

If McCullough’s portrait of Adams is anywhere near accurate to who the man was, then I sense a kindred spirit in him. I’d like to think that we were and are both, sometimes, difficult to know, but worth knowing nonetheless.

* * *

There was, however, one difference between Adams and I: Abigail Adams.

You see, “John Adams” isn’t just a film about history. It’s also the story of John and Abigail Adams. If ever there was a couple that embodied “behind every successful man, there stands a woman”, it was this couple.

They left behind their significant correspondence, written during the times Adams was in Philadelphia or Europe. Letters sent over years being apart, showing now their relationship: one of mutual admiration and respect. Two people who not only loved each other, but supported each other, intellectually challenged each other, worked through difficult times for each other.

In some areas, Abigail was even more talented than her husband: she got along with people better, and read them better. She was her husband’s chief political advisor, his rock, his sounding board, often his conscience.

The thing is that, for all his flaws, Abigail loved her husband. Even when those flaws frustrated her, angered her, she still cared about him, for more than 50 years of marriage. And that with significant time spent apart.

I’ve admitted before that I am, at times, an unabashed romantic, no matter how hard I sometimes try to suppress it. I won’t give it away here, but the words Adams wrote to his wife, spoken aloud by Giamatti at the end of the film, show that he and I were alike in that respect as well.

I suppose that’s what we all need in life: an Abigail who will be at our side, not just in spite of our flaws, but because of them, and make us a better person for it.

* * *

*Which, yes, has most definitely moved to the top of my reading list.



  1. I’ve never really been much of a history buff, but this post really made me want to see this.

    I live in New England for goodness sakes, I’m surprised it’s not required viewing!

  2. Now when people land on my site using the search phrase “what does geek hiker look like” I can say with some assurance, John Adams. He looks like John Adams, or Paul Giamatti, take your pick. That is what you meant when you said you shared a kinship with the title character, right?

  3. Great review, by the way. As much as I love history, I was on the fence about this movie/book. You’ve convinced me! McCullough should share some of the royalties with you. Let me know how that works out.

  4. I’ve seen ads on one of the cable channels up here and have wanted to see it based on those but, of course, your review clinched it.

    Must find movie…

    I think you are cuter than Paul but he may just have you beat in the acting department.

    I also love that you alluded to your romantic streak once again. You are a good package GH.

  5. OK you’ve convinced me to Netflix this movie.
    BUT GH! didn’t you mean to type “BESIDE every successful man, there stands a woman” !!?? I know you did…. LOL.

  6. Wow, this definitely sounds like something I should buckle down and watch. Most of what I learned in U.S. History (which I totally aced) has trickled out of my brain and into the gutter somewhere. It would be good for me to refresh some of that grey matter.

    Thanks for the detailed review. And have faith that your Abigail is out there. Because she is!

  7. Great review GH. The Wife’s Godson is a history teacher – a good one I might add. I may have to recommend the book/movie to him.

  8. Dagnabbit!! I am REALLY trying to NOT LEARN this summer…and here you come with this post that makes me want to go watch a movie that, even though it sounds interesting, is ultimately about HISTORY!!! AAAARGHGH!!!!

  9. Thanks for the review – so wonderfully put. All of my history classes were just as you said – memorization of facts and little effort to make the subject interesting. It wasn’t until I was an adult when I realized that I didn’t have to be afraid of History and that reading biographies about dead people were actually fascinating. I think I’ll go rent John Adams too.

  10. I love history! I’ll be trying to see this :o)

  11. East Coast Teacher – Glad I could be inspirational.

    Dingo – Heh, missed that whole section on how we didn’t look alike, eh?

    Dingo – I hope you rent and enjoy. I suspect it won’t work out so well, but that’s okay.

    Just A Girl – At the library perhaps? Thanks and I’m fairly certain he does.

    Charlotte – I actually plugged every variation of the quote into Google I could think of (see the work I do for my posts?) and the one I used seemed to be the most common/standard one…

    Mel Heth – I suggest spreading it out over several days. Some of the politics are interesting, but dry. The tar-and-feathering, though? Deeply disturbing. And thanks for the vote of support.

    Homer-Dog – I think he’ll like.

    Ms. H. – LOL; sorry ‘bout that. But what if you learn and are entertained at the same time? That’s okay, isn’t it?

    LY – I had the benefit of having a mother who was a teacher, and knew how to make history interesting to me as a kid. Let me know what you think of it (that goes for all who rent, of course).

    Narami – Cool!

  12. noooo, what I was getting at is… regardless of the traditional phrasing of the expression, YOU should have written “BESIDE every man…” because it’s more contemporary and politically correct, not to mention more accurate… LOL

  13. The Hubster is WAAAAYYY into History and I’ve fallen asleep to many of his History Channel DVDs. I wasn’t particularly excited to watch this one, but I was pleasantly surprised at how intelligent they made Abigail without making her all domineering bitchy. I loves me some Paul Giamati, but I did fall asleep. (9 hours of History with no singing or dancing or talking animals? C’mon!)

    Puh-leeze don’t lose your unabashed romantic side. It’s guys like you that make history like this happen!

  14. Oh GeekHiker, I know you were just being modest. That’s like when you say, “Well, some people say I look like Christian Bale, but I don’t believe them. He’s taller.”

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