John Adams: A Presidential Miniseries

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in John Adams. Courtesy of HBO.

The award-winning John Adams limited series, starring Paul Giamatti as the former president, is solid viewing for Presidents Day.

I’m not going to dive into the plot of every part of the miniseries. If you know the story of John Adams, you already know what’s going to happen. Well, maybe. They certainly play with the history to an extent! What I will tell you right now is that the book is better. I originally watched the first three episodes in the summer of 2021. For one reason or another, I never finished watching the miniseries last year. I decided that I would use Presidents’ Day weekend to watch the full miniseries. It’s certainly worth it but again, there are flaws.

You can never count out Playtone when it comes to a solid HBO miniseries. This time around, they bring historian David McCullough’s John Adams biography to the screen. You could never pack this into a feature film because it wouldn’t do the story justice. This is why a miniseries was the only way to go. One thing to note is that Tom Hooper directed the series years before he landed in director jail for one of the worst movies of all time. Hooper makes some of the same directing choices that seemingly plague him throughout his career.

While it’s a solid miniseries, there are a number of historical errors throughout the miniseries. Instead of going through them beat by beat, I’ll just point you to the History News Network. I’m a history buff–U.S. history was one of my favorite subjects in school. This summer will mark twenty years since I first read David McCullough’s award-winning John Adams biography but screenwriters Kirk Ellis and Michelle Ashford make up more than they should. Or they play around a bit with history when they shouldn’t. All you have to do is look at the ages of the Adams children in the first episode. John Quincy Adams should not be going on his teen years during the Boston Massacre! The list goes on and on. But again, just click the above link and you’ll see where I’m coming from.

Moving Nabby Adams Smith’s breast cancer diagnosis to 1803 doesn’t do anyone any favors. Honestly, it’s on the same level as Bohemian Rhapsody moving Freddie Mercury’s diagnosis to before the Live-Aid concert in Bohemian Rhapsody. There is no reason to mess with history in this regard. And again, this is just one of the bad choices in the miniseries. The series could really do better when it comes to actual history. The miniseries is one of those cases where audiences really do need to read the book. Historical distortions do not do anybody good. I do not lie when I say that the book is better.

My gripes on history notwithstanding, this cast is deserving of every accolade they received. Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, and Tom Wilkinson are top-notch in the miniseries. Their performances really make us believe that we’re watching the real people. Obviously, some of the “letters” are now in-person encounters but they have to take some dramatic liberties.

John Adams the miniseries should not be viewed as a definitive take of the president’s life. David McCullough’s book is still the best resource.

DIRECTOR: Tom Hooper
SCREENWRITERS: Kirk Ellis, Michelle Ashford
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman
CAST: Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane, David Morse, Željko Ivanek, Danny Huston, John Bedford Lloyd, Rufus Sewell, Justin Theroux, Ritchie Coster, Guy Henry, Tom Hollander, Sarah Polley, John Dossett, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Judith Magre, Steven Hinkle, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Andrew Scott, Mamie Gummer, Caroline Corrie, and Tom Wilkinson

HBO aired John Adams in 2008. The miniseries is currently available to stream on HBO Max.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.