The Adams Family

EPISODE ONE PODCAST

Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today. 

I’m Lia Paradis.

And I’m Brian Crim. 

If you’re just joining us now, we encourage you to go back and listen to Season 1, where we explored how mainstream film and TV processed 9/11. Particularly as we get closer to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this September, we think you’ll find it interesting to revisit the impact that event had on popular culture in the years since it happened. 

This season, we’re taking up a general theme as our organizing principle instead of a single event. Rebels and rebellions, revolutionaries and revolts, insurrectionists and traitors, freedom fighters and patriots. All of these are terms that have come up a lot over the past year, particularly since January 6th, 2021. Many of those who stormed the Capitol claimed the American Revolution as inspiration for their actions. The infamous Lauren Boebert, congresswoman from Colorado, tweeted “1776” the morning of the 6th. But many others have asserted that the founding fathers would deplore the current, violent disregard for the Constitution. 

In reality, the behavior on January 6th was far less violent and disruptive than the actions of the Revolution-era rebels. But school textbooks, popular biographies, and standard political rhetoric have all done a pretty good job of draining the violence out of the events of the 1770s and distancing the founding fathers from what’s left. This has complicated Americans’ attitude towards the American Revolution, and to revolutions and rebellions in general, and also our feelings about the freedom fighters – or insurrectionists, traitors – or heroes, who fight them.

So, this season, we’re going to take a long look at how Hollywood responded to contemporary events in the 20th and 21st centuries by retelling the stories of rebels and revolutionaries, and the rebellions and revolutions they were part of. 

Along the way, we’ll also be exploring what gets called a revolution, and who gets counted as a revolutionary. Spoiler alert – sometimes those labels are compliments and sometimes they’re accusations.

It’s probably worth reiterating what the name of our podcast signifies how we approach our topics. Napoleon hated that he wasn’t going to be in control of his historical legacy because he ended up on the losing side at Waterloo and was powerless to shape the narrative. So, he declared that it didn’t really matter because history was simply a set of lies agreed upon over time. 

We started this podcast because we’re always interested in how versions of history get used by writers, producers, and directors to comment on contemporary events. Sometimes, Hollywood wants to challenge the established narrative. Other times, it uses a familiar story to disguise a discussion of something else. But more often than not, Hollywood simply wants to lean on familiar tales that make their work easier. We figure there are a lot of people out there who are both cinephiles and history buffs, and, like us, you would love to learn about the often volatile relationship between history and Hollywood. That’s where we come in. 

(By the way, we tend to use the term ‘Hollywood’ as a short hand for ‘mainstream TV and film’. It doesn’t need to be American in origin. The borders are very fluid these days. Multiple international production companies can be involved in a single movie or tv series. But generally speaking, we are focused on stuff that’s hoping to reach a broad and general audience, no matter what country it seems to come from.) 

Introduction

To start off this new season, we thought it would be a good idea to look at the revolution our listeners think they’re most familiar with – the American Revolution. Later in the season, we’ll expand our scope to look at events elsewhere in the world and, in particular, how rebels and insurgents took the West at their word – as champions of democracy and enemies to oppressors – only to find that wasn’t the case. 

We’ll also expand the definition of revolution to include social revolutions, and see how – over time – those revolutionaries have had their edges softened and their biographies modified so that they become less confrontational and more palatable.  Finally, we’ll talk about cinematic depictions of failed rebellions and doomed freedom fighters. So let’s get started.

There are surprisingly few films and TV series set in or around the American Revolution. It’s actually kind of strange, once you go looking, to realize how few there are. One of the reasons why The Patriot probably immediately comes into our listeners minds is because there aren’t many more. 

But there are lots of books. Over the next 2 episodes, we’re going to look at 4 tv series total, 3 of which are adaptation of books. The series are HBO’s John Adams, AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty, and a joint Canadian Broadcasting Company and BET production called The Book of Negroes. 

Our clever name for this episode is The Adams Family.  We compare and contrast John Adams and Sons of Liberty, which focuses on his cousin Sam Adams. John Adams is adapted from one of those ‘books you get your father-in-law for his birthday” – a Pulitzer-prize winner written by David McCullough, who it’s worth noting is not a trained historian. Sons of Liberty, in stark contrast, is not reflective of any historical research whatsoever. This is not to say the characters and events aren’t real, but it’s safe to say these Founding Fathers are like none you’ve encountered before. 

As an aside – there is also a graphic novel series with that name that’s set in the Revolutionary era. Its heroes are 2 young runaway slaves who get superpowers. We haven’t read them yet but they sound like they’d be a blast. And totally ripe for cinematic adaptation. We’d definitely watch that series!

Ok – so what are the lies agreed upon relating to the American Revolution?  

First of all, that the Revolution was simple and quick and had an obvious outcome.

Second, that the Founding Fathers were the only important actors in the Revolution

And third, that the war was waged between idealistic freedom fighters and corrupt occupiers – good guys vs. bad guys, clearly defined.

We pair up John Adams and Sons of Liberty because they work together to uphold each of these lies despite being very different stylistically, and even ideologically.

As we always do in this podcast, we’ll first recap the productions we discuss for those unfamiliar with them. And we won’t worry about spoilers too much. After all, I think we all know how the revolution turned out.

Recaps

HBO’s seven episode miniseries John Adams ran in early 2008, coinciding with Barack Obama’s first year in office, and is a pretty faithful adaptation of David McCullough’s mammoth biography. The series was directed by British director Tom Hooper, who works in all genres, and adapted by Kirk Ellis. Tom Hanks was a producer, following up his successful (and excellent) WWII series on HBO – Band of Brothers

The cast is stellar, as you might expect from a prestige project like this, and they really cleaned house during awards seasons. Paul Giammatti is Adams and Laura Linney is Abigail. Their letters form the basis of the scripts, and you can tell. 

Other notable performances include David Morse as George Washington, Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, Tom Wilkinson is Benjamin Franklin (Why are Brits always playing the Founding Fathers!!??) I also like Danny Huston as Sam Adams. You’ll notice Justin Theroux as John Hancock and Rufus Sewell as a pretty sketchy Alexander Hamilton, John Adams’ nemesis. I think Zeljiko Ivanek deserves a mention as John Dickinson, the most articulate opponent of Adams and the pro-independence faction in the Continental Congress. Great character actor.

John Adams covers about 50 years of his life, and by extension, the first 50 years of the so-called “American experiment.” Because it traces the biography of this particular Founding Father, the action of the Revolution – the complicated community loyalties, the risks to body and property, the broader economic hardships, and the straight up violence – is both relegated to the earlier episodes and is also most often happening elsewhere, rather than where Adams is. Most of it was filmed in Colonial Williamsburg, and Hungary passes for all the European stops on Adams sojourn abroad.

The other show we’ll be discussing, Sons of Liberty, couldn’t be more different, although this History Channel production was also filmed in Eastern Europe and again stars many British actors as the revolutionaries. But this time, they’re young and gorgeous and fit and the events look much more like the film version of a video game than the film version of a David McCollough biography. 

In this depiction of the revolution, Sam Adams is the central character. Played by Ben Barnes, who may be familiar to listeners as Prince Caspian from two of the Narnia movies or as Logan in Westworld, about 20 years has been shaved off Sam Adams’ real age, in order to allow him to do parkour across the rooftops of colonial Boston. 

The rest of the cast includes Henry Thomas as Sam’s older and more staid cousin, John Adams, although in real life he was the younger one by more than a decade! And Jason O’Mara is a classic, noble version of Washington – a man of few words and great deeds. Dean Norris, of all people – yes, Hank from Breaking Bad – plays Ben Franklin. 

But the real stand out is Rafe Spall, talented son of Timothy Spall, as John Hancock. He’s a much less important character in the other tv shows and films about the revolution that we’re discussing, and Hancock’s central role here is key to the quite different focus of this 3-part, 6 hour miniseries.

The series starts in 1765 and concludes with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Neither of us are historians who specialize in this period, but we’re pretty sure that the entire revolution wasn’t Sam Adams’ personal project. Nevertheless, there are aspects of this series we want to discuss because, in some ways, it portrays the motivations of historical actors more realistically than other shows have. 

So again, let’s remind ourselves of the Lies Agreed Upon we’ll be addressing in this episode and what was going on when these shows were conceived.

When I teach both the French Revolution and the American Revolution, my students always express surprise at how long they both lasted and how much stuff happens between the well-established “momentous events” we tend to focus on in textbooks. I also teach the American Revolution from the British perspective, which generally blows students’ minds. And, I point out that it was less a revolution than a case of ‘under new management’ – as most of the power structures, privileges, and forms of oppression remained as far as the average poor white, freed black, and slave were concerned. 

By characterizing the revolution as quick and simple with an inevitable outcome (lie #1) and conducted primarily by the Founding Fathers in the form of a glorified debating society (lie #2), both popular culture and basic elementary and secondary school civics textbooks have encouraged Americans to imagine it was wholly motivated by idealism and noble intent, and carried out by always moral and righteous patriots (lie #3). John Adams ticks all those boxes. 

Historical Context

If you recall from Season One, we are interested in how historical events are used by the creators of entertainment to talk about or react to contemporary events. It’s hard not to imagine that Tom Hanks and HBO were motivated to use the Founding Fathers to critique the outgoing Bush administration – one that was widely seen as immoral (starting wars based on knowingly false information, sanctioning rendition, torture, and imprisonment without trial). A David McCollough biography is really made to order for that sort of thing. 

In 2007, we were in year 6 of a war in Afghanistan and year 4 of a war in Iraq. Iraq was supposed to be quick and easy. The US would be greeted as liberators and educate the poor Iraqis about the inherent superiority of  democracy, private property, and “limited government.” We can see in John Adams – the miniseries not the person – a similarly oversimplified imagining of what is involved in regime change. The series cannot adequately portray the sacrifices of revolutionaries, the ones we know and the ones we don’t, or just how many people wanted nothing to do with it.

In fact, it’s interesting to note that even in the 2000s when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged, undermining any hopes about spreading the American experiment abroad, this easy peasy representation of the American Revolution wasn’t recognized as problematic. Reviews of John Adams rarely mention it. So lies #1 and #2 – that revolution was quick and easy, and mainly fueled by the Founding Fathers’ persuasive philosophical arguments – were well-served.

It’s probably hard to remember that in the 1990s the GOP started to have a zero tolerance policy when it came to tax increases. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform made signing a no tax increase pledge a requirement for Republican candidates at both the state and national level. And then the Koch Brothers, Norquist, and other AFR alumni weaponized this platform against their fellow Republicans and Democrats alike. They provided the funding and the organizational know-how for the supposedly  ‘grassroots’ Tea Party movement. 

Obviously the Tea Party is directed against the Obama presidency – his presence was horrifying to many on the Right for obvious and ugly reasons. The loosely organized coalition of interests, some radical and racist, others just Newt Gingrich “Contract with America” in new clothes, all tried to claim some deep connection to the Founding Fathers. Here’s former Republican Congressman Joe DioGuardi being interviewed in 2010 about the Tea Party and its roots in the idealized early Republic.

He sounds kind of reasonable here, blaming both parties in a sense, but his argument that only rank amateurs can represent the people as “the founding fathers intended” is so presumptive, and typical of Tea Party rhetoric at the time. 

The “Don’t Tread on Me” iconography of the Revolution was showing up at rallies and town halls even before the ‘official’ creation of the Tea Party in 2009. The makers of John Adams were probably interested in reclaiming or correcting this narrative, and reclaiming this iconography, which we see in the episodes connected to the Revolution. 

The 6 hour miniseries Sons of Liberty appeared on the History Channel. Much of the History Channel’s programming tends towards the conservative – a small c conservative that at times overlaps with a more overtly political agenda. And, just by paying attention to the kinds of commercials that air on the History Channel, you can tell they definitely have an older viewership. With this in mind, Sons of Liberty is an interesting take on all three lies, which is why we’ve included it here. 

The show was in production around 2013 and 2014. It’s worth reminding listeners about the global revolutionary context of that time. It was a few years after the early promise of the Arab Spring died and was replaced by the slow motion genocide in Syria and an equivocating Obama admistration doing nothing about it. Moreover, the Republican Congress launched numerous interminable Benghazi investigations focused on then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. What should have been a moment focused  on the idealism of mostly young people in the Middle East and North Africa – much like our buff heroes in Sons of Liberty trying to overthrow oppressors – devolved into stories about how self-serving politicians manipulate fast-moving events for their own cynical purposes … as does Sons of Liberty

While Sons of Liberty was being filmed, in 2014, a series of events – foreign and domestic – further reinforced the sense that idealism was not only passe but almost laughably naive, and self-interest was the natural way of things. The ongoing corruption and descent into chaos in the nominally socialist Venezuela, and Putin’s brazen invasion and occupation of Crimea, with few repercussions, fed a pro-America, totally un-self-critical wave of news coverage that was reinforced and championed across the media spectrum. 

President Vladimir Putin delivers his address on the Crimean referendum on reunification with Russia in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, March 18, 2014.

In this confused and contradictory political climate, it shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, that the longstanding subjects of American civic worship, the Sons of Liberty, got a complete makeover. In this series, they are motivated by financial self-interest and democracy is replaced by capitalism as the organizing ideal for these ‘patriots’ – a fact that seems to go unnoticed by the writers, directors, and reviewers of the series, which is both telling, and scary.

Listen here as the show’s producer expresses his total lack of familiarity with the rudimentary history of the revolutionary era. I think this explains why the overt celebration of capitalism is what truly comes out on screen.  

Ugh. It’s so hard to listen to that total disregard for historical knowledge. Anyone can be a historian! It only takes a couple of hours, kids, and you too can discover stuff no one has ever known before! I’m glad they discovered google. 

Discussion

So now that we’ve offered up a basic recap, of both the shows and the historical context, let’s get into some details that jumped out at us.

One theme shared by both series is filial piety – fathers and sons. In the 18th century sons did their father’s bidding, chose the same career, etc . . . The father was literally king of his castle. This dynamic extends all they way up to mother country and colony, the Crown and his subjects.

It was unheard of for colonists to challenge the Crown, and if they did, they should expect a swift punishment. Colonists should be grateful, loyal, obedient, and accept their status in the empire. But the Americans didn’t, they hoped and expected to be seen as British citizens, not treated as errant school children. 

I think each show is really good at linking father-son tensions in their plots to this larger, sometimes unspoken issue of the Revolution – why don’t you love me, Daddy?  The Crown’s coldness is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for most of the founding fathers.

Consider this scene in Sons of Liberty. Benjamin Franklin is once again getting dressed down by Parliament for colonial insubordination. The word “sons” is important here. 

Notice how the Prime Minister calls the colonists “childish and immature”, “beaten into submission.” Parenting 101 for this era, no doubt. But we can also detect the lessons learned from the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – you’ll create terrorists by trying to crush them.

The series John Adams is an often plodding biography that details faults as well as his brilliance. For one, he was not the best father, or maybe he was pretty typical of the era. He bullied his son John Quincy into law and politics and disowned Charles while he was actually president. Charles dies penniless in a Philadelphia flophouse. 

When John Adams meets King George III in his position as US ambassador to Britain we feel the same sort of disapproval from the king. Adams assures the king they are still family in some ways, just all grown up, not that this pleases father. In this clip you hear a very reasonable sounding King George complimenting Adams for his honesty and devotion to his new nation.

Notice how George couldn’t resist mentioning the young US’ “want for a monarchy” – in other words, Oh, you silly boy. You think you’re a grown up but you have no idea. You’ll pay for your youthful hubris. Of course, Adams was run out of England soon after this because the press trashed him. He was never meant to be a diplomat.

And the global pecking order – with the French incapable of imagining that what’s going on in the colonies is really of any significance – they’re such rubes, after all!! – is redolent of America’s lazy confidence about its superpower status.

And part of that lazy confidence is the way that the story of the Revolution is so often framed as a story about selfless idealists. In many depictions, like in John Adams, the struggle becomes so drained of violence that it almost seems the founding fathers just debated the country into existence. In contrast, however, Sons of Liberty is refreshingly frank about the fact that self-interest and profits motivated many.

To get at the difference, listen to this brief conversation that takes place between Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin in Paris, from John Adams lounging in the beautiful gardens of a chateau in France while debating the formation of their future government. We have the pragmatic Adams versus the idealistic Jefferson essentially lay out the competing philosophies that have, in one way or another, defined American politics since. It comes down to how much faith you have in humanity

In Sons of Liberty, the narrative is surprisingly and maybe even refreshingly honest about the motivations – capitalism, lower taxes, straight out avarice at times. The key to tracing this evolution is the character of John Hancock, who starts out as a corrupt businessman with British protection. As things heat up in Boston, his advantages slip away and he begins to see the light. 

Sons of Liberty gives us the libertarian strain of the American philosophy, no doubt. But it’s also much closer to the truth. Many of the patriots of Boston were smugglers. The wealthy of Boston (and NYC and Philly) were less inclined to protest too much against British laws because they were more motivated by the bottom line than ideals. And, while you see the reality of British soldiers being forced upon the civilian population, you don’t see the colonial settlers further inland who disregarded laws prohibiting Western settlement, and then demanded that same British military protect them and their farms, from both the First Nations people and (potentially) the French.

What’s disturbing, though, is that capitalism is treated as a political system – democracy and capitalism are conflated. So ‘freedom’ is reduced simply to ‘the freedom to make money’. The rejection of arbitrary rule by a monarch, a discussion of the contrast of a Constitutional government, etc. is missing. 

So in John Adams, the blood is drained out and we’re left with nothing but abstract ideals and talking heads. In Sons of Liberty, the idealism is drained out and we’re left with nothing but self-interest and adventure seeking. 

The revolution was not inevitable and neither is it secure. John Adams leaves us with the old adage that every generation is responsible for safeguarding the fragile Republic. “The Revolution Never Ends.” Imagine what a series on the American Revolution would look like after the last four years? 

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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