John Adams (miniseries)

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John Adams
Television promotional poster
Based on John Adams by
David McCullough
Written byKirk Ellis
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Paul Giamatti
Laura Linney
Stephen Dillane
David Morse
Tom Wilkinson
Danny Huston
Rufus Sewell
Justin Theroux
Guy Henry
Theme music composerRobert Lane
Joseph Vitarelli
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes7
Executive producers Tom Hanks
Gary Goetzman
ProducersDavid Coatsworth
Steve Shareshian
Running time501 minutes
Production companies HBO Films
High Noon Productions
Mid Atlantic Films
Budget$100 million [1]
Original network HBO
Original releaseMarch 16 (2008-03-16) 
April 27, 2008 (2008-04-27)

John Adams is a 2008 American television miniseries chronicling most of U.S. President John Adams's political life and his role in the founding of the United States. The miniseries was directed by Tom Hooper and starred Paul Giamatti in the title role. Kirk Ellis wrote the screenplay based on the 2001 book John Adams by David McCullough. The biopic of Adams and the story of the first 50 years of the United States was broadcast in seven parts by HBO between March 16 and April 20, 2008. John Adams received widespread critical acclaim and many prestigious awards. The show won four Golden Globe awards and 13 Emmy awards, more than any other miniseries in history.


Plot summary

Part I: Join or Die (1770–1774)

Episode 1 opens in Boston 1770 on the cold winter night of the Boston Massacre. It portrays John Adams arriving at the scene following the gunshots from British soldiers firing upon a mob of Boston citizens. Adams, a respected lawyer in his mid-30s known for his dedication to the law and justice, is sought as defense counsel for the accused Redcoats. Their commander, Captain Thomas Preston, asks him to defend them in court. Reluctant at first, he agrees despite knowing this will antagonize his neighbors and friends. Adams is depicted to have taken the case because he believed everyone deserves a fair trial and he wanted to uphold the standard of justice. Adams' cousin Samuel Adams is one of the main colonists opposed to the actions of the British government. He is one of the executive members of the Sons of Liberty, an anti-British group of agitators. Adams is depicted as a studious man doing his best to defend his clients. The show also illustrates Adams' appreciation and respect for his wife, Abigail. In one scene, Adams is shown having his wife proofread his summation as he takes her suggestions. After many sessions in court, the jury returns a verdict of not guilty of murder for each defendant. Additionally, the episode illustrates the growing tension over the Coercive Acts ("Intolerable Acts"), and Adams' election to the First Continental Congress.

Part II: Independence (1774–1776)

The second episode covers the disputes among the members of the Second Continental Congress toward declaring independence from Great Britain as well as the final drafting of the Declaration of Independence. At the Continental Congresses Adams is depicted as the lead advocate for independence. He is in the vanguard in establishing that there is no other option than to break off and declare independence. He is also instrumental in the selection of then-Colonel George Washington as the new head of the Continental Army.

However, in his zeal for immediate action, he manages to alienate many of the other founding fathers, going so far as to insult John Dickinson, who is for conciliation to the Crown, implying that the man suffers from a religiously based moral cowardice. Later, Benjamin Franklin quietly chastens Adams, saying it is "perfectly acceptable to insult a man in private. He may even thank you for it afterwards. But when you do it in public, they tend to think you are serious." This points out Adams' primary flaw: his bluntness and lack of gentility toward his political opponents, one that would make him many enemies and which would eventually plague his political career. It would also, eventually, contribute to historians' disregard for his many achievements. The episode also shows how Abigail copes with issues at home as her husband was away much of the time participating in the Continental Congress. She employs the use of then pioneer efforts in the field of preventative medicine and inoculation against smallpox for herself and the children.

Part III: Don't Tread on Me (1777–1781)

In Episode 3, Adams travels to Europe with his young son John Quincy during the Revolutionary War seeking alliances with foreign nations, during which the ship transporting them battles a British frigate. It first shows Adams' embassy with Benjamin Franklin in the court of Louis XVI of France. The old French nobility, who are in the last decade before being consumed by the French Revolution, are portrayed as effete and decadent. They meet cheerfully with Franklin, seeing him as a romantic figure, little noting the democratic infection he brings with him. Adams, on the other hand, is a plain spoken and faithful man, who finds himself out of his depth surrounded by an entertainment- and sex-driven culture among the French elite. Adams finds himself at sharp odds with Benjamin Franklin, who has adapted himself to the French, seeking to obtain by seduction what Adams would gain through histrionics. Franklin sharply rebukes Adams for his lack of diplomatic acumen, describing it as a "direct insult followed by a petulant whine". Franklin soon has Adams removed from any position of diplomatic authority in Paris. His approach is ultimately successful and was to result in the conclusive Franco-American victory at Yorktown.

Adams, chastened and dismayed but learning from his mistakes, then travels to the Dutch Republic to obtain monetary support for the Revolution. Although the Dutch agree with the American cause, they do not consider the new union a reliable and credit-worthy client. Adams ends his time in the Netherlands in a state of progressive illness, having sent his son away as a diplomatic secretary to the Russian Empire.

Part IV: Reunion (1781–1789)

The fourth episode shows John Adams being notified of the end of the Revolutionary War and the defeat of the British. He is then sent to Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783. While overseas, he spends time with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Abigail visits him. Franklin informs John Adams that he was appointed as the first American Ambassador to Great Britain and thus has to relocate to London. John Adams is poorly received by the British during this time—he is the representative for a recently hostile power, and represents in his person what many British at the time regarded as a disastrous end to its early Empire. He meets with his former sovereign, George III, and while the meeting is not a disaster, he is excoriated in British newspapers. In 1789, he returns to Massachusetts for the first presidential election and he and Abigail are reunited with their children, now grown. George Washington is elected the first President of the United States and John Adams as the first Vice President.

Initially, Adams is disappointed and wishes to reject the post of Vice President because he feels there is a disproportionate number of electoral votes in favor of George Washington (Adams' number of votes pales in comparison to those garnered by Washington). In addition, John feels the position of Vice President is not a proper reflection of all the years of service he has dedicated to his nation. However, Abigail successfully influences him to accept the nomination.

Part V: Unite or Die (1788–1797)

The fifth episode begins with Vice President John Adams presiding over the Senate and the debate over what to call the new president. It depicts Adams as frustrated in this role: His opinions are ignored and he has no actual power, except in the case of a tied vote. He's excluded from George Washington's inner circle of cabinet members, and his relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton are strained. Even Washington himself gently rebukes him for his efforts to "royalize" the office of the Presidency, although Washington values Adams' counsel in other areas, considering him to be "reasonable company" when compared with Jefferson and Hamilton. A key event shown is the struggle to enact the Jay Treaty with Britain, which Adams himself must ratify before a deadlocked Senate (although historically his vote was not required). The episode concludes with his inauguration as the second president—and his subsequent arrival in a plundered executive mansion.

Part VI: Unnecessary War (1797–1801)

The sixth episode covers Adams's term as president and the rift between the Hamilton-led Federalists and Jefferson-led Republicans. Adams's neutrality pleases neither side and often angers both. His shaky relationship with vice president Thomas Jefferson worsens after taking defensive actions against the French Republic because of failed diplomatic attempts and the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams also alienates himself from the anti-French Alexander Hamilton after taking all actions possible to prevent a war with France. He disowns his son Charles, who soon dies as an alcoholic vagrant. Adams sees success late in his presidency with his campaign of preventing a war with France, but his success is clouded after losing the presidential election of 1800. After receiving so much bad publicity while in office, Adams loses the election against his vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, and runner-up Aaron Burr (both from the same party). Adams leaves the Presidential Palace (now known as the White House) in March 1801 and retires to his personal life in Massachusetts.

Part VII: Peacefield (1803–1826)

The final episode covers Adams's retirement years. His home life at Peacefield is full of pain and sorrow as his daughter, Nabby, dies of breast cancer and Abigail succumbs to typhoid fever. Adams does live to see the election of his son, John Quincy, as president, but is too ill to attend the inauguration. Adams and Jefferson are reconciled through correspondence in their last years. Both die hours apart on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was 83, Adams was 90.


Shooting locations

The 110-day shoot took place from February to July 2007 in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; and Budapest, Hungary. [2] [3] Some European scenes were shot in Keszthely, Sóskút, Fertőd and Kecskemét, Hungary. [4]

British officers ransacked an abandoned Continental Army war room in a scene shot in the Robert Carter house. Williamsburg's Public Hospital was in the background of the tent encampment of the Continental army which Adams visited in the winter of 1776, which was replicated using special-effects snow. The College of William and Mary's Wren Building represented a Harvard interior. Scenes were also filmed at the Governor's Palace. [5]

Sets, stage space, backlot and production offices were housed in an old Mechanicsville AMF warehouse in Richmond, Virginia. Some street scenes with cobblestone pavements and colonial storefronts were shot in historic neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. Countryside surrounding Richmond in Hanover County and Powhatan County was chosen to represent areas surrounding early Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. [6] [7]

Critical reception

The critical reception to the miniseries was predominantly positive. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the series has a rating of 82% based on 37 reviews, with an average rating of 8.56/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "Elegantly shot and relatively educational, John Adams is a worthy addition to the genre -- though its casting leaves something to be desired." [8] Metacritic assigned the series a weighted average score of 78 out of 100, based on 27 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". [9]

Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly rated the miniseries A−, [10] and Matt Roush of TV Guide praised the lead performances of Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. [11] David Hinckley of the New York Daily News felt John Adams "is, quite simply, as good as TV gets ... Best of all are two extraordinary performances at the center: Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail ... To the extent that John Adams is a period piece, it isn't quite as lush as, say, some BBC productions. But it looks fine, and it feels right, and sometimes what's good for you can also be just plain good." [12]

Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times had mixed feelings. She said the miniseries has "a Masterpiece Theatre gravity and takes a more somber, detailed and sepia-tinted look at the dawn of American democracy. It gives viewers a vivid sense of the isolation and physical hardships of the period, as well as the mores, but it does not offer significantly different or deeper insights into the personalities of the men — and at least one woman — who worked so hard for liberty ... [It] is certainly worthy and beautifully made, and it has many masterly touches at the edges, especially Laura Linney as Abigail. But Paul Giamatti is the wrong choice for the hero ... And that leaves the mini-series with a gaping hole at its center. What should be an exhilarating, absorbing ride across history alongside one of the least understood and most intriguing leaders of the American Revolution is instead a struggle." [13]

Among those unimpressed with the miniseries were Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times [14] and Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle . [15] Both cited the miniseries for poor casting and favoring style over storytelling.

Awards and nominations

Artios Awards Outstanding Achievement in Casting – Mini SeriesKathleen ChopinWon [16]
Golden Nymph Awards Best Mini SeriesWon [17]
Outstanding Actor – Mini Series Paul Giamatti Won
Danny Huston Nominated
David Morse Nominated
Tom Wilkinson Nominated
Hollywood Post Alliance Awards Outstanding Audio Post – Television Marc Fishman, Tony Lamberti, Stephen Hunter Flick,
and Vanessa Lapato (for "Don't Tread on Me)
Nominated [18]
Humanitas Prize 60 Minute Network or Syndicated Television Kirk Ellis (for "Join or Die")Won [19]
International Film Music Critics Association Awards Best Original Score for Television Robert Lane and Joseph VitarelliWon [20]
Online Film & Television Association AwardsBest MiniseriesWon [21]
Best Actor in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesPaul GiamattiWon
Best Actress in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Laura Linney Nominated
Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Stephen Dillane Nominated
Željko Ivanek Nominated
Best Direction of a Motion Picture or Miniseries Tom Hooper Won
Best Writing of a Motion Picture or MiniseriesKirk Ellis and Michelle Ashford Nominated
Best Ensemble in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesWon
Best Costume Design in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesNominated
Best Editing in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesWon
Best Lighting in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesNominated
Best Makeup/Hairstyling in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesWon
Best Music in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesWon
Best Production Design in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesNominated
Best Sound in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesNominated
Best Visual Effects in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesWon
Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Miniseries Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Kirk Ellis, Frank Doelger,
David Coatsworth, and Steven Shareshian
Won [22]
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie Paul GiamattiWon
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie Laura LinneyWon
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie Stephen DillaneNominated
David MorseNominated
Tom WilkinsonWon
Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special Tom HooperNominated
Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special Kirk Ellis (for "Independence")Won
Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or Movie Gemma Jackson, David Crank, Christina Moore,
Kathy Lucas, and Sarah Whittle
Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or Special Kathleen Chopin, Nina Gold, and Tracy KilpatrickWon
Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie Tak Fujimoto (for "Independence")Won
Tak Fujimoto and Danny Cohen (for "Don't Tread on Me")Nominated
Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Donna Zakowska, Amy Andrews Harrell, and
Clare Spragge (for "Reunion")
Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries or a Movie Jan Archibald and Loulia SheppardNominated
Outstanding Makeup for a Miniseries or a Movie (Non-Prosthetic) Trefor Proud and John R. BaylessNominated
Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series, Miniseries, Movie or a Special Trefor Proud, John R. Bayless, Christopher Burgoyne,
and Matthew W. Mungle
Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or Special (Original Dramatic Score) Robert Lane (for "Independence")Nominated
Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries or a Movie Melanie Oliver (for "Independence")Nominated
Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Stephen Hunter Flick, Vanessa Lapato, Kira Roessler,
Curt Schulkey, Randy Kelley, Ken Johnson,
Paul Berolzheimer, Dean Beville, Bryan Bowen,
Patricio Libenson, Solange S. Schwalbe, David Fein,
Hilda Hodges, and Alex Gibson (for "Don't Tread on Me")
Jon Johnson, Bryan Bowen, Kira Roessler,
Vanessa Lapato, Eileen Horta, Virginia Cook McGowan,
Samuel C. Crutcher, Mark Messick, Martin Maryska,
Greg Stacy, Patricio Libenson, Solange S. Schwalbe,
David Fein, Hilda Hodges, and Nicholas Vitarelli
(for "Unnecessary War")
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or a Movie Jay Meagher, Marc Fishman, and Tony Lamberti
(for "Don't Tread on Me")
Jay Meagher, Michael Minkler, and Bob Beemer
(for "Join or Die")
Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Erik Henry, Jeff Goldman, Paul Graff, Steve Kullback,
Christina Graff, David Van Dyke, Robert Stromberg,
Edwardo Mendez, and Ken Gorrell (for "Join or Die")
Satellite Awards Best Miniseries Nominated [23]
Best Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television Paul GiamattiWon
Best Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television Laura LinneyNominated
Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television Sarah Polley Nominated
Television Critics Association Awards Program of the Year Nominated [24]
Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials Won
Individual Achievement in Drama Paul GiamattiWon
American Cinema Editors Awards Best Edited Miniseries or Motion Picture for Non-Commercial Television Melanie Oliver (for "Independence")Nominated [25]
American Film Institute Awards Top 10 Television ProgramsWon [26]
Art Directors Guild Awards Excellence in Production Design Award – Television Movie or Mini-series Gemma Jackson, David Crank, Christina Moore,
John P. Goldsmith, Tibor Lázár, Dan Kuchar,
Michael H. Ward, Ted Haigh, Richard Salinas,
Kathy Lucas, and Sarah Whittle
Won [27]
Cinema Audio Society Awards Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing for Television Movies and Miniseries Jay Meagher, Marc Fishman, and Tony Lamberti
(for "Don't Tread on Me")
Nominated [28]
Jay Meagher, Michael Minkler, and Bob Beemer
(for "Independence")
Jay Meagher, Michael Minkler, and Bob Beemer
(for "Join or Die")
Costume Designers Guild Awards Outstanding Made for Television Movie or MiniseriesDonna ZakowskaWon [29]
Critics' Choice Awards Best Picture Made for TelevisionWon [30]
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television or Miniseries Tom HooperNominated [31]
Golden Globe Awards Best Miniseries or Television Film Won [32]
Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film Paul GiamattiWon
Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film Laura LinneyWon
Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film Tom WilkinsonWon
Gracie Awards Outstanding Female Lead – Drama SpecialLaura LinneyWon [33]
Movieguide Awards Faith & Freedom Award for TelevisionWon [lower-alpha 1] [34]
Producers Guild of America Awards David L. Wolper Award for Outstanding Producer of Long-Form Television David Coatsworth, Frank Doelger, Gary Goetzman,
Tom Hanks, and Steven Shareshian
Won [35]
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie Paul GiamattiWon [36]
Tom WilkinsonNominated
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie Laura LinneyWon
Visual Effects Society Awards Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Miniseries, Movie, or Special Steve Kullback, Eric Henry, Robert Stromberg, and
Jeff Goldman (for "Join or Die")
Won [37]
Outstanding Created Environment in a Broadcast Program or Commercial Paul Graff, Robert Stromberg, and Adam Watkins
(for "Join or Die" – Boston Harbor)
Outstanding Compositing in a Broadcast Program or Commercial Paul Graff, Joshua LaCross, and Matt Collorafice
(for "Join or Die" – Boston Harbor)
Writers Guild of America Awards Long Form – Adaptation Kirk Ellis (for "Join or Die" and "Independence");
Based on the book by David McCullough
Won [38]
Young Artist Awards Best Performance in a TV Movie, Miniseries or Special – Supporting Young ActorSteven HinkleNominated [39]
Online Film & Television Association AwardsHall of Fame – Television ProgramsInducted [40]


The score for the miniseries was composed by Robert Lane and Joseph Vitarelli. Lane wrote the main theme and scored "Join or Die," "Independence," "Unite or Die" and "Peacefield," with Vitarelli doing "Don't Tread on Me," "Reunion" and "Unnecessary War." The two composers worked independently of each other, with Lane writing and recording his segments in London and Vitarelli in Los Angeles. There are also pieces by classical composers, including Mozart, Boccherini, Gluck, Handel and Schubert. [41] The soundtrack was released on the Varèse Sarabande label.

Historical inaccuracies

The series deviates from David McCullough's book on several occasions, using creative license throughout. [42]

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

See also


  1. Tied with The Medal: Our Nation's Highest Honor.

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