Before taking the lead role in a new HBO miniseries, Paul Giamatti knew what a lot of Americans do about the nation's first vice president and second president -- the one, unlike his revolutionary contemporaries George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who is absent from monuments on the Capitol Mall and from common U.S. coins and currency.
"I really knew next to nothing about him," said Giamatti, who remedied the situation by reading much of Adams' voluminous letters and journals. "Later, I found him to be more nakedly human than the other founding fathers. He had no self-editing device and no particular skill at creating a public persona like the other guys. He was unbuttoned, which made it a hell of a great part to play."
Based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "John Adams" premieres the first two of its seven installments tonight on HBO. The sweeping biopic spans a half-century of political tumult and chronicles Adams' influence over the nascent American republic. In unsentimental terms, the work clearly aims to push Adams -- wigless, with warts, personality flaws and all -- to the forefront of the hallowed group of the nation's founding fathers.
For centuries, historians have often looked past the physically stubby and often pugnacious Adams in favor of the marbleized grandeur of Washington or the glamorous erudition of Jefferson. As a result, a host of pivotal accomplishments from the Massachusetts farmer of humble origins have been nearly forgotten -- among them, his leadership in the Second Continental Congress that produced the Declaration of Independence and his authorship of a state document that served as a blueprint for the national constitution.
But the miniseries is no less personal than political. Its emotional spine is Adams' 54-year marriage to Abigail, portrayed by Laura Linney, every bit his intellectual equal and whose innate calm and political savvy enriched his path to high office. The couple exchanged more than 1,100 letters, the spirit of which animates the miniseries and reveals a mutually held passion that survived the stresses of Colonial life, long separations and the death of a child.
"The Abigail material could really stand on its own, but we wanted to make them both part of the same thing," said Tom Hanks, who along with Gary Goetzman executive produced the miniseries. The two also took on similar roles for HBO's successful World War II miniseries "Band of Brothers." "They are a great love story, and this may be the first time in the history of American television the first lady and the president get it on."
For HBO, the Adams project -- with a budget estimated at $100 million -- furthers its aim to be television's standard-bearer for top-drawer historical drama. "John Adams" joins the Hanks-produced "From the Earth to the Moon" as well as "Elizabeth I" and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" as prestige productions that typically draw acclaim, awards and strong DVD sales.
In May, HBO is set to release "Recount," a dramatic look at the 2000 presidential election and its infamous hanging chads. In 2009, the cable network is scheduled to unveil "The Pacific," a $200-million World War II miniseries -- also produced by Hanks, Goetzman and Steven Spielberg -- intended as a companion piece to "Band of Brothers."
" 'Adams' is spot on and center stage of our strategy," said Colin Callender, president of HBO Films. "We shamelessly take history and try to understand it not as an empty pageant but as events that touch real people."
Historical dramas, for all the good buzz they generate, are big gambles. Aside from the lofty production costs, period pieces face enormous challenges in creating authenticity while also resisting story lines that amount to blind hero worship. Filmed in Richmond and Williamsburg, Va., and Budapest, Hungary, the miniseries took about six months to shoot and required 40,000 pieces of wardrobe and 1,500 wigs (mostly for men) to re-create 18th century America and Europe.
"The Colonial period is just very hard to do," said Hanks. "It's just not very glamorous. The goofy hats and wigs, the shiny buckles. Then try eschewing the overpowering myths of it."
A political star stuck in the shadows
The Adams project faces a further obstacle to gaining an audience -- poor name recognition of its subject. While the Revolutionary War era has inspired many film and television projects -- including PBS' "Liberty! The American Revolution" in 1997, and Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" in 2000 -- no major projects have focused on Adams in recent years. Other than McCullough, the main forces behind the miniseries admitted to knowing little more than the basics at first.
"The English education is pretty scanty about the American Revolution," said director Tom Hooper, who is British. "I knew precious little, and in that way I think I was somewhat representative of the whole Adams problem."
McCullough has done more than anyone in recent times to rectify the historical oversight for the politician. His book sold more than 2.5 million copies, but when talk began about a big- or small-screen version, he was wary of turning over control of his work to Hollywood. Then came a chance meeting with Hanks. "I've met with movie producers over the years and they'd say, 'I loved your book,' and we'd start talking and I'd realize they hadn't read it," said McCullough. "So when Tom said, 'I loved your book.' I thought, 'Yeah, sure.' "
McCullough discovered that Hanks had not only read the 650-page tome but was assiduously identifying scenes to transfer from the page to the screen. "He cares about American history," said McCullough. "He promised he would do this right -- and he did."
Emboldened by the popularity of the 2001 presidential biography, HBO's creative team ultimately felt Adams packed a riveting natural narrative whose chances for resonating with viewers would only be enhanced during a national election. That the miniseries rolls out during an exciting campaign hasn't hurt, either.
"This election cycle has really energized people," said miniseries screenwriter Kirk Ellis. "But it's always interesting and amusing to me that people ask where do we want to go as Americans, when they can't really know that without first understanding where we've been."
The miniseries opens in pre-Revolutionary America when Adams' legal brilliance and contrarian nature thrust him into a seminal historical moment. Just 34, he witnesses the aftermath of the Boston Massacre in which British soldiers fired Colonial protesters, killing five.
The soldiers are charged with murder, and Boston mobs cry for blood. But no one would represent the British soldiers, until Adams, a staunch advocate for the rule of law, agreed. Though he had revolutionary leanings, Adams eventually won acquittal for all the soldiers, except two, who were convicted of manslaughter.
"We learn about people more through their actions than words," said Ellis. "And there was just no better way to kick off the story than with the Boston Massacre, which quickly established who John Adams really was."
The heart of the miniseries, though, lay in exploring the tender and resilient marriage between John and Abigail. To him, she was his "best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world," and to her he was "the tenderest of husbands," as McCullough points out in his book.
Far trickier, and more important, was to portray a realistic marriage. Loneliness created by lengthy absences, sometimes lasting several years, took its toll on both. The time apart was particularly tough on Abigail, who was left to contend with raising four children -- one of whom, John Quincy Adams, incidentally became the sixth president of the United States -- while war and smallpox were at her doorstep. "I didn't want their relationship sentimentalized or for it to be swimming in the soup of a happy, happy marriage," said Linney. "It was a working marriage, and they were not saints."
The miniseries also devotes a substantial chunk of its eight-hour, 20-minute run time to the deep friendship and rivalry between Adams and Jefferson. In fact, before focusing solely on Adams, McCullough originally conceived his book as the tale of the extraordinary relationship between the vastly different men. It's often said that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but Adams was its voice. Adams was the voice and Jefferson was the words for the Declaration of Independence. Incredibly, the men died on the same day, July 4, 1826 -- the document's 50th anniversary.
Within the emerging American political framework, the cantankerous Northerner and the graceful Southerner positioned themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum and for reasons that extended far beyond their views on slavery. (Adams opposed it on principle; Jefferson was a slave master.) The two represent a clash of political values that continues to this day. Adams, suspicious of human nature, pressed for a strong national government, while Jefferson, more optimistic about the citizenry, campaigned for a less-intrusive one.
"The party lines were drawn pretty far back. These guys knocked heads and were doing fairly nasty things," said Giamatti. "But I hope what comes across ultimately is the titanic undertaking of it all, how dangerous it was, and how they completely changed human history."