But, Mr. Adams

Kirk Ellis, the writer of the John Adams miniseries, has an article in the New Republic on the liberties that he took with history — John Adams is shown doing things that never happened, saying things he never said, events are telescoped and rearranged — and why this is just part of the process of writing a good “historical” movie or show:

A screenwriter always seeks economy in storytelling. Of course I knew that there were two Boston Massacre trials, not one. But the audience would not have thanked us for devoting the whole of the first episode to an examination of courtroom procedure, with two separate verdicts rendered. The key dramatic points are Adams’s decision to defend Captain Preston and his soldiers, and his success at exonerating them on the charge of murder. Both points are “factual.” Has there been some manipulation involved in the dramatization? Absolutely. But the outcome of the proceedings has not been altered.

In the age of the internet, it’s harder for shows and movies to get away with the kind of gigantic historical whoppers that used to be a matter of course in bio-pics. (Remember that Errol Flynn movie where Custer is an enlightened, progressive figure who deliberately causes Custer’s Last Stand in order to prevent the evil corporate bad guys from starting a big war? And that didn’t go as far as some Hollywood movies, ’cause at least they didn’t let Custer live.) But it remains true that every historical story not only does deviate from the historical record, but should. A dramatization of history, with actors play-acting at being people who are now dead, isn’t supposed to teach us exactly what happened, it’s supposed to tell a good story about historical figures or situations. Of course the adaptation should stay true to the spirit of the person or event it’s about — if only because otherwise, it raises the question of why you’re making this story into a show at all. But as the article implies, a writer should not sacrifice dramatic effectiveness to get all the facts right. If you want the straight-up facts, read a non-fiction book. (Well, non-fiction books pick and choose their facts too. But unlike movies and TV, they don’t have a creative obligation to disregard facts if they don’t work dramatically.)

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