I’ve been meaning to write about ‘I May Destroy You’ for a long time. Actually, it was one of the reasons that I wanted to start this ‘Friday Finds’ series at all. When I watched it last year, based on the recommendation of a good friend, I really wanted to write about it on my blog. But at the time I was writing almost exclusively ‘Madeira Mondays’/historical focused content, so it didn’t feel like I could. But even after I introduced ‘Friday Finds’, it slipped my mind for a while, only to renter it when I was reading about all of the drama surrounding the Golden Globes, and how shows like Emily in Paris received recognition when I May Destroy You (a critical darling, at least in the UK) did not, back in 2020. Anyways: let me tell you about I May Destroy You, which, if you’ve not seen it already, is a really excellent and thought provoking show!Continue reading
Last week, I delved into my reasons (#1-3) why you should watch HBO’s John Adams. I touched on the acting, the cinematography and why I liked the somewhat gruesome depictions of small pox.
This week I’ve listed reasons #4-6 of why I think it’s worth a watch. I’ll talk about how they use primary sources and why now would be the perfect time to pour yourself a pint of cider (John Adams’ favorite), or a glass of Madeira, and watch this show.
#4 The show incorporates historical documents in interesting ways
A lot of lines from John and Abigail’s letters to one another are woven into the show. As a side note: these letters are well worth a read and, in my opinion, a lot more vivid, engaging and romantic than some fiction that I have read, simply because John and Abigail were both such excellent writers living through such interesting and turbulent times! It’s a shame for them that they had to spend so much time apart, but it’s a good thing for us because we have all these letters! And quotes from their letters are woven into the dialogue in this show in fairly naturalistic ways.
One of my favorite quotes that they use comes from an exasperated letter John sent to Abigail from Philadelphia on October 9, 1774. He bemoans the slow moving Continental Congress, which he thinks is all talk and no action. He writes:
‘I believe if it was moved and seconded that We should come to a Resolution that Three and two make five We should be entertained with Logick and Rhetorick Law, History, Politicks and Mathematicks, concerning the subject for two whole Days, and then We should pass the Resolution in the Affirmative.’
It’s a funny quote (Adams was funny) and I’m glad they figured out a fun way to incorporate it into the show about his life. In John Adams, the character of John says something very similar when he is lamenting Congress’ inaction at a dinner one evening. I was delighted to see that they’d managed to weave in lots of other lines as well from their letters. It gives you a clearer sense of their real personalities, their sense of humor, and the way people spoke back then.
#5 It showcases a different kind of leading man
I enjoy the fact that neither Adams (nor Paul Giamatti) is classically attractive or charming in an obvious way. Giamatti’s Adams is short, grumpy, belligerent, vain, but also principled, decent, honest and loving. Most big budget film and television shows, not just about the Revolution but more generally, feature much more conventionally attractive leads, both in temperament and in appearance, and I personally enjoyed seeing this harsh, grumpy little man as our main character. There’s something that feels fresh about it.
And this series is about Abigail almost as much as John, which is also really cool to see and their relationship (in real life and in this series) is/was incredibly loving and supportive and dynamic and endlessly interesting to learn about.
Also we see that while John was away practicing politics, Abigail was living out the consequences of those political decisions, as she tries to keep her family safe and alive throughout the war – fighting off diseases, dealing with food shortages. The real Abigail was deeply invested and informed about politics, but she often had to focus on her family. She wrote to John on Sep 8, 1775:
‘As to politicks I know nothing about them. The distresses of my own family are so great that I have not thought about them.’
#6 It conveys the chaos and uncertainty of this time period
One of the things that truly makes me giggle when I hear people talking about the founders in glowing and overly idealized ways is that these dudes were questioning themselves at every turn and were making it all up as they went along. Declaring Independence (and the war that followed) was chaotic, fraught, messy and the outcome was uncertain. The real Adams was full of self-doubt. He wrote in his diary in 1774, as war loomed:
‘We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune – in everything. I feel unutterable anxiety.’
‘Unutterable anxiety’! That quote gives me a lot of hope when I think about the turbulent political times we’re in now (as I write this, we’re in the middle of an impeachment inquiry of President Trump). There has always been animosity and upheaval in American politics and these fellows, the founders, were just doing the best that they could. We never have individuals ‘fit for the times’. We just have people who do the best they can. But America’s founders were full of questions, worries and self-doubt – as smart people usually are. I love how the show captures this and even includes Adams saying a very similar line to the one I quoted above, about not feeling adequate enough for what this historical moment requires.
And it’s probably worth mentioning here that one of the reasons I think this time period is so fascinating to learn about is that these are the men who wrote the U.S constitution, who created the political system that Americans are still living under right now. In this way, their lives touch our own every day.
Like I said above, I could go on about the series and Adams himself, but I think I’ll leave it there for now! I hope that you will consider giving the series a try if you’re looking for a unique and well-acted piece of historical fiction, or a sort of companion piece to Hamilton.
Have you see the John Adams miniseries? Or do you have another favorite film or TV show about this period or about the American Revolution?
If you want to hear more about any of this and happen to live in Dublin, do come along to my talk at Trinity College in November. It’s an academic conference, but geared towards the public and all the presentations will be very accessible. My presentation is titled: ‘Obnoxious and Disliked’: John Adams’ Legacy in Popular Media, from 1776 to Hamilton.
Til then I remain your humble and obedient servant,
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post each week and any questions or suggestions feel free to get in touch.
Last week, for my first Madeira Mondays post, I reread a childhood favorite book set during the American Revolution: Johnny Tremain. For this week’s post, I thought I’d recommend a favorite TV series. This is the show that I consistently recommend to friends who enjoyed Hamilton: An American Musical and are looking for another story about this time period. And I actually think that John Adams pairs really well with Hamilton because these two historical men (John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) did not get along in real life. So the John Adams series is a nice counter-point to Hamilton. It’s the ‘other side’ of the story, if you will. In Hamilton, John Adams is lampooned as the villain (he doesn’t even appear onstage at all!), but in this show, Alexander Hamilton is the antagonist (which kind of confirms the refrain of Hamilton’s last song, right? It’s all about ‘who tells your story’).
Now I could go on about the historical figure of John Adams (and I will in future posts!) because his life is a particular interest of mine. Part of my PhD research was actually looking at different representations of Adams in popular culture and I’ll be delivering a talk all about this at Trinity College Dublin’s HistoryCon in November this year!
But this post is only going to focus on why I think John Adams (the HBO miniseries) is worth a watch. Do stay tuned for more Adams related content in the future though, including discussions of the musical 1776 (another recommendation if you like Hamilton!), of the Pulitzer Prize-winning David McCullough biography of Adams that this miniseries series is based on, and more about Adams’ badass wife, Abigail (I have already started a document with a bullet point list titled ‘Why Abigail Adams was amazing’). I had so much to say about this miniseries alone that I even had to split this up into TWO posts, so that gives you an indication of how much I love talking about John Adams and his life and times.
The John Adams miniseries was released by HBO in 2008 and directed by Tom Hooper. It follows the life of Adams from 1770 (the time of the Boston Massacre) through his fight for independence from Great Britain, his rocky presidential term (from 1797-1801), and his death in 1826. (Fun Fact: Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence!). The series stars Paul Giamatti as Adams, Laura Linney as Abigail Adams and even a small appearance by the guy that everyone seems to be obsessed with at the minute: Andrew Scott, the ‘Hot Priest’ on Fleabag. He’s not a ‘hot priest’ in this one, but he’s a hot soldier. Have I convinced you to watch this series yet?
But aside from the brilliant cast, here are some reasons why John Adams is worth watching!
#1 The acting is excellent throughout
As an actor myself, I have to say that one of my favorite scenes in any film ever happens in this show. It is the moment when John Adams, who is the Ambassador for the (newly free) United States of America and has to pay a visit to King George III. Imagine the awkwardness of that visit!! Actually, you do not have to imagine because it’s all in Paul Giamatti’s expressive face as he meets King George (Tom Hollander). In this magnificent scene, Adams is humble yet proud, intimidated but self-assured. I love the creative choice not to have any score in the background of the scene. It’s just silence. It’s just awkward. It’s just magnificent. You can watch it here.
But there are so many moments of excellent acting throughout, particularly of the nonverbal kind. The 18th century was a time when people were often less direct with their speech than we are nowadays, so a lot (I would imagine) of communication probably was nonverbal. And it is truly heartbreaking every time that John Adams has to leave his farm in Massachusetts to go and serve in the Continental Congress, or overseas in Versailles to beg the French for money to help the American War of Independence, and we have to see his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) react to the prospect of being left alone. Again. She’s stern, stalwart, someone who is used to bearing both physical and emotional discomfort (as many early New England women were), yet she’s just going to crack on with stuff and continue managing her farm. Laura Linney is great in this.
As another example: take a look at the solemnity on the faces of the Continental Congress, who just pledged their ‘lives, fortunes and our sacred honor’ to independence and who will surely be executed if the rebellion does not succeed. It’s a powerful and aptly solemn moment. And incredibly well acted.
#2 The series is kind of gross
This is not a series that shies away from the uncomfortable physical realities of life in the 18th century. And I’m not just talking about how everyone in this show has bad teeth and looks so haggard and sweaty all the time.
I’m talking about the unflinching depiction of small pox – we see diseased pustules and children covered in boils. It’s upsetting, yes, but it was a part of life. A lack of dirt and disease is usually one of the main criticisms that I have of period dramas, and I never like that everyone in them always looks so healthy and recently showered (I’m thinking especially of shows like Poldark, which I like for other reasons, but everyone just looks way too clean). I tend to prefer historical dramas that are either gritty and ‘realistic’, like this one, or hyper stylized and exaggerated (i.e. The Favorite). I think ones in the middle often fall flat, but that’s perhaps a post for another time!
One of the most upsetting scenes in John Adams actually is in the first episode when they show a man being tarred and feathered. The man (a British customs official) is stripped naked and paraded around town on a wooden beam. This, again, is tough to watch but stuff like that did happen. I think it’s included in the miniseries in part to illustrate the barbarism that both rebels and loyalists resorted to during this time and it works well. Jill Lepore has also suggested in this review in The New Yorker that this scene was included to help ‘explain the future President’s enduring fear of democracy.’ Adams didn’t hold a high view of human nature and believed in strong government, so perhaps the filmmakers were trying to give evidence of why he felt this way by having Adams look on in horror at the gruesome sight.
#3 It’s well shot
This is a show that makes great use of tilted, ‘Dutch’ camera angles. It’s a very interesting choice, given the aesthetic preference of this time period for symmetry. A neat, symmetrical, Wes Anderson style of shooting and composition would be more in keeping with the Georgian taste, but I think all of these weird angles are meant to visually convey that this isn’t the pretty, staid historical fiction that you might be used to.
I think director Tom Hooper sometimes goes overboard with these angles, but often they work really well, especially when used to highlight moments when Adams feels unstable, unsure and out of his depth. Which is a lot of the time! One example of this is after the Declaration is signed, and he writes home to Abigail of what they have just done. He says in the voice over that ‘the break is made’ and then it cuts to Adams looking out the window, framed in this odd, tilted angle, so it looks like he’s on a ship that is pitching in the current. He’s unsettled. Unsure. Wholly aware of the ‘toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration’.
But then, when he says to her that ‘through all the gloom’ he can ‘see the rays of ravishing light and glory’ (these are all real quotes from him, by the way), the angle changes and is no longer titled. He is in the middle of the frame, still standing in a darkened room, but between two bright windows. No weird, unsettling angle. Just a man looking outwards at a bright future, symbolized by the open windows before him. You can see this sequence at around 6 minutes into this clip. This is smart visual storytelling. And it’s continued throughout the show.
I’ll be posting Part II next Monday, where I’ll talk a bit more about how the show uses historical sources and why I think now is the perfect time to re-watch it (or watch it for the first time!). But I’ll leave it there for the time being and see you next Monday.
Your humble and obedient servant,
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. You can follow this blog for posts every week and any questions or suggestions feel free to get in touch.