This last Christmas was wonderful, and I got many wonderful gifts. The one gift, however, that I most want to write about was the complete miniseries of HBO’s John Adams (based on the book by David McCullough, which is even better). The film is beautiful and captivating portrayal of the life of the second president of The United States.
I couldn’t help but notice, however, a number of inaccuracies in the movie. I could, of course, chalk it up to artistic license and not worry about it, but then there was this one ironic scene in the movie that gives me pause.
In the final episode of the miniseries, we see John Adams well advanced in years and on the verge of death. He is called upon, however, by an American artist to view a new piece commemorating the signing of The Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful piece of work, but it is quite appalling to Mr. Adams. He looks only momentarily at the work and responds to the artist by saying it is totally inaccurate to the real history. “There was no such scene as you have depicted, sir!” He barks.
The painting, which many will know, depicts all the delegates of the Continental Congress standing around together as the declaration is being signed by each of them. In reality, of course, since the country was at war, the Declaration was signed sporadically as man had time to be in Philadelphia and away from their own duties.
The artist in the film responds to Mr. Adams by asking for some artistic license to interpret the event and inspire celebration of it. To such a response, however, Mr. Adams is aghast. He states, very plainly, “Do not let our posterity be deluded with fiction under the guise of poetical or graphical license!” It is a fascinating statement from the very man who is known to have said, “Facts are stubborn things.” But what can we conclude from the inclusion of such a scene by the directors in this film, which itself has taken artistic license to create some fictions concerning the life of the great President Adams?
This has led me to consider more carefully the relationship between Christians and artistic license. Is it appropriate for us to alter the truth, to change history, to manipulate facts in order to communicate things in a more attractive and memorable way? And if so, how far does this run? In the recent movies concerning Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonheoffer one might also find some inaccuracies. Is this okay? What about the life of Jesus? Are inaccuracies for the sake of communication allowable? We have just finished the Christmas celebration and one need not look hard to find inaccuracies concerning the birth of our Savior (i.e. the barn, the donkey, the inn, the Three Kings, etc.).
Christians are to be truth tellers above all else. I am a major proponent of communicating that truth in a relevant, compelling, and attractive way, but never at the neglect of facts. I am curious as to why the directors and creators behind John Adams would seemingly accost themselves, but regardless I am committed to truth in art, not after it.