John Adams and the Truth

John Adams and the Truth January 12, 2009

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.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David,

    I would suppose that the makers of the film included that scene precisely to point out the liberties they themselves have taken; a wink to the audience that while portraying history, we should keep in mind that it is a portrayal.

    As to your question of “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?” I would take issue with the limitations you place on art, the assumption that if facts are manipulated, the only reason would be for attractiveness.

    Certainly, many writers or filmmakers take an easy route for such reasons; but the more serious artist might have another reason: to deepen the truth. (Just to be clear about how dangerous I am, let me say: facts and truth are not the same thing.)

    In the example of the painting in JOHN ADAMS – the artist could have shown the facts of the setting with 56 separate paintings, and that certainly would have been true. But the artist wanted to show another reality: the unity required by the Continental Congress to pull off this feat.

    It was an extraordinary thing – to get all of congress to agree unanimously on such an enormous issue. Unthinkable! Yet somehow it was achieved.

    Thus the artist was able to capture a deeper truth with a factual inaccuracy.

    At the same time, and this is critical to your discussion, the artist wasn’t attempting to replace the facts. The painting is a DVD extra, a supplement to add to our understanding.

    Thus, the Three Kings in art aren’t meant to say there were only three magi, and that they had these specific names, and they were exactly yeah tall – but rather to speak, in artistic terms, to the three aspects of the named gifts. The moment the artist seeks to change a fact in order to replace it, the artist is in error.

    But allow me to dig in one step further with this thesis: any and all representations of historical events are by nature not factual. I will grant you Luke as Gospel Truth; but every painting, staging, song, dance or retelling that followed are interpretations that include “inaccuracies.” Even reading the gospel account out loud creates inaccuracy – the mere emphasis on certain words and lilt of voice create interpretation.

    Let’s face it: it is historically inaccurate to cast a man that looks like Paul Giamatti to portray a man that looked like (because he was) John Adams. And when we cling too closely to attempting to be factual, we often become less and less truthful.

    I am not in any way saying that facts don’t matter; or that lying is allowed. The artist, like the Christian, is obligated to hold onto truth.

    So instead, let us ask: Did Giamatti capture the essence of Adams? Was the true heart of the man given us on screen? Can we add this supplement, this television mini-series, to our history and come up with a more complete view of the man and his times?

    More relevant, perhaps, then asking if John Adams really looked like Giamatti.

    As Christians, we should safeguard the facts, absolutely. But we shouldn’t limit truth to just the facts.

    Just my thoughts,


  • Movies of historic events could not be made without filling in the gaps with some creative license. For example, clothing colors, details of conversations, and backgrounds are often added when the original text fails to provide such detail. Sometimes more substantive details must be added to turn a text into a story.

    Minnesota Attorneys last blog post..Minneapolis Personal Injury Attorney – Accident in MN

  • David Dunham

    I should add here that despite the very small changes to the facts surrounding Adams life and family this movie is as close to the real history as almost any film representation ever! It really is an astounding mini-series!