Earlier this morning, I finally finished watching HBO’s 7-part miniseries on that irascible Johns Adams guy. I loved it, as I love history.
Mr. Adams sparked a small debate in my little clique about unsympathetic protagonists, which also happens to be the topic of my next article in Script Magazine. Adams had many sides to his character and many of them deeply flawed, perhaps the most flawed personality in all of our founding fathers. So why watch him?
Because if he was perfect, the series would be boring.
Because some characters are more fascinating by their flaws than they are with cheap sympathy designed to drum up emotional support.
Because the series was, in part, a tragedy. On the one hand, Adams had a great side to his character – brilliant mind, brilliant passionate debater, moral integrity, and inspiring speaker. He loved his wife, and he would’ve never been the success he was without her. (The clip above beautifully illustrates her influence.) On the other hand, so many of the sad events at the end of his life in politics as well as his own family were the direct result of his character flaws - his lack of mercy, generosity, and compassion, the grudges he would hold against others (in some cases so extreme that at one point in his Presidency, he willingly trampled on the liberties they fought for such as free speech because he was so angered by the things that were being said about him), also the way he would isolate colleagues until he was ultimately alone as President at the end of his term, the inability to acknowledge his own faults and mistakes until it was too late, the vanity, the ambition, and the brutal harshness in some of his dealings with people, all of which led to a very regrettable end.
You walk away from the series thinking in many ways “I don’t ever want to make the same mistakes John Adams made.” And that’s a good thing. That’s the value of watching the downfall of a flawed (perhaps unsympathetic) protagonist. More important than “sympathy with a goal,” the kind of thinking that can delineate a protag, we should think more in terms of character depth – showing multiple sides to a character, the good AND the bad. To some, sympathy means all good, which in reality is a flat character about as thin as spider web’s silk. Forget about sympathy. You need depth, both good AND bad. Regular people do not articulate these ideas in HW study groups, but they WILL be fascinated by a character with depth and deep flaws. They wonder, “Why is this character this way?” “Will he change for the better?” “What will happen?” “Will he suffer from these flaws?”
A character with deep flaws will either transform for the better or suffer as result and both approaches are good. The moral is still the same – learn from this character. Do not be like this character.
I noticed an article in The Washington Post titled, Sorry, HBO. John Adams Wasn’t That Much of a Hero. They never said he was. They never shied away from his mistakes and flaws. But his flaws made him one of the most fascinating of the founding fathers and a really rich source for a lot of compelling drama.
I would not want to be John Adams, but I definitely felt enriched by the miniseries and I’m grateful they made it.
Below is a special feature from the DVD that I loved, the making of: