J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Dissecting John Adams on D.V.D.

Last spring, I wrote a series of postings about H.B.O.’s John Adams miniseries that led to interviews with the Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam and N.P.R.’s Bryant Park Project. Since then, the radio show was canceled, and the Globe’s circulation, advertising, and physical size have shrunk. Mere coincidence! (I think this link rounds up all those postings for anyone who dares risk looking at them.)

Now that John Adams is available on D.V.D., Princeton scholar Jeremy Stern has written a more comprehensive quibbling with its historical details. “What’s Wrong with HBO’s Dramatization of John Adams’s Story” at History News Network builds on his earlier “What’s Inaccurate About the New HBO Series on John Adams.” I found this detail particularly telling:

Fictionalized history can gain traction with alarming ease, spreading both factual errors and fundamental misconceptions: people tend to believe what they see on the screen. Wikipedia has already provided a depressing piece of proof.

The last episode of the series depicts the death of “Nabby” Adams, the daughter of John and Abigail, from breast cancer. An on-screen caption marks the start of Nabby’s ordeal as “1803.” In fact, the cancer was diagnosed in 1810; her mastectomy followed in 1811. What purpose does this flat-out distortion serve? Did the scriptwriters feel entitled to rewrite history simply to avoid an unwanted ten-year gap in events? Yet, as I write, Wikipedia’s entry on Nabby dates her diagnosis to 1803.

Wikipedia records all past revisions, revealing ironically that Nabby’s entry used to include the correct date of 1810—but it was altered to 1803 in late August of this year (the “John Adams” series had been released on DVD in June). Whoever made this erroneous “correction” clearly assumed that television had provided truer facts: the reviser noted a “change of date for diagnosis” to replace previously “false information.”
On 28 October, I changed that date back and added a section about Nabby in the miniseries to state that it had taken liberties with historical events. In doing so, I was trying to adhere to my new rule: Even though it’s a lot of fun to complain about misinformation on Wikipedia, I really should try to improve it when I can. (I also finally got around to fixing that entry on Dr. Joseph Warren. We’ll see how long either change lasts. Or how long me adherence to that rule lasts.)

I’m also posting this link to Jeremy’s article “Jane Franklin Mecom: A Boston Woman in Revolutionary Times,” since I think some Boston 1775 readers might like to know more about Benjamin Franklin’s favorite sister. But that webpage violates the first rule in publicity, that everything’s all right as long as they spell your name right. If only every site were as easy to improve as Wikipedia.

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