In Depth

HBO: 'John Adams'

Over seven nights, HBO Films and Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone told the story—in rich detail, noted the Peabody judges—of the U.S.’ second president, John Adams, and his wife, Abigail.

Directed by Tom Hooper and based on historian David McCullough’s book about one of America’s founding fathers, the miniseries, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, has won numerous awards, including 13 Emmys, a record in its category.

Kirk Ellis, “John Adams’” screenwriter, had previously worked with Mr. Hanks developing a pilot for an ABC series about cadets at West Point, a project that never got off the ground. Mr. Ellis said when he heard that Playtone had picked up the rights to Mr. McCullough’s book after they had been dropped elsewhere, he lobbied for a meeting.

There were three key elements in their approach to the program, Mr. Ellis said.

One was that the project would stay true to Mr. McCullough’s vision of John Adams and the era. Mr. Ellis said he did secondary research in 60 books, but the project always came back to Mr. McCullough’s “irascible and very idiosyncratic” point of view. Second was that the “18th century would not look like a costume pageant.” And finally, “The British aren’t the bad guys. There’s a complexity of issues surrounding Adams,” and they didn’t want it to be the “usual black-and-white portrayal.

“It was really important to establish that the people we meet in Boston aren’t Americans,” said Mr. Ellis, whose credits include ABC’s “Anne Frank.” “These are British Americans who face a very, very wrenching decision about whether to declare independence.”

Of the rich detail praised by the Peabody judges, Mr. Ellis said, “We worked very hard to get the details right, to really give viewers a sense of what everyday life was like during the Revolution.” In the first few minutes, he noted, Adams comes home, takes off his wig and warms his bald head. Down to “wig etiquette,” Mr. Ellis said, “All those details mattered to us, and were very important to David as well.”

The team has already reunited for a follow-up project, an adaptation of Mr. McCullough’s “1776,” also for HBO.