Adapting Franklin & John Adams with Kirk Ellis

A conversation with the screenwriter behind Apple’s Franklin and HBO’s John Adams


When I heard Apple was making a new miniseries about Benjamin Franklin starring Michael Douglas, I was excited but nervous. Could Douglas pull it off? But then I saw that the series was being written and produced by Kirk Ellis, who also wrote and produced HBO’s John Adams, and I knew we were going to get a show that cared about history. (Unlike, say, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon.) Having watched the first four episodes now, I can say that I was absolutely right; this is a show that cares about history.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Kirk Ellis about his experience adapting Franklin from Stacy Schiff’s book A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. We also talked about the history behind the series and its rich characters and his experience working with David McCullough while adapting John Adams.

Ellis also shares details about his own journey to filmmaking and interest in history, what events he was sad to leave out of Franklin, and what scenes he disagreed with the authors McCullough and Schiff about. It’s a fascinating window into two of the biggest historical dramas ever made about the American Revolution.

Listen to our interview with Kirk Ellis now:

I’m really enjoying the series and the way it immerses the viewer in 18th century France. It helped that the entire series was filmed in France, often in the very locations the historic scenes being depicted took place. The acting is excellent and the story, which takes liberties as all historical adaptations do, is delightfully compelling. So far it’s a great combination of palace intrigue, fish out of water, and American history, and I look forward to the good cop/bad cop relationship between Franklin and Adams.

As for Michael Douglas, he’s magnetic as always. He’s a great actor and he succeeds here as the charming outsider. An initial reaction I’ve seen a lot is that he doesn’t look like Franklin. There are good reasons for this. Douglas was warned against shaving the front of his hairline, he tested some prosthetics, and as both a producer and actor he ultimately decided he didn’t want to hold things up by spending three or four hours every shooting day in make up—this was going to be Michael Douglas playing Franklin, and it would look like Michael Douglas playing Franklin. I understand those reasons.

But, the fact is that Benjamin Franklin is one of the most instantly recognizable figures in history. In a show that takes great pains to get so many historical details right—down to the costumes, the carriages, the language, the locations—it’s disappointing that the title character doesn’t capture the distinct recognizable features of Franklin like other actors have, especially Tom Wilkinson in John Adams.

That said, it really is a small quibble. Michael Douglas is this version of Franklin and he’s top-notch. As are the rest of the cast. This is a multigenerational multinational ensemble piece and these actors shine. That’s my opinion anyway. What do YOU think of the series, and our interview with Kirk Ellis? Let us know in the comments!

If you’re interested in hearing more about the real Franklin, here are some episodes where we’ve covered him:

The Resounding Will of Benjamin Franklin: We cover the haunting history of one of Franklin’s favorite inventions, the glass armonica (as seen in Episode 4 of Franklin!), and we talk with author Michael Meyer about his book Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet.
Why John Adams Hated Benjamin Franklin: We dig into the roots of their mutual loathing.
The Passion of Benjamin Franklin: How did Franklin get his naughty reputation, and did he really deserve it?


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