Lin Manuel-Miranda’s award-winning musical Hamilton has been critiqued for its numerous historical inaccuracies, but the reasons why Hamilton changed real-life history are lessons that other movie adaptations should learn from. Hamilton tells the incredible life story of Alexander Hamilton filtered through the lens of people of color and modern America, blending historical stories with a hip-hop inspired score. Lin-Manuel Miranda primarily based Hamilton on the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
Lin Manuel-Miranda made significant changes to the Founding Father’s life while writing Hamilton, adapting Alexander’s life story to the stage by sacrificing a commitment to historical accuracy in favor of a more cohesive narrative. While Hamilton has been praised for Miranda’s extensive research in developing the show, it has also been criticized for glossing over the unsavory parts of Alexander Hamilton’s life — namely, exaggerating his opposition to slavery and turning him into a more progressive figure. Miranda also simplified the plot of Hamilton by giving some characters in Alexander’s life a more outsized role in the production in order to streamline the story and emphasize certain moments over others.
What’s interesting about Hamilton isn’t what specifically was changed, but why it was changed. The choices Lin-Manuel Miranda made when it came to altering Alexander Hamilton’s life show that he was deliberately framing the musical to underscore certain themes, while ultimately telling a larger story than just Alexander’s life. While most historical movie adaptations are committed to telling the most accurate story possible, they should learn from Hamilton‘s decisive, thematic choices: why the most historically accurate story isn’t always truthful to the one trying to be told.
Hamilton makes significant changes to Alexander Hamilton’s life. Some of the changes are relatively small and easy to understand, like streamlining the introductions of Aaron Burr, John Laurens, Marquis de Lafayette, and Hercules Mulligan into a single song — while in real life, Alexander met them separately over a period of several years. Some of the exclusions also underscore certain themes, like cutting the brothers of the Schuyler sisters to emphasize the pressure on Angelica to make an advantageous marriage for her family. However, most of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s changes are bigger and more thematic.
The biggest change in Hamilton was portraying Alexander as a much more progressive abolitionist than he was in real life, and greatly exaggerating his opposition to slavery. While the real life Alexander Hamilton vocally opposed Thomas Jefferson’s view that African-Americans were biologically inferior, he married into the wealthy, slave-owning Schuyler family. In addition, Alexander was directly involved in purchasing slaves both for his wife and his father-in-law. The real-life Hamilton did not prioritize abolitionist legislation in his political agenda, and often advocated for property rights above all else.
The other major change that Hamilton made was casting all Black and Latinx actors, with the exception of King George. Hamilton‘s casting has been praised by both critics and historians for centering people of color in a story that they are often left out of, and continuously reminding the audience that American history is more than just the history of white people. While the casting may not be historically accurate, it underscores the story that Lin Manuel-Miranda is trying to tell: Alexander’s story through the lens of people of color, and the forgotten immigrants that helped build modern America.
Hamilton partly leaves things out because of how much story Lin Manuel-Miranda is attempting to pack into the musical’s nearly three hour runtime, but it’s also because of his deliberate framing of the story. Criticizing Hamilton for not being historically accurate misses the point of the musical, which is not trying to be the definitive account of Alexander Hamilton’s life. Instead, Lin Manuel-Miranda streamlines plots and makes changes to Alexander’s life to reshape his story, choosing what works thematically over what is just strictly accurate. The musical Hamilton represents something much larger than simply the life of a Founding Father: it’s a statement regarding American identity, and the experience of being an immigrant.
Identifying what Hamilton gets wrong about history and understanding why Lin Manuel-Miranda made the changes that he did is key to understanding the musical. Hamilton eliminates the distance between the founding of America and present day, reframing the historical events with a critical, modern eyes. In doing so, the musical is able to confront contemporary social issues. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s storytelling in Hamilton is masterful, and it’s easy to imagine the show going in a very different direction in someone else’s hands. His deliberate choices about what to include and what to leave out are tailored to the story that Lin Manuel-Miranda specifically is trying to tell.
Hamilton is not an accurate biography of Alexander Hamilton’s life, obviously, but the changes reflect the true purpose of the musical. Lin Manuel-Miranda is more interested in exploring the aspects that surrounded Alexander Hamilton’s life rather than exploring the man himself. Hamilton isn’t primarily a biopic, but instead is a powerful and moving account of America’s founding that prioritizes the roles immigrants played in America’s independence, Alexander Hamilton’s lifelong obsession with legacy, and celebrating the people of color who have consistently been written out of the story of America. In order to do this in a way that appeals to audiences, Manuel-Miranda used contemporary, exciting, and accessible musical styles. Part of what makes Hamilton so refreshing is its willingness to embrace hip-hop and rap — genres of music rarely embraced by musical theater. It’s a bold choice that strengthens the musical’s social commentary regarding the immigrant experience in America and the erasure of black history.
Learning to make choices about what works thematically for the story and the characters, even if that means sacrificing historical accuracy, is a lesson that other movie adaptations should take from Hamilton. Rather than trying to be strictly faithful to the source material when it isn’t serving the medium, movie adaptations should feel free to make significant changes in favor of telling a cohesive story. In general, such period pieces are usually too concerned with adhering to historical accuracy over preserving the truth of the story they are trying to tell. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical Hamilton is a masterclass in eschewing fidelity in order to elevate a story in a matter fitting to the medium it’s told in. A three hour musical that was a dutiful recitation of the lives of the Founding Fathers, with period-appropriate musical choices, never would have been the cultural phenomenon that Hamilton became. Instead, Hamilton works precisely because of its many historical inaccuracies, both big and small. Understanding the reasons why Lin Manuel-Miranda made those choices is the key to understanding Hamilton.
Next: Hamilton: Angelica’s “Congratulations” Song Explained (& Why It Was Cut)