(Jennifer Gibbons lives in Lafayette, California. She is the grand prize winner of the Red Room Housewarming contest and one of the winners of the Summer Reading Experience Contest. Her other articles are As Long As There’s Life, There’s Hope and Retrieving the Names. Her complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. She may be reached at email@example.com.)
The miniseries format on television was still fairly new when the suicides in Jonestown happened. One of the earliest successes was Roots, an eight-part miniseries that aired on eight consecutive nights in January 1977, and Shawn Baker, a 13-year-old boy from Los Angeles – whose family was in Peoples Temple and who later died in Jonestown – changed his name to Shabaka after watching the series. After November 18th, it seemed like a given that the story would find its way to the small screen. In 1980, it did with Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. Unfortunately, the miniseries created myths about Peoples Temple, myths that still linger to this day.
There is no question that Powers Boothe in the role of Jim Jones gives a powerhouse of a performance. Relatively unknown at the time, Boothe looked like Jones in his youth and – after he listened to hours of Jones’ sermons – sounded like him as well. Boothe shows how Jones was given to grandiose ideas that swung from idealism to paranoia. The actor is best at depicting the young minister trying to get people – especially African Americans – to come to his church. He succeeds at showing why people were attracted to Peoples Temple and why the members were so loyal to Jones.
While “Jim Jones” is sharply defined as a character, the same cannot be said for the rest of the characters in the miniseries. Case in point is the portrayal of Marceline, Jim Jones’ wife. Veronica Cartwright does her best to make Marceline sympathetic and likable, but the character of “Marceline” is one dimensional. We see “Jim” cheating on her, and we see her frustration, but we don’t see why she wouldn’t leave her husband. There were two reasons in real life that the miniseries omits. First, the TV couple is childless (although Jim does have a baby with a Carolyn Layton/Grace Stoen composite). Secondly, because they have no children, we don’t see Marceline’s real fear that she would never see her children again.
The most offensive part of “Marceline’s” depiction occurs during the deaths when she forcibly injects the cyanide in “Mrs. Jefferson’s” (Madge Sinclair) arm and – worst of all – then administers it to children. In reality, Marceline had spoken to her sister about her fears about children being hurt and, according to eyewitnesses to the deaths, had to be restrained from going to their aid. When the last child in Jonestown died, she walked up and took the poison herself, defeated. The “Marceline” we see in Guyana Tragedy is a narrow and distorted view of the complex woman who was married to Jones for 29 years.
The followers of Jim Jones are made into composite characters, which is at its best clumsy. “Mrs. Jefferson” and her family are early disciples of Peoples Temple, but her son “Richard Jefferson” (LeVar Burton, riding on his success in Roots) becomes defiant of Jones after he received beatings for falling asleep in church. “Mrs. Jefferson” doesn’t even get a first name. While the actress Madge Sinclair does an amazing job standing up to Jones using the words of Christine Miller (who in real life had no other family in Jonestown), her character remains one-dimensional.
The one-dimensional trend continues with the Ritchies. “Clayton” (Randy Quaid) and “Jean” (Meg Foster) are a married couple, even though Jean carries on an affair with Jones. However, the viewer is left to wonder why Clayton is involved with the church at all. He complains throughout his scenes, “Jim, there’s not enough money for that.” “Jim, I don’t think you should hire that boy.” “Jim, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” While Quaid does his best with the role, he sounds like an irritating sad sack. What is the hold Jones had on many of his followers? We certainly don’t see it here.
Then we have “Larry King,” whose first name and general appearance tell us, he’s modeled after Larry Layton. “Larry King” is devoted to Jones, yet we don’t know about his background, his history, or anything about him. While the real-life Larry Layton posed as a defector and shot two Temple defectors on an airplane at the Port Kaituma airstrip, his Guyana Tragedy depiction turns him into a monster who takes out a automatic weapon and shoots defectors, family members, and “Clayton” and “Jean.” No one can say that what Layton did on November 18th was right. However there’s a huge difference between wounding two people and killing dozens on a runway. This is not fair to Larry Layton, but it does explain why many people today think he got away with murder.
The portrayal of Congressman Leo Ryan doesn’t help much either. There’s no question that Ned Beatty is a wonderful character actor. However, one comes away with the impression that Beatty’s “Leo Ryan” is nothing but a publicity seeker who sees Jonestown as his ticket to get some press. We don’t feel any genuine feeling that “Leo Ryan” wants to help the Concerned Relatives and Peoples Temple members.
Guyana Tragedy is to be commended for the wonderful performance of Powers Boothe as Jones, but the writing and character development sadly falls apart for all the other characters. While it is impossible to get every single detail right in a “based on a true story” miniseries, it should also not perpetuate new myths on a tragic event. Guyana Tragedy did create new myths, and thirty years later, the myths still sting.