Great Adaptations: Hamilton

Elizabeth Gilliland Rands
4 min readJul 15, 2020


Racebending and Revisionist Fantasies

Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

Have you heard of a little show called Hamilton? Not many people have, so let me break it down for you. The musical, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, follows the life of Alexander Hamilton through the American Revolutionary War and beyond, using — of all things — rap.

After winning a bunch of Tonys and basically taking over Broadway, it recently began airing on Disney+ and now everybody’s talking about it again.

A lot of that chatter has been positive, and some of it has been critical. More specifically, Hamilton has been called to task for ignoring its main characters’ history with slavery, including the titular character himself.

I won’t dismiss this criticism, because it’s an important topic and one that deserves to be given some serious thought. Even Miranda himself has acknowledged this as a flaw of his production.

Yet I would offer a slightly different reading of Hamilton in viewing it as an adaptation. I’ve talked in previous posts in my series on adaptations about the term fidelity — why we often expect adaptations to be completely “faithful” to their origin texts and how this is a nearly impossible thing to achieve.

Hamilton, I would argue, is not trying to be faithful to its source material (whether we consider that source material to be Ron Chernow’s book on Alexander Hamilton that inspired Miranda to write the show, or early American history in and of itself).

I would argue further that while Hamilton does present historical information disguised through catchy music and rap battles, the intent of the show is NOT to be faithful to that history. Part of what makes Hamilton’s vision so unique is that it knowingly and cleverly alters history into a revisionist ideal.

For example, we know that history is usually written by white men, for white men, about white men. Miranda famously thwarted that concept by casting leads of color to play important historical figures, including those like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington who were known to hold slaves.

Why do so? What does this accomplish?

The term “Racebending” refers to inserting characters from different ethnic backgrounds into traditionally white roles. It’s an important and powerful movement that Hamilton helped to take mainstream. I’ve written about this subject more in-depth, but essentially racebending allows for better representation and challenges the homogenous status quo.

Hamilton’s legacy allows for a space on stage (and now onscreen) where actors of color aren’t relegated to minor parts (or not parts at all); where children in attendance who come from diverse backgrounds can see themselves reflected onstage in a way they never before have been; and where the norms of giving all the complex lead roles to white people gets called to task.

You might even say it was Miranda’s way of challenging white privilege to a duel. It is, essentially, demanding satisfaction from systemic racism.

People can rightfully wish that Hamilton would address the reality of slavery more in-depth, especially if audiences are looking to it as an authentic representation of history.

But we should also acknowledge that Hamilton loudly proclaims to us, in every way possible, that it isn’t presenting history as it was. It’s presenting history as my-God-wouldn’t-it-be-awesome-if-it-could-have-been.

And not just in the racebending or the rap battles, but having historical figures who weren’t perfect, who made some pretty stupid mistakes, but who had a clear-eyed, uncompromising vision for what the country could be.

Were any of these people really this brilliant, or empathetic, or rhythmically blessed?

Some of it is real. Most of it is revisionist fantasy. If it inspires us now to look back to that history and learn what we can, that’s great.

But maybe it’s more important to think of Hamilton not as a tool for looking to the past, but one for envisioning a better future. Take what’s good, throw out the bad, and try now for better.

As Miranda’s lyrics repeat more than once in the play, “You have no control. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” While some might interpret these words to be mournful, I choose to look at them as something hopeful.

History, and those historical figures, are of the past. Dead, gone, no longer in control. We, the living, get to choose how to best interpret their story and decide what it will mean for us, today.



Elizabeth Gilliland Rands

Writer, Mom, Wife, English Instructor, Dr., Chocoholic. Co-founder of Bayou Wolf Press and the Detours Ahead podcast: