Back and to the right: 17 alternate retellings of the JFK assassination

Back and to the right: 17 alternate retellings of the JFK assassination

1. Time-traveling history professor dies in JFK’s place, The Twilight Zone (1986)
When enormous historical import and society-rending change are compressed into the space of a single moment—as they were when Lee Harvey Oswald’s gunshot killed John F. Kennedy in 1963—it creates an irresistible opportunity for fiction writers to ask, “What if it had gone a little differently?” That’s the premise of “Profile In Silver,” one of the more notable stories to air on CBS’ 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone. A history professor from the year 2172—who also happens to be a descendant of Kennedy—travels back to 1963 on a mission to observe his ancestor’s assassination, but when he sees Oswald taking aim, he can’t resist the urge to warn the president, screaming for him to get down. Oswald misses. (If killing Hitler is the favorite pastime of time-traveling do-gooders, saving JFK places a close second.) The resulting wrinkle in space-time creates a mess—when Kennedy lives, Nikita Khrushchev dies instead, the Soviets march on Berlin, and the global powers head for all-out war. Still determined to save JFK’s life, the professor comes up with a novel solution: He sends Kennedy to the future and travels back again to Dealey Plaza to die in the president’s place. One eerie conspiracy-theory detail: Jerry Hardin, the actor who makes a brief appearance as vice president Lyndon Johnson in this episode, would go on to play Deep Throat on The X-Files.

2. The Cigarette-Smoking Man assassinates JFK, The X-Files (1996)
In “Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man,” an episode from The X-Files’ fourth season, it’s revealed that the so-called Smoking Man—just before he picked up the bad habit that gave him the only name he’s ever really been given—was recruited by the government to assassinate JFK. Aside from a momentary “Are you serious about this?” glance at one of his supervisors, Smoking Man accepts the task without hesitation, asking only, “Is there a cover story?” After being informed that his employers “have found and are setting up a patsy,” the Smoking Man is off to Irving, Texas, where he delivers a package of “curtain rods” to Lee Harvey Oswald and, after telling him that he really ought to give up smoking, instructs him to take the package to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. With his patsy in place, the Smoking Man takes up temporary residence in a Dallas sewer, where he assassinates the president while Oswald is getting a root beer from the vending machine. Subsequently situating himself in the Texas Theater, the Smoking Man then bears witness to Oswald being hauled away by authorities, after which he lights up what is ostensibly his very first cigarette.

3. JFK assassinates himself, Red Dwarf (1997)
While the so-called “magic bullet theory” has been used for comedic purposes in the past, most notably on Seinfeld, the actual assassination of JFK is, perhaps understandably, rarely viewed as a laugh riot. The premiere of Red Dwarf’s seventh series, however, approached the killing with an eye on the absurdity of various “Who shot JFK?” theories. Lister, Kryten, Rimmer, and the Cat travel back in time to the Texas School Book Depository on November 22, 1963, only to accidentally knock Lee Harvey Oswald out of the window, thereby preventing JFK’s assassination. When it’s discovered how much damage has been caused by Kennedy’s survival, the group tries and fails to fix the problem they’ve caused, ultimately inspiring Lister to visit the still-alive JFK in 1965, where he convinces the now-impeached president to come back with them to 1963 and assassinate himself. (“It’ll drive the conspiracy nuts crazy,” admits Lister, “but they’ll never figure it out.”) Although Kennedy hesitates at first, he’s finally sold on the idea when Lister assures him that it’s the only way to ensure that he’ll be remembered as a liberal icon. After delivering the kill shot, Kennedy thanks the Starbug crew “for giving me the opportunity to be reborn” before fading out of existence.

4. The Rumor kills JFK with the power of suggestion, “Dallas,” The Umbrella Academy (2009)
What’s the fun in having a time machine if it can’t be used to go back and save (or kill) a famous person? In “Dallas,” the second (and, as of now, final) six-issue series of The Umbrella Academy, Gerard Way’s dysfunctional sibling superheroes—think X-Men by way of the Tenenbaums—get mixed up in the plot to assassinate JFK. As it turns out, the rationale for not saving Kennedy—for ensuring, in fact, that his death in Dallas still happens—is akin to common arguments against murdering Hitler: The status quo must be preserved, lest the alternate present turn out to be even darker than the current one. Number Five and The Rumor end up accomplishing the dirty deed, with the latter using her reality-altering powers to convince the president that the back of his head has exploded. In the end, the intervention stops a pair of time-traveling serial killers from getting their hands on nuclear codes. But it still feels like a pyrrhic victory. Leave it to the lead singer of My Chemical Romance to put a frowny face on preventing atomic annihilation.

5. High school teacher’s time-traveling JFK rescue causes Maine to secede, 11/22/63 (2011)
The underlying moral of most JFK-centric time-travel stories is almost always that the past shouldn’t be changed; any attempt to interfere with a major event, no matter how well intentioned that effort may be, will make things worse. Such is the fate facing the hero of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a high school English teacher named Jake Epping who discovers a door that throws him five decades into the past. Jake decides to stop the Kennedy assassination early in the novel, but given the specific, idiosyncratic nature of his time portal (he always travels back to the same day, and every trip erases the previous trip), he’s forced to set up shop in late-’50s/early-’60s America, following the path of Lee Harvey Oswald as he makes his way to Texas. At great personal cost, Jake is able to prevent the assassination, but when he returns to the present day, he learns that this was not a wise choice: Without Kennedy’s death to galvanize the country, the Civil Rights Act Of 1964 was never passed, and George Wallace took the presidency in ’68, ultimately escalating the Vietnam War into a nuclear war, and inspiring Maine to secede from the country and turn Canadian. Regardless of the details, a timeline in which JFK survived turned out to be a bad thing for nearly everyone. Thus Jake is forced to erase his trip, restoring events to their original shape, having basically wasted five years of his life that he could’ve saved if he’d just watched that damn episode of The Twilight Zone.

6. The Comedian assassinates JFK, Watchmen (2009)
For those who are only familiar with the original comic-book version of Watchmen, created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, there is some question as to what part Eddie Blake—otherwise known as the masked adventurer called The Comedian—played in the Kennedy assassination. In the original book, Blake simply makes the offhand comment, “Just don’t ask me where I was when JFK died.” In 2012’s Before Watchmen: The Comedian, Blake’s whereabouts during the assassination are further clarified, clearing him of any involvement. (Although he did murder Marilyn Monroe at Jackie Kennedy’s request, Blake was in the process of confronting Moloch when Kennedy was killed.) The same can’t be said of The Comedian as portrayed in the 2009 film adaptation of Watchmen, however, which places him squarely on the grassy knoll, literally holding a smoking gun.

7. Five shooters take aim at JFK, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975)
All conspiracy theories converge in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy—a surreal, sprawling counterculture adventure about the hidden forces behind more or less everything. Given the focus on political, social, and religious mysteries, a thoroughly ridiculous explanation for JFK’s death seems almost mandatory. Sure enough, the book reveals that gangster John Dillinger—a representative of the forces working against the Illuminati’s control—went to Dallas on that November day, planning to gun down the assassin before he could take down the president. But once Dillinger got in position on the grassy knoll, he realized there were three different assassins training weapons on JFK: Lee Harvey Oswald in the Book Depository, a mafia goon on the roof of the Dal-Tex building, and an Illuminati stooge at the Triple Underpass. Realizing he can’t shoot all three in time to save JFK, Dillinger decides to kill the president himself, just to sow chaos and discord among his enemies. But before he can fire, a fifth mystery shooter kills the president. The authors eventually reveal that the real killer was a Chicago-native nobody, a “very sane, ordinary, rather dull individual” driven to madness after he dumped his space-program stock at a loss under Eisenhower, only to watch it soar again once JFK announced America was going to put a man on the moon.

8. Shape-shifting alien dies in Kennedy’s place, Teen Titans Lost Annual (2008)
Given DC Comics’ own experiences in the wake of JFK’s death (an issue of Superman featuring a story entitled “Superman’s Mission For President Kennedy” was understandably scrapped after the events in Dallas), it’s a wonder that the comic book publisher ever gave the go-ahead to an Elseworlds story that tied the Teen Titans into the assassination. Originally titled Teen Titans Swingin’ Special, the story—written by Teen Titan creator Bob Haney—featured JFK being kidnapped and brainwashed by an alien race known as the Ullustrians in order to help them defeat their enemies, the Violators. But due to their respect of Kennedy and his efforts as a leader, the Ullustrians have a shape-shifter take the president’s place at Dealey Plaza. The Teen Titans follow Kennedy to Ullustra, where they temporarily join the fray before rescuing the president and bringing him back to Earth, at which point they discover that the shape-shifting alien has been assassinated in Dallas. Unable to explain his continued existence without also divulging the existence of aliens, Kennedy chooses to return to Ullustria. Although the DC powers that be pulled the Swingin’ Special from their schedule in 2003, the story eventually saw print in 2008, rebranded as a Teen Titans Lost Annual.

9. JFK lives and is transformed into a black man, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
One favored component of alternate takes on the assassination is that JFK lived on in secret, a notion that Bubba Ho-Tep takes to its ludicrous extreme. The comedy horror film sees an aging, still-alive Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) befriend an aging, also-still-alive Jack Kennedy, played by Ossie Davis. If an octogenarian black actor-director seems like an odd casting choice for JFK, Davis’ character has an explanation for that: After the assassination attempt, shadowy forces conspired to dye his skin black and take a piece of his brain (“I’ve got a bag of sand up there now,” Davis explains) before socking him away in the rural nursing home where the film takes place. It’s a goofy theory—made even goofier by the fact that Davis helps Campbell fight off a vengeful Egyptian mummy—but in comparison to the lunatic fringe of JFK conspiracy theories, even the goofiest explanations can seem almost reasonable.

10. Time traveler saves JFK and makes The Beatles less popular, Timequest (2000)
Any description of this little-seen cheapie sci-fi effort from writer/director Robert Dyke is bound to make it sound far more entertaining than it actually is. An elderly man of the future (Ralph Waite) time-travels back to November 22, 1963 in order to warn both JFK and RFK about their impending assassinations. As a result, history is changed in all sorts of ostensibly interesting ways. Having glimpsed the future, JFK pulls all American troops out of Vietnam. He proposes a joint space program with the Soviet Union, resulting in both countries planting their flags on the moon simultaneously. Robert Kennedy becomes president in the 1970s, with Martin Luther King Jr. as his veep. And for some reason, The Beatles never catch on in the United States. But Dyke chooses to tell the story in such a jumbled, non-chronological way that the movie seems to have been assembled in random order, and the tone is all over the place. If Timequest had taken its cue from Bruce Campbell’s sardonic turn as a conspiracy-minded filmmaker, it would have been a lot more fun.  

11. Racist millionaires put a hit out on JFK, Executive Action (1973)
Written by the once-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo from a scenario by the assassination-conspiracy proponents Mark Lane and Donald Freed, Executive Action was among the first non-documentary feature films to promote the idea that President Kennedy was a victim of a conspiracy—and to demonstrate just how it might have been happened. (The project was instigated by Donald Sutherland, who wasn’t involved in the finished film but who, 18 years later, played “Mr. X” in Oliver Stone’s JFK.) The murder plot is funded by right-wing millionaires (Robert Ryan and TV’s Grandpa Walton, Will Geer) who are concerned about signs that Kennedy is planning to pull out of Vietnam, a war that they see as essential to keeping the international population of those who are “yellow, brown, or black” within manageable levels. As soon as the plutocrats’ check clears, a black-ops man (Burt Lancaster) trains snipers taking target practice at a slow-moving limousine in the desert, while a Lee Harvey Oswald look-alike is dispatched to lay a trail that will lead the dim-witted police right to the designated scapegoat.

12. Brainwashed black-ops agent kills JFK for the Soviets, Call Of Duty: Black Ops (2010)
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Americans believed the communists were capable of anything, including nuclear war, the infiltration of Hollywood, and an unfathomable disrespect for the tenets of capitalism. Following the release in 1962 of John Frankenheimer’s political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, “brainwashed sleeper assassins” was added to the list of potential Soviet plots. At the beginning of Call Of Duty: Black Ops, Alex Mason, the “hero” of the video game, is strapped to a chair in a dingy interrogation room, being questioned by an unseen figure who uses one of those terrifying electronic voice modulators. While on a mission to kill Castro, Mason was captured, sent to a Soviet prison camp, and reprogrammed as an enemy of America. The Soviets implant a series of numbers in Mason’s head that they plan to use to “activate” Mason and other brainwashed sleeper agents once they’re back in the United States. He eventually breaks his conditioning and helps thwart the terror plot, but as he’s choking the life out of his antagonist, Mason yells, “You tried to get me to kill the president!” With his last breath, Nikita Dragovich replies, “Tried?” Despite this ominous response, Dragovich dies, the attack fails, freedom wins, and everyone is happy. Right before the credits roll, though, we see a woman reading numbers into a microphone, followed by film of Kennedy in Dallas. Before the game fades to black, it displays a fuzzy picture of Mason in the crowd near the motorcade.

13. Marine sniper acts as the secret second gunman, Interview With The Assassin (2002)
Neil Burger’s low-budget Interview With The Assassin is the Blair Witch Project of conspiracy movies. Shot in rigorous faux-documentary style, it purports to show the footage shot by an out-of-work cameraman/aspiring TV reporter whose next-door neighbor (played by veteran character actor Raymond J. Barry) asks to share a secret on-camera. The neighbor, a 62-year-old ex-Marine sniper suffering from terminal cancer, explains that he was the second gunman on the Kennedy job and wants to leave behind a record of his confession before he dies. To back up his story, he produces a rifle shell that a ballistics expert confirms as being of the right vintage. The cameraman and his new friend embark on a search for the Marine who acted as the liaison between the shooter and the big shots who organized the conspiracy. (The sniper himself is apolitical, recalling only that he was “a hotshot” who relished the idea of changing history “with a twitch of my finger.”)

14. JFK dies to cover up a massive alien conspiracy, Dark Skies (1996)
In the world of the short-lived X-Files rip-off (and TV mega-flop) Dark Skies, everything that ever happened had something to do with the impending alien invasion of “the Hive,” a group of parasite aliens that attach themselves to a host’s brain and make that host do their bidding. The only thing standing between the Hive and total world domination is a group called “Majestic,” run by J.T. Walsh, which works in secret to understand what the Hive is up to before the species could overrun Earth. Working for Walsh is young, idealistic Eric Close, who got into government service because, golly gee whiz, that John F. Kennedy sure was great! But when Kennedy decides it’s high time the American public knows about an alien invasion, Majestic rules that he must be killed to prevent mass panic, all so the aliens aren’t exposed. It sets up the conflict for the series going forward, but Majestic’s reasoning for killing Kennedy (and later his brother) never seems terribly sound.

15. JFK survives and investigates his own attempted assassination, Surrounded By Enemies (2013)
At times, the mystery genre seems to be driven entirely by a competition to find the most outré protagonists: Cats who solve mysteries! Psychic Louisiana vampire-lovers who solve mysteries! Batswana lady team-ups who solve mysteries! San Francisco half-fairie knights who solve mysteries! So why not a president attempting to solve the mystery of his own attempted murder? In the book Surrounded By Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?, Dark Skies creator Bryce Zabel presents an alternate history where an alert Secret Service agent protects Kennedy at the cost of his own life, and Kennedy has to continue his term knowing that an assassin targeted him. The president undertakes an effort to determine who sent the gunman and what their next move will be. Presented as retrospective by a Newsweek and Time competitor called Top Story, Surrounded By Enemies explores how Kennedy’s presidency might have unfolded if he’d survived Dallas and continued to navigate the era’s contentious politics while trying to figure out who came at the king and missed.

16. Hapless time-traveler struggles to warn JFK, Gone Home (2013)
Although the assassination was a huge historical event, in fiction it can also act as a proxy for more personal pain, as it does in the 2013 indie game Gone Home. In the exploration of the abandoned family home where the game takes place, the player is liable to come across the work of their character’s father, Terrence L. Greenbriar. He’s a struggling author whose sci-fi series involves a hero who travels back in time to, yes, prevent the Kennedy assassination. Greenbriar’s JFK books, The Accidental Savior and The Accidental Pariah, appear to follow the standard template of space-time-bending derring-do, with the mild twist that the time traveler can’t make anybody believe that disaster is about to strike. But after poking around in the most obscure corners of the house, the player will discover hints that Greenbriar was abused by a family member the same year that Kennedy was killed, and the idea of a person traveling back to “fix” 1963 takes on a new layer of meaning (as does the helplessness of the books’ hero). It’s just one of the ways in which Gone Home makes historical touchstones resonate on an intimate level.

17. Joe DiMaggio kills JFK after JFK has Marilyn Monroe killed, 100 Bullets (2001)
Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s comic 100 Bullets follows the mysterious Agent Graves, who finds people seeking revenge and—as a test to see if they’ll go through with it—provides them with a gun, 100 bullets, and assurance that they’ll get away with murder. Issue #27, “Idol Chatter,” sees Agent Graves meeting an ex-baseball legend clearly modeled on Joe DiMaggio. The ballplayer admits to Graves that he was the gunman on the grassy knoll, and he killed Kennedy in retaliation for JFK having his ex-wife murdered to cover up an affair. (Again, the ex-wife wasn’t explicitly stated to be Marilyn Monroe, but that’s the implication.) The story stretches credulity, even for a JFK conspiracy theory, not because Joltin’ Joe was the assassin, but because the ballplayer in the story was unconnected to Oswald—they just happened to show up at the grassy knoll and the book depository on the same day by coincidence.