Stephen King’s 2011 novel 11/22/63 is one of his very best, combining elements of historical fiction, sci-fi thriller, and an old-fashioned love story into an engrossing read about an everyman’s attempt at changing history. Rare for a latter-day King work, it even sticks the landing in memorable and appropriate fashion. As is always the case with the author, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling.
To say that King’s work has not often been well-served by its movie and television adaptations would be an understatement. (Trust me, I wrote the book on it.) With the eight-part limited series 11.22.63, Hulu and producer J.J. Abrams have finally hit on the right format for translating one of King’s mammoth tomes to the screen. A two-hour movie (as originally planned by director Jonathan Demme before abandoning the project) would inevitably condense the sprawling story to the point of absurdity. A network miniseries—of the type ABC churned out on a regular basis in the ’90s and early 2000s—would result in a watered-down, sanitized product. 11.22.63 (no, I have no explanation for the peculiar change in punctuation from King’s title) is what the increasingly ludicrous Under The Dome should have been: a straight, one-season adaptation with a beginning, middle, and an ending.
That’s not to say that Abrams and his creative team haven’t taken liberties with the novel along the way. Like the book, 11.22.63 begins in present-day Lisbon, Maine, where high school teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) is putting the finishing touches on a painful divorce. While eating his favorite cheap hamburger at the local diner, Jake is taken aback when his friend and the diner’s owner Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) emerges from the back room looking sickly and old mere minutes after appearing hale and hearty. Al has a secret in that back room: a “rabbit hole” that transports anyone who enters it back in time.
As with any time-travel story, there are specific rules governing the temporal shenanigans. The rabbit hole has a fixed exit point: anyone who enters it emerges at 11:58 a.m. on October 21, 1960, and history is reset each time someone arrives from the future. No matter how long you remain in the past, only two minutes will have passed when you return to your own time. As usual, the butterfly effect applies, meaning that any changes made to the past may cause unforeseen ripples in history. Most importantly, the past does not want to be changed. As Al Templeton bluntly puts it, “You fuck with the past, the past fucks with you.”
Al’s plan is to fuck with the past in a big way by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Now too frail to pull it off, Al enlists Jake in his cause. As with the book, this is the weakest aspect of the story: Jake’s motivation for spending three years in the early ’60s and gathering enough intelligence to decide whether or not to murder Lee Harvey Oswald is thin to nonexistent. He takes a huge leap of faith in trusting Al’s gut instinct that preventing JFK’s assassination will lead to a better world, even though Al himself has said there’s no way of knowing how changes to the past will affect history. Jake has no particular interest in the assassination, so when he does go through the rabbit hole, it’s as if he simply has nothing better to do. For some, a bigger hurdle to overcome will be separating Franco the actor from Franco the living performance-art piece, but he fits the everyman role surprisingly well. He’s generally likable, but invests Jake with an irritability and quick temper that gives the character more of an edge than he had in the book.
Assuming you can swallow the premise, this is where 11.22.63 starts getting fun. Written by co-producer Bridget Carpenter and directed by Kevin Macdonald (State Of Play), the first episode finds fish-out-of-water Jake trying to adjust to the doo-wop early ’60s, with its pink Cadillacs, clumsy milkmen, and segregated toilet facilities. After building up his bankroll by gambling (with a Back To The Future-style book of sports results as his edge), Jake heads southwest to Dallas in hopes of determining whether Oswald is indeed the lone gunman whose death will change history.
The second episode, “The Kill Floor,” functions almost as a stand-alone hour as Jake goes on a side mission to help the younger version of a janitor (Leon Rippy) he knows in the future. The biggest change to King’s novel comes here, as a minor character from the book, bartender Bill Turcotte, becomes Jake’s sidekick throughout his mission. It’s not hard to guess why this change was made: So much of the novel unfolds as Jake’s inner monologue, the filmmakers had to decide between slathering the series with voiceover narration or giving Jake someone to talk to. They made the right choice, as George MacKay gives one of the show’s most affecting performances as Bill.
The series bogs down a bit in the middle as Jake and Bill settle into their apartment directly below that of Lee and Marina Oswald (played by Daniel Webber and Lucy Fry). Jake takes a job teaching at a high school, where he befriends principal Deke Simmons (an aptly cast Nick Searcy) and romances librarian Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon, who lights up the screen every time she appears). As Jake and Bill conduct their surveillance on Lee and various possible co-conspirators, it sometimes feels as if the show is stalling for time until the fateful date of the title arrives. Given the established time-travel rules, there’s really no reason for Jake to wait until he’s sure Oswald is the assassin. Why not kill him, go back to the future, and see if history has changed? If not, he can always go back again to a reset past.
When the date in question is finally reached, however, the show doesn’t blow it. The recreation of the events in Dealey Plaza is detailed and suspenseful in its execution. Without giving anything away, the series has subtly tweaked King’s ending while still delivering on its emotional impact. 11.22.63 is sometimes a bumpy ride, but the destination is ultimately worth the journey.
Developed for television by: Bridget Carpenter (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Starring: James Franco, Sarah Gadon, Chris Cooper, George MacKay, Daniel Webber, Lucy Fry, Nick Searcy
Debuts: Monday, February 15 on Hulu
Format: Eight-part science-fiction miniseries
Complete miniseries watched for review