11.22.63: a Stephen King TV adaptation that really works

11.22.63, arriving in the UK on the 10th of April, promises to break the spell of less-than-brilliant Stephen King TV adaptations...

This article contains some spoilers for the opening episode of 11.22.63

When you get down to it, writing (or at the very least, writing of a creative ilk) is little more than simple wish fulfilment. Think about it: from misspelled online slash fiction travesties that detail Thor and Loki’s brotherly love in a little too much detail, right through to Pulitzer Prize-winning opuses that sit proudly atop the zenith of all literary achievement. Ultimately, all fiction begins with an author projecting their hopes, dreams, fears or fantasies onto a page.

For a legendary writer like Stephen King whose life is a matter of public record, this maxim clearly holds true: as an addict throughout the 80s, perhaps the most prolific part of his career, the themes of addiction, relapse and redemption run clearly through his output during that decade. Since beating his demons, King’s work has sometimes traded darkness for reflection. 2011’s 11.22.63 found him at his meditative best, the critically-acclaimed tale of high school teacher Jake Epping travelling back into history to stop the assassination of JFK perhaps reflecting King’s own desires to rewrite the mistakes of his past.

Were he allowed a professional ‘do-over’, I’d be willing to bet that the man himself would have a long, hard look at the TV adaptations of his work. Whilst movies of his novels have spawned some real turkeys over the years, they’re more than matched by the quality of the great ones (1994’s The Shawshank Redemption still sits atop the IMDb top 250 movies list to this day).

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When it comes to TV however, it’s fair to say that the bad outweighs the good. The Tommyknockers, The Langoliers, The Dead Zone and that ill-advised attempt to outdo Kubrick’s take on The Shining… to put not too fine a point on it – they’re terrible. Even adaptations that are more fondly remembered such as IT don’t hold up particularly well when dusted off and watched again.

The great thing about being Stephen King, however, is that you don’t need a time portal in your broom cupboard to be able to improve your body of work. There’ll always be scores of producers and directors queuing up to have a crack at King’s material as this mammoth list of forthcoming adaptations clearly demonstrates. Hulu’s 11.22.63, airing on Fox from April in the UK is a clear example of this: never mind that if you stacked up the wreckage of all of the failed King TV shows into one pile you could probably see it from space, the fact that the project has managed to attract the likes of J.J. Abrams, James Franco and Chris Cooper is testament to the enduring popularity of the writer’s work. That said, does it buck the trend? With TV adaptations of The Mist, Ayana and possibly even The Stand on the way to name but a few, it would be wonderful to see a King revival take place on the small screen.

11.22.63 is certainly a step in the right direction. Although only a few episodes have been broadcast across the pond and with UK episodes arriving on the 10th of April, it’s already clear that this King adaptation is a cut above the poorer adaptations of the author’s work that for decades have plagued the smaller screen.

The basic premise is simple yet engaging: James Franco’s Jake Epping is an unassuming small town English teacher who loves nothing more than chowing down on a great-value Fatburger (‘it can’t be beef, not at a dollar-nineteen’) at his local diner, Al’s. When the proprietor himself (played by none other than Chris Cooper) seemingly contracts a serious case of cancer within the space of two or three minutes, the bond between the pair deepens and strange truths begin to emerge. Al, it seems, is the possessor of a time tunnel back into 1958. Not only does this explain just how he sells burgers for a steal, it also clarifies the seemingly instantaneous breakout of late-stage, incurable cancer. Al’s reasons for confiding in Jake are clear: with his body failing him, there’s nobody left to complete his mission – returning to 1958 for five whole years with the intention of making it to 11.22.63, averting the assassination of JFK and reshaping the world for the betterment of humankind.

The last wish of a dying man is a powerful request to resist, and so Jake finds himself in the past, a man out of time on a quest to save the world. Clearly, the fifties setting plays to King’s strengths as a writer: in the past he has referenced it as being the source of his youthful fears and therefore also his primary inspiration. Subsequently, the author has mined this era for some of his greatest work and it’s only fair to say that the same sense of confidence pervades the TV adaptation.

Likewise, as Jake, on whom so much of the story depends, Franco is solid if not yet spectacular. The reticent time traveller is a recent divorcee, not given freely to emotional expression; for example, only when a life-destroying tragedy in a student’s past profoundly and unexpectedly moves him does he even consider the benefits of reshaping the future for others if not for himself. Franco strives to portray this aspect to the character through brooding looks and knitted brows, and whilst his ‘still waters run deep’ approach may not be an immediate winner, there’s every chance that he will grow into Epping’s shoes as the series progresses. After all, it’s not like he doesn’t understand the character: his column for Vice on the novel’s looming adaptation wasn’t just a great deconstruction of both character and text – the combination of respect and frustration levelled at Abrams for securing the rights to the project before he did were also reportedly instrumental in getting him the role.

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Franco is supported ably by the fabulous Chris Cooper who is always good value for money. The show cleverly restructures Cooper’s appearances by intermittently flashing back to the future, presumably allowing his character a role throughout the series that he otherwise would have been denied by virtue of the source material. In this sense, Al’s occasional appearances at key moments to disperse exposition or time-travelling lore are a clever touch; instead of becoming a footnote in the story’s past (or should that be future?) he is able to cross over from the other side, dispensing wisdom like a less-twinkling version of Obi Wan Kenobi… and let’s face it, after Quantum Leap, what time traveller worth their salt would even dare to traverse the perils of the time-stream without a buddy named Al?

Although the pacing in The Rabbit Hole, the show’s first episode, feels perhaps just a little off, this can be put down to its feature-length runtime and the desire to get Jake off on his travels. With episode two, The Kill Floor, the pared-down length and previously-developed groundwork mesh well to create a taut, mesmerising episode and 11.22.63 really finds its feet. With every character interaction and each frame of film slowly simmering towards a tense finale, The Kill Floor is a great piece of television and augers well for the show’s remaining six episodes.

Despite King’s history with TV adaptations being historically rocky, on the back of such a solid pair of opening episodes it’s plain that both the author and fans of the novel are pleased that he insisted on holding out for an episodic format despite the previous rights holder’s demands for a movie adaptation. Even eight episodes won’t be enough to reverse-engineer every aspect of the alchemical genius that comprises King’s nine hundred page opus; as a result, aficionados of the source material will be sad to hear of scenes such as the encounter with two of the Derry teenagers from IT, fresh from their encounter with Pennywise The Clown being omitted from the show.

King’s world-sharing approach to writing has always been a wonderful feature with which to garnish his tales; references in one novel to events in another were a staple feature of his writing long before studio bosses decided it was suddenly in vogue with 2008’s Iron Man. Clearly, the TV adaptation of 11.22.63 has a different agenda however: its primary ambition, its only ambition should be to finally give TV a King adaptation to write home about. Time will tell if that’s truly the case but as opening salvoes go, 11.22.63 is firmly on target.