SPOILER ALERT: President John F. Kennedy died on November 22, 1963 and nothing Stephen King can write will ever change that. Oh maybe he’ll change it for a little while, but it will change right back if you ever come out of the closet. That’s the basic premise of Hulu’s miniseries on the best-selling 2011 Stephen King novel 11/22/63.
“If you do something that really fucks with the past, the past fucks with you,” Warns diner owner Al Templeton, played by Chris Cooper, to his casual friend, the local high school English teacher Jake Epping, played by James Franco. Templeton has a tendency to age in spurts, not the regular acceleration of ageing that comes when the body ages, but in three-year-spurts that happen in about two minutes.
Templeton has been taking mini-vacations. He doesn’t light off for a quick weekend of fishing. He prefers spending his time off somewhere in a more innocent age, the age of Camelot. Sure, he didn’t appreciate at while it was happening, but Templeton grieves for the loss of the young American president Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy was killed, and the world changed. Templeton believes the country was split and suffers a kind of persistent post-traumatic stress disorder by the virtual beheading of the growing ideals the son of a bootlegger came to represent.
Templeton sees something in Epping that reminds him of his younger, more idealistic self, wanting to change the world, if he could. He confides in his restaurant regular about this time portal he’s got hidden in the closet behind the kitchen. Along the way, the young English teacher will fall in love with a Texas librarian, do some mean swing dance moves on a dance floor made for Brad Majors-looking kids looking to do the Madison. For the most part, 11/22/63 remains very faithful to the novel but “the book’s always better, everyone knows that,” opines Sadie (Sarah Gadon), before the high school librarian is properly introduced to the world-saving time traveller.
I notice a kind of sameness here that happens to most TV adaptations of King’s works. It avoided the quality, but it was present in the adaptation of The Stand. I’m not sure if this is because Stephen King is more than just a brand in its own class of book-of-the-month clubs. He commands a respect that comes out of commercial success that is almost without precedent. When he is interpreted by a master on film, like Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining, the respect comes off and it allows for a true collaboration of artists.
Even though King wasn’t happy with what Kubrick did to his book, he understood the different mind set that the director brought to it and ultimately forgave him. But TV has too much respect for King and they put a kind of laminated sheen on everything they do of his. Part of this has to do with the usual northern New England settings and language. Hulu’s production is able to avoid the problems of the phraseology that sticks on the tongue but still retains a sameness of quality that I can’t quite put my finger on.
King’s books are very detailed, extremely nuanced and filled with unexpected humour that unexpectedly works more often than it doesn’t. A TV miniseries has the time to leisurely present this, but the respect holds it back. It probably doesn’t help that King has a hand in any production of his works.
For example, in the book, King is able to go on for pages about how the air in the early sixties smelled different; how the food, all food, tasted better. King could detail how the cream rises in milk that is delivered to a doorstep. Franco only gets to give a wondrous look and complement a waitress.
Franco’s Epping also grows in spurts. Epping falls in love with the past itself but he doesn’t do it overnight. He has to lose his innocence to find his innocence. Early on in the series, when Epping is escorted to the slaughter house, Franco has a moment where he really looks like Jack Nicholson. Epping finds it fairly easy to explain things away that should bust him as the time traveller he really is. At one point he is asked if he served in the military and he says he did two tours in Korea. When pressed about what unit he served in, he serves up M*A*S*H 4077.
Don’t expect much in the way of conspiratorial theorizing in 11/22/63. There is talk of CIA, the Mafia, the Russians and other possible players, but it is all pretext and there is nothing new added to the discussion. How could there be? King, a prodigious writer, goes on about the thousands of pages of books that have been written on the subject. There actually is more emphasis on the conspiracy possibilities in the miniseries than in the book. There can’t be a JFK assassination movie without CIA complicity involved. They have that written into every contract.
Daniel Webber plays Lee Harvey Oswald as a confused rebel looking for a cause. He accosts pre-Kennedy assignation target General Walker before he gets a chance to prove Epping right or wrong. Lucy Fry brings depth to Oswald’s wife Marina, a nice young Russian woman who could use a night out on the town. The poor thing is stuck in an apartment in Texas all day and can’t even smoke. I don’t think that was even translatable in Russian in the 1960s.
Jake gets a fellow traveller named Bill (George MacKay), who is also a victim of the aftermath of violence of pivotal character Frank Dunning (Josh Duhamel) and wants to help save the world.
The series is produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, who brought us Person Of Interest, Fringe and Lost. It was executive produced by writer Bridget Carpenter (The Red Road, Parenthood, Friday Night Lights). The individual segments were directed by James Franco, James Kent, Kevin Macdonald, James Strong and Fred Toye and written by Bridget Carpenter, Brian Nelson and Quinton Peeples.
“It never ends well,” the diner owner warns in the beginning, and by the end you know he was telling the truth. 11.22.63 is solid and fairly evenly paced throughout but the final episode grows to a frantic pace before giving space to breathe when you only want to gasp.