There was a period in the 80s and 90s when it seemed like everything Stephen King had ever written was being adapted for the big or small screen. Then we had a lull for around a decade or so as both his written and adapted material slowed a little. In recent years we have seen a resurgence – a thirst for more King material to watch, leading to remakes and new adaptations to the extent that it seems like rarely a month passes without a new release or announcement. 11/22/63 the novel is one of King’s most heralded recent works, a highly personal, highly relevant tale given the current political climate in the USA. It has all those good old King staples – a writer with romantic tendencies, childhood or nostalgia for the past, and just a hint of the supernatural. It’s a long and engaging read, detailing a few years in the life of a man who discovers a portal which can transport him back to the late 1950s. No matter how much time he spends there, only two minutes pass in the present. If he does something in the past it can change the future, but if he subsequently returns to the past all his changes get wiped – any time he goes through the portal, he always returns to the same point and place in time. With some narrative and character changes, the TV mini-series adaptation takes the same central idea and runs with it, creating an interesting, authentic, tense and sometimes tragic tale of one man’s decision to change the course of history.
James Franco stars as Jake Epping (a role he plays relatively straight), a teacher and writer who is recently divorced and drifting through life. When he visits his friend Al, he is shocked to see that Al suddenly looks incredibly sick. Al tells him that he has cancer and will be dead soon and tells Jake about the time-travelling portal in his cafe. This first episode is largely spent explaining how the portal works and in convincing Jake to travel back with a single goal – to prevent JFK from being assassinated – the belief being that the world would be a better place today had he survived. Al has failed in his attempts due to the onset of his cancer and his doubts over who killed JFK – Oswald, the FBI etc etc. On top of that, the past doesn’t want to be changed leading to certain supernatural or deadly events as time seeks to correct itself. By the time the second episode rolls around, Jake has taken on the mission in full spirit, though he has five years to kill before the day of the assassination comes around. During this time Jake must fit in – get a job, research everything he can about the people surrounding the assassination, and work out how to stop it.
There’s a definite nostalgic feeling in these episodes set in the past. I wasn’t around in the 50s or 60s, and I’m not American, and yet the wistful, seemingly carefree nature of those times shines though, albeit with a dark underbelly. The pacing, for such a sprawling tale, is just right and the changes made to the plot are fine (one of the biggest changes being the introduction of Bill Turncotte) – I certainly had no issues with them. If you haven’t read the book and have no interest in doing so, this won’t impact you although I would encourage everyone to read it as it is one of King’s best in recent years. Oswald is shown in a, I don’t want to say sympathetic light, but in a human light at least – a flawed man driven to make his own bad decisions – his wife Marina caught in the middle. The romantic side-plot of Jake and Sadie is rather sweet, but then I’ve always enjoyed these sort of relationships – as seen in other efforts like Back To The Future, Goodnight Sweetheart and a myriad of others. The cast are all in top form, credit going to Franco, George Mackay, Sarah Gadon, and Lucy Fry, and the various directors and writers all craft a relatable tale which begs that always prodding question – what would you do? With a running time over 6 hours it takes a certain commitment to watch, but if you like the premise or indeed the history or the surrounding conspiracies, then this will likely pull you in during the first episode and keep you locked in the past until the credits roll.
Let us know what you think of 11/22/63 in the comments!