It’s a Stephen King, 8-hour television series adaptation, made by an outlet totally unused to creating original content and starring perhaps today’s most unlikely leading man. Set over fifty years in the past, offering nothing really new in it’s time-travel tale and with wish-fulfilment for the middle aged at it’s central core, what could possibly go right?
***The following contains spoilers for “11.22.63”, Episode One, “The Rabbit Hole”***
Anyone worth their salt will (rightly) be wary of anything on a screen, be it small or big, marked ‘Stephen King adaptation’. His books have sold in their hundreds of millions but are often a square peg when it comes to the round hole of being adapted for the screen. King’s 2011 novel “11/22/63” was his best in years and critically lauded but the knives were already out before the cameras rolled for it’s transition from page to screen.
James Franco is Jake Epping, a bored, drifting and just divorced high school English teacher. Co-opted by his friend, local diner owner Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), he’s shown a time portal (the Rabbit Hole in question) that takes him back to 1960, and and is asked by Al to finish what he started – to go back, live there for three years and then prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy.
One of the tenets of screen time travel is that there are rules and Al makes Jake, and therefore us, aware of them; the portal will always drop you in October 21, 1960 at 11:58am; no matter how long you stay in the past, only two minutes elapses here; changes you make in the past stick, but if go you back again it all resets; time will sometimes ‘push back’ when you try to make changes. Got all that? Good, because Al’s just dropped dead from cancer. Never mind eh Jake? Off you go to continue his pet project to save JFK and therefore stop Vietnam from ever happening and create a brave new world for everyone. With three years to go before Kennedy is killed, Jake will have to set about investigating Lee Harvey Oswald and his associates. Is Oswald really going to be the assassin? If so, will be act alone? And what will Jake do to stop him? Simply put a bullet in his head? This is perhaps the weak link of the show, the fact that Franco’s Jake simply shrugs his shoulders and sets off on this mission without much thought or doubt. Yet it’s all done with such bravado and speed you don’t really question it.
Jake’s mission is backed up with Al’s copious notes and information but the past does indeed push back, and a mysterious drifter with a yellow card in his hat keeps appearing and telling Jake he shouldn’t be here. When Jake ill-advisedly tries to telephone his late father the phone box is trashed by an out-of-control car and the dying driver also tells Jake he is out of place. Out of time more like it. How much will the 60’s continue to resist and try to stop Jake from changing history?
Sending someone back in time to Smalltown USA in the middle of last century without somehow invoking Back To The Future is impossible. So instead of trying to work around that 11.22.63 decides instead to fully embrace the similarities, with Jake’s initial trip back riffing on Marty’s first, dazed walk around Hill Valley and the same events played over in subsequent trips a nod to Back To The Future: Part II. Jake even has his own Sports Almanac, written by Al, but what better way for a time traveller to have access to regular cash than to place dead cert bets?
Likewise, here the past is some utopian ideal; everything tastes better, people are nicer and Jake’s dollar goes a long, long way. He’s almost immediately bought a sexy two-seater sports car and won $3500 on a wager with a shady bookie (bet we’ll see them again) before setting off to Dallas, Dealey Plaza and his mission. This first, double-bill episode sets up everything nicely. There’s clearly been no penny pinching with the production design and this 1960 looks sumptuous. The problem with most historical dramas is that, as we know history and therefore the outcome, there’s little conflict to play on. But 11.22.63 has several ‘what if’s’; Can Jake stop JFK’s death?. If he does, just what exactly will that do to the future?. But the real genius of this tale is the bigger questions it asks – IS Oswald the killer? And if so, DID he act alone? Those are answers everyone’s always wanted.
11.22.63 is released Mondays on Hulu. Episode 2 is available 02/22/16.