When you fight the past, the past fights back.
An eight-part miniseries, 11.22.63 is a taut science-fiction conspiracy thriller from the brilliant literary mind of American author Stephen King — best known for penning contemporary horror/ suspense/ supernatural classics The Body (aka Stand by Me), The Shawshank Redemption, It and The Green Mile, all of which have been translated into successful motion pictures. Instantly becoming a number-one bestseller, King’s 11/22/63 novella topped The New York Times Best Seller list upon release in November 2011 — and remained there for a whopping 16 weeks — this stellar feat catching the attention of prolific filmmaker J.J. Abrams — the producer of Lost (2004) and Fringe (2008) — who (as head of Bad Robot Productions) serves as an executive-producer on the series.
Having aired on network Hulu from February to April earlier this year, 11.22.63 (set in modern-day USA) tells the story of Jake Epping (James Franco), a recent divorcee living in Maine — the home state of King himself — who works as an English teacher and earns some extra cash on the side as a lecturer for a creative writing night class. Jake’s universe, however, goes topsy-turvy (quite literally) when he is presented with an outlandish opportunity to travel back in time to October 21st, 1960, by his old friend and diner proprietor Al Templeton (Chris Cooper): this made possible by means of a portal hidden inside of a pantry-type closet at the back of the eatery. There, assuming the ailing Al’s mission, Jake is assigned with the task of preventing the assassination of the 35th President John F. Kennedy, if successful rewriting the trajectory of America’s history (for better or worse) — Al, an ex-Vietnam soldier, projecting a butterfly effect that could potentially save the life of Robert F. Kennedy, who was gun down in 1968, and (more importantly) stop the said war from ever taking place. Problem is, the killing doesn’t occur until November 22nd, 1963 (the titular date), which leaves Jake alone and stranded in the Sixties for a good three or so years, as venturing back home, then re-entering again, would only reset the timeline, nullifying all changes made on Jake’s previous trip.
Under the alias of Jake Amberson, our hero lands in Lisbon Falls, Maine — the ‘Rabbit Hole’ always dropping him in the same spot at precisely the same time — then treks to Texas where he begins to build a life for himself in the unknown yonder, landing himself employment at a local high school, Jake constantly moving between Dallas and a little (fictional) town named Jodie. As Jake pieces together the puzzle surrounding alleged gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) — was he flying solo, working with someone or was he simply just a fall guy? — an encounter (and eventual romance) with sweet librarian Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon) — a co-worker with whom he develops an instant attachment to — could very well jeopardize the entire mission and bring about its undoing, Jake unwittingly falling in love with the past he came to erase.
Not having read the novel on which 11.22.63 has been based, I can’t exactly say just how accurate this adaptation is — though, word on the street suggests that it’s pretty faithful to its paperback ancestor, the 8-hour-or-so miniseries staying true to the tone, style and spirit of King’s masterwork. Being the case with most book-to-movie translations, the storyline does deviate a little in its plotting — certain events have been reshuffled to fit the medium while others have been added or omitted altogether — but ultimately, the absorbing narrative — which maintains that sheer unputdownable quality — more-or-less remains intact, its underlying themes and that looming sense of doom handsomely rendered, the 800-page plus novella agreeably attuned for this new format, making that leap from page to screen almost harmoniously.
Expertly realized by Bridget Carpenter, Friday Night Lights (2006), who also helped develop the material for TV, and shot by a bevy of able directors — including the likes of Kevin Macdonald, of The Last King of Scotland (2006) fame, who helms the debut chapter — 11.22.63 has been masterfully crafted, the central mystery (along with its fatalism undercurrent) so gripping, tense and enthralling that it demands one’s full, undivided attention — this is not a show to watch whilst doing your homework or other house related chores. Interknitting several plot-lines simultaneously — and often straddling from genre to genre — the narrative gives equal weight to its multiple threads, each allowed an opportunity to breath and naturally uncoil: there’s the historical side of things — Jake’s on-the-clock assignment to thwart the infamous assassination of JFK, who was cut down in the prime of his life — along with our time-traveler’s own inner odyssey — Jake, an ordinary middle-class man finding purpose and meaning in his life through shared affinity with the beautiful Sadie Dunhill, a stirring love affair that blossoms in the face of the most unusual of circumstances.
Only eight episodes in length, 11.22.63 is tightly scripted (with a teleplay by series developer Bridget Carpenter) and nicely paced, the narrative (no matter how far-fetched) remaining grounded and plausible throughout, filmmakers constantly keeping viewers on their toes, the immediacy and tension never lost, despite the fact that proceedings do wander from time to time — for instance, there’s a side story that sees Jake detour to Kentucky in order to save the future of one Harry Dunning (Leon Rippy), a simpleton janitor (an attendee of Jake’s night class) whose mother, brother and sister were viciously murdered at the hands of his abusive alcoholic father, Frank (Josh Duhamel playing against type), on Halloween night, 1960, Harry left critically battered (and scarred) during the slaughter.
With the notion of traversing through time open to endless interpretation — we’ve seen the DeLorean aid Marty McFly on his exploits in the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-1990), and of course there’s the TARDIS from Doctor Who, an advanced alien technology built by the Time Lords — this ‘time jumping’ element is presented with its own set of laws and codes — for example, one’s stay in the past always equates to 2 minutes in the present, no matter the duration of the excursion (be it days, weeks, months or years). Not getting too caught up in the ‘hows’ of the journey — the illogicality of time travel shrugged off as some form of hocus-pocus — it’s the ‘What If?’ question that’s really unpacked. Here, the past itself (which doesn’t want to be changed) works as our primary antagonist (and obstacle), our potential savior (who’s somewhat tragically destined to repeat his mistakes over and over) caught in a tug-of-war contest between desire and destiny — ‘If you do something that really f@#%s with the past, the past f@#%s with you,’ Al (at one point) explains. In ways that are both painful and heart-rending, the universe ultimately teaches Jake an invaluable lesson about life — and what really matters most — this further enforced by yellow card man (Kevin J. O’Connor), a seemingly mystical bum with a yellowish card wedged in the rim of his hat.
Such ‘out-there’ ideas are brought to life by the assured work of our talented cast. An unusual choice as leading man, James Franco, 127 Hours (2010), exercises his full acting range as Jake Epping (or should I say Amberson), whose fleecy hair and unkempt goatee are quickly cropped to fit into the clean and sharp shaven look of the 1960s. Channeling the aura of old school Hollywood legends, Franco gives a sincere and vanity-free performance, selling the emotional realism of the apathetic English teacher’s Quantum Leap turn; Jake (often) forced to shoulder some less-than noble acts in order to fulfill his burdensome pursuit — and, as our chief point-of-view, Franco’s charisma (and budding star quality) carries the project for its duration. Sarah Gadon, Dracula Untold (2014), is magnetic as the gorgeous Sadie Dunhill, who goes from pent-up librarian to liberated lady, her abusive relationship with pesky ex-husband Johnny Clayton (played with gleeful malevolence by T.R. Knight) proving to be the primary thorn in the pair’s ill-starred romance — along with the twisted hand of fate itself, which exploits love to maintain its own present-day state — the duo’s palpable chemistry so earnest that it resonates even when words are sparse.
The support cast is equally rock-hard. George MacKay, Captain Fantastic (2016), plays Jake’s sidekick Bill Turcotte (who has an entirely different presence here than that in the novel), this unlikely ally working as a younger brother to our frontman — he’s somebody who admires Jake and really wants to help — the character cleverly used to eliminate the book’s voice-over narration, giving Jake another person to converse with, Bill being a figure whom our protagonist can explain things to the audience (at home) through. Then there’s the tetchy establishment-hating Oswald and his CIA handler/ pal George de Mohrenschildt — the subject of official inquiries surrounding the real-life death of JFK — played by Daniel Webber, Teenage Kicks (2016), and Jonny Coyne, Nightcrawler (2014), respectively, both men doing their darndest with their slightly underdeveloped roles. Elsewhere Aussie actress Lucy Fry, Vampire Academy (2014), embodies Oswald’s striking Minsk bride Marina, whom Jake and Bill meet surveying the would-be shooter whilst residing in a flat just under his bungalow, Fry nicely evincing a mixture of sensitivity and desperation. Elsewhere Nick Searcy — from FX’s Justified (2010) — and Tonya Pinkins — from Fox’s Gotham (2014) — highlight the racial prejudice of the time, the pair playing a couple of high school admin types locked in a surreptitious mixed-race affair, the couple helping Jake find a semblance of stability in this strange new time.
Aesthetically, 11.22.63’s period-piece visuals are awfully cinematic, the temporal rewind captured with a stroke of noir-ish flair. With the miniseries revisiting one of the most iconic decades in American history, sights and sounds range from a local barber shop to a swingin’ high school dance, this voyage back in time being strangely authentic, the age reflected in the era-appropriate sets by production designer Carol Spier, Pacific Rim (2013), the vintage décor/ furnishings and the colorful fashions by costume designer Roland Sanchez, Lost (2004) — it’s tartan plaid dresses for the ladies (hair adorned in ribbons and bows), and the lads, boxy suits, Howick trousers and fedoras. Moreover, the watershed event (aka ‘The Day in Question’) has been recreated with an unbelievable sense of veracity and unmitigated detail and care, production shooting scenes in the Dealey Plaza district — and on location at the Texas School Book Depository — the actual place of JFK’s assassination, filmmakers paying homage to the incident by recapturing its environment and atmosphere — all this made possible via archival footage.
Littered with Easter eggs from the loosely interconnected Stephen King ‘universe’ — does the Blue Ribbon Laundry ring a bell? How about a reference to Castle Rock, Maine? Or a cameo by Gil Bellows? — 11.22.63 (really) has something for everyone: be it a hint of passion, mind-bending thrills or knife-edge ‘whodunit’ beats, the fusion between King and Abrams taking patrons back to an alluring time of political and social unrest, its compelling hook sure to draw us all in — longtime King fan or not. Evocative and thought-provoking, 11.22.63 is designed to make us feel and rightfully belongs in today’s pay-per-view and special-content landscape, Hulu wanting to dabble in the big-boys arena, one that seats esteemed shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011) and Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016). Finishing up on a bittersweet note that’s sure to linger — bringing new meaning to the phrase, ‘Someone I knew in another life’ — 11.22.63 is TV of the utmost order. If only I could turn back the clock and watch it anew.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner
11.22.63 is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia