The TV adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 premiered today (Feb. 15, 2016), with the first episode of the eight-episode miniseries. The series is executive produced by J.J. Abrams, Stephen King, Bridget Carpenter and Bryan Burk, and premiered on Hulu.
The show is primarily set in the 1960s and sort of gives a commercial platform to the conspiracy theories behind U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The first episode begins with Harry Dunning played by Leon Rippy narrating a story in an adult education class. He describes how his father murdered the whole family on a Halloween night in 1960 with a sledgehammer. We see flashes of blood all over and a boy being pulled out from underneath a bed. Harry’s mother, sister and brother were murdered, and he was left severely injured.
“I remember… the blood smelled like… pennies…”
Jake Epping played by James Franco is the teacher of the class and the main protagonist of the show. Harry’s story leaves the whole class speechless.
On the blackboard of the class, shown behind in the scene, it is written The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. Stephen King has often cited the book as his inspiration to becoming a writer.
Like most of King’s stories, this too begins in Maine… Lisbon, Maine, to be precise.
After the opening scene, we see Jake heading to a diner, which based on the sign outside has been in operation for 35 years. Al Templeton played by Chris Cooper is introduced as the owner of the diner.
We see Jake signing divorce papers when Al comes out from the kitchen coughing heavily into a blood-filled cloth. This is strange because he seemed healthy just a minute ago. The next day he explains to Jake that he has cancer and reveals to him a secret portal to another time that opens through the closet at the diner.
Apparently, the closet takes you back to a fixed date and time – October 21st, 1960 at 11:58 AM. And, no matter how many years one spends there, when you come back only two minutes would have passed in the present time. From the time Jake had been signing his divorce papers to the time Al had come out coughing, Al had spent two years in the 1960s and was diagnosed with cancer.
Al insists on Jake to travel back in time and finish the work he couldn’t – save Kennedy from being assassinated. He believes this would have a butterfly effect and would even prevent the Vietnam war from happening. After much reluctance, Jake agrees to do it. He goes back to 1960 with the purpose of finding out the truth behind the assassination and stopping it.
The show brings the 1960s back to life with as much realism as possible, with the cars, the dressing, the works. A time when the term “insane” actually meant what it said. The minute Jake enters 1960, we see a billboard for Moxie soft drink which was among the first mass-produced soft drinks in the United States.
We can also hear a change in the background songs. Some of the songs included Stay by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, Happy go lucky me by Paul Evans, Roadrunner by Bo Diddley and High hopes by Frank Sinatra.
Jake begins the process of starting to fit in since he has to wait for two years before Lee Harvey Oswald played by Daniel Webber returns to the U.S. from Russia. He also begins to learn the rules of what he can or cannot do in the past.
Apparently, the past can get really pissed if you to try to change it. From the first time Jake enters 1960, he comes across a man with a yellow card on his hat who keeps telling him he doesn’t belong here. And that phrase keeps coming up in the episode, as if it is the past telling him to leave.
As Al so elegantly puts it: “If you do something that really fucks with the past, the past fucks with you.” Like trying to call your father when you were probably not even in existence. Then the past will ram a car right into the telephone booth from which you were calling.
Before sending Jake to 1960, Al insisted on first finding out the truth behind whether or not Oswald actually was behind the assassination before killing him.
Before the Kennedy assassination, Oswald was known to have gone after Major General Edwin Walker. So Jake has to first find out if the attempted assassination was actually carried out by Oswald. Al also speculates, which is later confirmed in the episode, that George de Mohrenschildt, a petroleum geologist and professor who was seen as Oswald’s friend, might have been in cahoots with the CIA and was actually Oswald’s handler.
Jake is seen following George around from JFK’s campaign speech to a high-end Tex-Mex restaurant. Now, the restaurant event is seen as an important point in the past. Al notes that when he tried to find out the truth about who George was meeting that night, a string of events prevented him from doing so.
“I felt the past push back”
Jake manages to avoid those events and see George talking to two people who he suspects were the CIA and overhears George mention Oswald’s name, this is two years before he said he had first met him.
Things get a little more interesting when Jake returns to the house in which he is renting a room to find it on fire and all his documents on the case burnt. The house owner’s 14-year old boy who was set on joining the army to serve the country is killed in the fire.
Although it’s not clearly stated, what I could infer is that Jake felt responsible for the kid’s death because he tried to change the past. And this guilt leads him to decide to return to his own time.
On the way back, he changes his mind and decides to do one good change before leaving. As the episode ends, we see Jake parked outside Harry Dunning’s home in Holden with an intention to stop Harry’s father from murdering the family.
Although I haven’t read the book and I’m sure changes have been made to adapt it for TV, I really love the way this story is going. Unlike conventional dramas, a lot of stuff is left to the viewer’s interpretation which is exactly what good writers do. Show, don’t tell.
And this is especially true of Stephen King and writers of the suspense/horror genre, the less you say, the better it is.
A lot of effort has been put to make the show resonate realistically to the 1960s era. Chris Cooper and James Franco are definitely impressive on screen.
The show has started off in a decent way, though I felt it seemed to cram a lot of stuff from the word go. Maybe that was the intention – to keep the plot moving forward at a fast pace.
This could go either ways, however. If done well, viewers will be able to grasp everything and be left breathless. If not done well, the audience will be gasping for air and make a swim for the shore.
Will the series be well-received? Too early to tell. Stephen King fans might prefer the book to the show, conspiracy theorists might have their own theories that conflict with the storyline, history buffs might point out flaws, and as for the rest of us regular folks, we are just here hoping for a good ride.
And we all know King makes one hell of a roller coaster.