Hulu’s new series 11.22.63 is based on one of Stephen King’s most intriguing and absorbing novels, 11/22/63, in which a man travels back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. That particular plot contrivance is hardly fresh in the annals of science fiction (Gene Roddenberry, for example, proposed it for the first Star Trek film back in the mid-70s), but King’s take on it was informed by recent historical reconsideration of Kennedy and his assassination. If the novel had been written in 1991, rather than 2011, there would have been plots within plots, the CIA, the FBI, Cuba, etc: the full cast of characters in the late 20th century’s most popular parlour game. But instead, King drew inspiration largely from a remarkable and fascinating book, namely the 1995 non-fiction work Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, by Norman Mailer.
Mailer’s book came at just the right time to reframe the Kennedy assassination. In the early 1990s, the former Soviet archives were wide open (they would not remain so) and most of the people who could give first-hand testimony about Lee Harvey Oswald were still alive, particularly Russian sources. While he didn’t have access to Marina Oswald herself, who has kept away from the media since the mid-1960s, he did manage to speak to just about everyone else who knew Oswald, and get access to his private writings and self-proclaimed “Historic Diary”. Mailer didn’t start out to demonstrate that it probably was, in all likelihood, Lee Harvey Oswald who shot John F. Kennedy, and did it alone. But he didn’t discount the theory, either. All explanations were on the table, and while there were some tantalizing and unexplainable incidents involving Oswald, particularly with regards to his associates in New Orleans, the bulk of the evidence showed a person more than capable and more than willing to carry off this act. Previous conspiracy-minded writers dismissed Oswald out of hand, out of a deep-seated ambivalence towards anything the government told them, but the more one learns about this individual, the more one has to come to two conclusions: he could have done it, and (perhaps more importantly) no one could have ordered him to do anything. Oswald’s entire short life was predicated on the notion of going at it alone, and doing remarkable things, such as serving as a US Marine, and defecting to the Soviet Union, and getting back into the United States after doing so. He had — and this piece of evidence is the key — also attempted to assassinate General Edwin Walker, something that many conspiracy theories either omit or forget. Seeing the pattern of Oswald’s life and weighing all the hard evidence, Mailer concludes that he did it alone, and considers what that means for American culture and history.
Stephen King’s novel doesn’t waste any time on the question of Oswald’s guilt, aside from one key presumption. It also, in a classic King move, doesn’t really try to explain how the time travel device mild-mannered English teacher Jake Epping uses to travel from 2011 back to 1958 actually works. He just has Jake step into a closet and emerge back in time. Instead, King’s book focuses on the meta-theme of actions and consequences. “This happened. Then this happened,” is an oft-repeated phrase in Epping’s first-person narration. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that he does indeed prevent Oswald from killing Kennedy, but like other changes Jake makes to the past, the present and future don’t work out exactly as planned. Actions have consequences and, as Jake’s friend Al (who found the time portal) often puts it, “The past doesn’t want to be changed”. In the novel, Jake makes several trips back to the past, testing his ability to change things and what the consequences are, from trivial things like carving his initials in a tree, to more consequential changes like prevent a horrific act of family violence. Each time, he notices that the changes he makes don’t have the desired effect on the future. But he continues to go back — each time arriving in 1958 and waiting months and finally years until his path crosses with Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963.
Since he is deposited back in 1958 each and every time he steps through the time portal, Jake must live in this era for years in order to fulfill his mission, and here we have the one important presumption Jake makes (or does not make) about Lee Harvey Oswald. While Al is convinced that Oswald really did kill Kennedy, and Jake essentially buys that explanation as well, neither of them are willing to presumptively find Oswald somewhere in 1962, for example, and just summarily execute him. It’s important for Jake to actually see Oswald doing something wrong, and to catch him in the act. Only then will he be certain of his role in the assassination. (This plot device certainly owes something to Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report.) But King spins this contrivance out with all of his skill. In fact, much of the joy of the novel comes from King’s ability to show us the past through a modern person’s eyes. Food (made with real butter) and drink (made with real sugar) tastes so much better to Jake in the early 1960s. He also notices that everyone smokes cigarettes, until he himself becomes accustomed to smelling them everywhere. Money is easier to come by than in 2011 and last a lot longer, and without electronic records, forging and maintaining an identity is much easier. Jake finds work as a teacher, falls in love with one of his colleagues and almost disappears into the early 1960s, until history comes calling.
The new 7-part TV series stars James Franco (also listed as a producer) and was developed by Bridget Carpenter along with notables such as JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk. Judging from the first two episodes, this is already an original and enthrallingly tense series which, thanks to the TV series format rather than having to stuff everything into a 2-hour movie, takes the time to explore the characters and the nooks and crannies of King’s rich original text. There are changes, of course: for example, Jake goes back in time only once here, whereas in the book he goes back many times and several of the events of his various trips are condensed into a single story arc. He also is sent back to 1960, rather than 1958, which allows the show’s creators to further condense events. Despite the changes, the show rings true to the spirit of the original text. Franco is wonderful as Jake, a person who is essentially a geeky amateur, forced to play a huge historic role. His reactions to the past are very human, laughing at how cheap everything is and how complicated everyone’s clothing seems to be. When he tries to change anything significant in the past, however, the past fights back in scenes of sudden violence or an ominous, heavy feeling that work quite well with a minimum of special effects. Old-fashioned acting, directing and sound effects easily sell the notion that the true antagonist here is history itself, fighting to not be changed by the actions of one meddling human.
Later episodes of the series will (apparently) depart from the novel even more, introducing a new character to whom Jake can address expository dialogue. This sort of change is necessary and justified, since so much of the novel’s richness is embedded in Jake’s narration. Other than using voice-over like David Lynch’s Dune (we all know how well that worked), a new character that Jake can take into his confidence is a good idea. Any budgetary corners that were cut in this production (shooting was in small-town Ontario, for example, with certain key scenes shot in Dallas) are largely invisible on the screen. Later, when the story takes a decidedly post-apocalyptic turn, some cracks may show, but so far the performances, style and mood of this series capture the essence of what made King’s novel great, and either text provides us with an entertaining and captivating way of considering both the nature of history and of fate.
11.22.63 is uploaded one episode at a time to Hulu each Monday.