'11.22.63' producer breaks down all the book/TV differences as miniseries ends
When Hulu's 11.22.63 debuted back in February, my review — which praised James Franco's performance as a teacher who travels back in time to stop the JFK assassination, but was disappointed in some of the changes made in adapting Stephen King's novel — included a couple of quotes from writer/producer Bridget Carpenter about why she chose to gloss over my favorite part of the book, where Franco's character gets to enjoy being a high school teacher in early '60s Texas.
I promised I'd run the full Carpenter interview when we got closer to the end of the miniseries, ultimately deciding to hold it until today's release of the series finale. Though the interview was conducted in January, when I'd seen every episode but the finale, we go through a whole bunch of spoilers for both the show and the book, so it made sense to save it for now.
Below, we dive very deep into the minutiae of the book and Carpenter's rationale for various changes. But whether you read the book or not, I'm curious what everybody thought now that the whole thing is available to watch, so fire away in the comments.
The first of many deviations from the book: Why send Jake back to 1960 on the show instead of 1958?
Bridget Carpenter: Two reasons. I really wanted him to come in during the election year. I wanted us to have the signage and the awareness that Kennedy was right on the brink of becoming president rather than, "Oh, he’s a senator and that’s life." This is a show about the saving of a president, so I wanted to come in right on the eve of those debates, of him becoming president. And I also wanted to compress time. Because five years is a long time to do in any miniseries and I wanted to get to the goods.
Rights can be complicated even if Stephen King has given you permission. Could you have used the Derry characters from It (who are involved in the sequence where Jake tries to kill Frank Dunning) if you had wanted to?
Bridget Carpenter: Yes.
So why did you choose to not do that?
Bridget Carpenter: In the book, Jake makes many test drives. Test drive after test drive after test drive. And in the book, I love that, but dramatically I was like, "No, you don’t get to test. You have to be there and you have to make the commitment and do it." Dramatically, I just thought, "I want to race right into it." So with that in mind, it wasn’t that he was going to go test and see if saving Harry’s family worked and then go back. He was just going to do that to do it. And so that happened to do with geography. They’re in Maine. I wanted him to go, "I’m driving to Texas. Oh, on the way to Texas perhaps I could do a thing." I didn’t want him to drive back to Maine and then go up to the thing.
But he winds up like he’s on the verge of quitting.
Bridget Carpenter: Correct. That’s right.
So you could have had him make it all the way back to Maine if you’d wanted to.
Bridget Carpenter: Yes. I didn’t want him to deviate. I just thought that there was something about setting it elsewhere that was more meaningful for our story.
But there wasn’t any concern incorporating characters from It being a distraction from your story?
Bridget Carpenter: No, no. Because we have many, many Easter eggs of Stephen King’s. I included everything that I felt served our story and didn’t take such a derail. I just thought, "I don’t want to go back and see these guys lindy-hopping. It’s going to take too long." There’s only so much that a story’s pace can bear.
Was there a version where he did have a do-over at any point?
Bridget Carpenter: Yes. (But) then you get into the questions of why he doesn't just keep doing it over. I think you introduce that as a concept, and then you are exasperated with him not using it. I think that the book proves this out, that you really can't. And it takes a lot of time to tell you that: "Here’s all the reasons you can’t," and I went, "No, I want to feel like you’ve got your one shot. That’s it."
There’s a large swath of the book where it basically stops being a thriller and it’s just, "I’m a school teacher in 1960s Texas."
Bridget Carpenter: Yes, 100 percent. Yes I know that part well.
I love that part.
Bridget Carpenter: I do, too.
There’s a little of it in the miniseries, but not a lot. Is it not something that you could really afford to do even with the number of hours you had to play with?
Bridget Carpenter: This dramatic series begins with a mission and a drive. And to interrupt that dramatically, I felt would not serve the whole of the story. The book you can enjoy at your own pace. You’re having your own interior internal experience with it. You’re watching a show and I do feel like you would be checking your watch in a way like, "I’m going on a picnic now? Oh they’re doing the jamboree?" I always wanted the depth of the character work that that ideal gives you but I always wanted the pace of The Bourne Identity. I was like, "I need this thing to go. I need everybody to be like, 'What next, what next?'" But I do want the depth that that character work and that world gives you. So that’s what I tried to do.
Someone who had only seen a couple of episodes but knew I’d watched seven of them asked me a question this morning and it was the first time it occurred to me: "Is Jake in every scene?" And I realized he is except when we’re with Oswald in the seventh episode.
Bridget Carpenter: That’s right. Jake is our point of view. We don’t get to know things that he doesn’t know. So I shot the entire thing and I wrote the entire thing leaning into his point of view. However, as I got closer, I started going, "I want to know more about Oswald. That’s an incredible historical figure and we’re trying to dramatize him in a way." So that was the place where we opened up a little bit.
You do something interesting where he tells Sadie he's from the future at the end of one episode, and then when we get to the next episode, her knowledge is just the new status quo. You don't have the conversation. Why did you do that?
Bridget Carpenter: Because we know. There’s nothing that he would tell her that we don’t know. So I want drama to tell me something that I don’t know: illuminate me. We would watch him illuminating her but we would learn nothing else. So I just thought giving the beginning of that conversation and making it an emotional deep moment between the two of them at the end. And then I felt it’s a show that I want people to keep catching up to. Not to be waiting for it to catch up with me.
Time is always working against Jake, and by introducing Bill as an assistant, at a certain point Bill starts working against Jake as well. But did you always know that that was going to happen?
Bridget Carpenter: Yes I did. There’s a couple of things. I wanted everything to have a sense of inevitability at the end and an inexorability. So Bill isn’t planted there for him. Jake draws Bill into his own story by his actions. So the thematic for me is always that every action has a consequence. I knew that that was always going to happen because the first way that you see Jake, he’s teaching his students something about an insane asylum. It’s like my version of Wiseman’s Titicut Follies. He’s saying, "Why does this happen?" And my feeling is in Jake’s story, there are things that are meant to happen. He brought things in motion so that was my little plant that I always knew we were going to go to the asylum.
You went over a lot of hours. Was it always designed to be this many?
Bridget Carpenter: Yes, although right at the start, I went, "I’m going to do this in four hours." And J.J. (Abrams) said, "Okay, that sounds good." And then I went with it for a while and went, "I think it’s six hours." And he went, "That sounds good." And I built it eventually to be nine hours.
If it had been ten, was there anything from the book that you would have liked to work in that you didn’t?
Bridget Carpenter: I actually do think more school stuff and his relationships at school would have been great. I could have made it ten. At every turn, (Hulu) was like, "Whatever the story needs to be," which is unparalleled. I do think it would have been rich to do that, and I will say James Franco and I were like, "What if he directs a show of Of Mice and Men, because like that would be a fun Easter egg." We did talk about that. But fundamentally, I wanted the show to drive. So at the end of the day, I wish we could do more dancing. Dancing would have been great. More school and more dancing. Mundane things.
Because what the school gives it is it’s not just that he’s turning away from this romance with Sadie by continuing with the mission. He’s turning away from this entire life that he loves.
Bridget Carpenter: I think that’s right. I think that he falls in love with Sadie, but I think he falls in love with life there. That’s the other thing that was quite moving to me. It’s not just a story about a girl. It’s like, "This is where I belong. This is where I’m me." And that was another reason why it was important to me to show him kind of lost in the real world at the beginning, because I do think he finds a place back there and has to give it up.
In the book, there’s all this business that Al’s going over with him not just about the gambling, but about just making sure you have period-appropriate money.
Bridget Carpenter: Yes, yes. But you know what? I wish we could have done more gambling things. I have to, you know, that is the thing that would have been really fun because I was like oh, wouldn’t it be fun to show him at a baseball game and he’s calling the plays before they happen. That would have been very expensive to shoot so we didn’t do that. But so like yes, sorry I interrupted your question.
One of the additions you make is he uses the iPhone as a way to distract the gambler who attacks him. But then he chucks it in the river. When he had the iPhone, I thought, "Oh is he going to keep plugging this in?"
Bridget Carpenter: He doesn’t have his cord. He doesn’t have his cord on.
What self-respecting cell phone user doesn’t have a charging cord?
Bridget Carpenter: It was an accident that he had it. I just thought, "Oh, that’s going to be a funny." And it’s great to have a moment of an anachronism. But it was also symbolic to me to kind of go, "Now you really are giving it away. Use your film as a prop. But you’re giving up your old life. You’re going, 'I’m really here.'" And there’s no Internet, anyway. Just with the phone service.
The Yellow Card Man's backstory is new.
Bridget Carpenter: We made that all up. That was a real deviation, because in the book, as you’ll remember, there was more than one Yellow Card Man. And the first yellow card man kills himself and then he dreams about him a lot. And then there’s the – and then the card changes colors and then there’s a new guy who’s able to explain a lot of what went on. And I just thought that is not going to be dramatically satisfying. I want there to be one yellow card man. I don’t want to parse that there’s many. I just thought dramatically I want it attached to one thing. And then I thought, you know, this has to be personal. It has to be personal like the yellow card man at the end for our series was an iteration of who Jake could become if he were to continue trying. So I wanted a version of that.
Why in your mind does a guy like Jake who, even if he had just been divorced, decide, "I’m going to now devote years of my life to Al’s insane quest"?
Bridget Carpenter: It’s a totally insane quest. I think it speaks to my desire to want to do a thing that matters. And when you’re somebody who has a job like a teacher, a job which arguably maybe matters most, but it doesn’t feel like it to any teacher. That’s drudgery. That’s hard work. And I just thought there is something of the kind of wishful hero I think in everybody. And I think that that’s in Jake. I think it does awaken something. I think it is crazy. It doesn’t really make sense and it’s all theoretical. It’s a complete theory that you’re buying that it might work. And I love the idea that he has a wish to make a bigger impact than he thinks that he’s making. So that’s why I think he does it.
Let’s talk about Easter eggs. How do you decide, for instance, "Let’s put Annette O’Toole here"? Or to use a song from another King adaptation? How do you decide which ones and when to use them and when it isn’t distracting?
Bridget Carpenter: We just had a master list of things that we loved in Stephen King’s novel. So Christine was always first and foremost. I was like Christine is going to be in the series. And so we went, "Well, of course, Johnny Clayton has to drive Christine." We had lists of names that were meaningful to us, of things that we loved, of pieces so sometimes they would be very subtle. Like I know on the street, on Main Street – and I don’t even think you see this until maybe the final episode: you pass by Blue Ribbon Laundry and that’s the laundry where Carrie’s mother worked in Carrie. We went really deep. We mentioned Castle Rock. I would say it was kind of like the most fun lottery that we played. We had a list and we were like, "Put that there, put that there, put that there." It was seeing where they could fit.
He quotes The Godfather to get out of the thing with Miss Mimi. You could have done a lot of that if you wanted to.
Bridget Carpenter: He does that in episode 3, too. He mentions the MASH 4077th.
Exactly. In the Back to the Future movies, Marty McFly is doing that all the time.
Bridget Carpenter: Constantly. The difference is that I think that Jake loses himself in the past. I don’t think that he’s like, "I can be funny all the time." Marty McFly is somebody who, no matter that he’s in the past, lives in the present. He belongs in the present. And that’s not Jake’s story. Jake’s story is that I think he starts to forget that he’s from the present and then sometimes, you know, his mind goes, "Oh, I’m Fredo, I have this friend." When he's in a jam. So it was just feeling what kind of tone we wanted. And we wanted to enjoy ourselves and not have it be a Bataan death march. We wanted a little bit of joy, but we wanted it to feel real. I didn't want it to look like a Vogue magazine of the 1960s. I wanted to feel like I’m in a documentary in the '60s. I wanted to feel like I got vacuumed into the '60s, because that’s what the book did to me. I was like, "I’m here. I’m in it." And that’s what I wanted the series to do, is to give me that same immersive feeling.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com