Review: James Franco shines in Hulu's uneven time travel miniseries '11.22.63'
Stephen King's always been open about his improvisational writing style, and the way he lets his stories tell him where they need to go. Even if he never said a word about his process, though, longtime King readers could probably tell, not just because his endings tend to feel rougher than his beginnings, but because sometimes his stories will take unusual detours as King becomes fascinated by a plot device he obviously didn't expect to find so interesting when he started.
Case in point: 11/22/63, his 2011 thriller about Jake Epping, a Maine schoolteacher who goes back in time to try to prevent the JFK assassination. Because the time travel method (a portal in the back of his favorite local diner) deposits him in the past years ahead of schedule, Jake has to fill his days when he's not shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald to confirm that he was acting alone on that fateful day. And for long stretches, the novel stops being about Kennedy and Oswald at all, and just deals with Jake taking a job at high school in the little town of Jodie, TX, where he falls in love not only with librarian Sadie Dunhill, but with this much simpler place and time. It's a Baby Boomer fantasy squared — a younger man not only gets the chance to save Kennedy, but to experience how wonderful the world was when the author was a teenager — but King pours so much warmth and artistry into those passages that it becomes disappointing whenever Jake has to get back to following Oswald, especially since that part of the book never fully takes off. The school scenes were obviously always going to be a part of the book, but you can feel King's love for those sections growing just as rapidly as Jake's.
Still, "man goes back in time to stop a presidential assassin" is a more obvious commercial hook than "man becomes a better teacher in 1961 than he ever was in 2011". So it's not surprising that King never abandoned the premise outright, nor that Hulu's 8-part adaptation — titled 11.22.63, it debuts Monday on the streaming video service — downplays nearly all of Jake's '60s teaching career to focus on his quest to stop Oswald.
It's not surprising, but it is disappointing. It's not just that the Jodie section is the best part of the book — one of the best bits of pure writing of King's career, and a reminder that he's got a lot more in his toolkit than horror and suspense — but that there's not quite enough of the story without it to sustain these eight episodes, despite a great lead performance from James Franco as Jake and some strong individual moments scattered throughout.
King's novel is over 800 pages long. It's a doorstop. Cuts were going to be necessary, even though, as writer/producer Bridget Carpenter explained to me in a recent interview (most of which I'm saving to publish until later in the season, because we get into big spoilers), executive producer J.J. Abrams gave her the flexibility to decide how many hours of TV they should ultimately make. An early passage from the book has been shrunken to eliminate Jake encountering some of the characters from King's It (not for lack of rights to those characters, but to streamline things), and much as Carpenter loved the book's bucolic middle section at the school, she didn't feel it fit this medium as well as it did the last one.
"This dramatic series begins with a mission and a drive," she told me. "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, 'He's going on a picnic now? They're doing a 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 felt like I need this thing to (move quickly). But I do want the depth that that character work and that world gives you."
This feels like an argument better suited to a show made for Netflix or Amazon, where all the episodes are released at once, audiences tend to watch a lot of them close together, and producers are encouraged to keep up the binge-worthy momentum. Hulu releases their episodes weekly, and while you can certainly wait a couple of months to watch all of 11.22.63 in a weekend, the experience for many viewers will be more episodic, which would seemingly lend itself to the odd interlude where Jake stages a class production of Of Mice and Men, connects with the kids, and recognizes how good he has it in this time period. Carpenter wrote for Friday Night Lights, so she knows how to make small moments at a Texas high school feel incredibly powerful, and that's even without that thriller construct at the heart of this story, which would provide conflict as Jake was pulled between his amazing new life and the reason he came back to the '60s to begin with.
We still get some of that through the romance between Jake and Sadie (Sarah Gadon), and his friendship with Jodie principal Deke (Nick Searcy), but the great majority of the piece is devoted to Jake shadowing Oswald (Daniel Webber) as he tries to figure out whether he was a solo assassin, part of a larger group (along with the second shooter on the grassy knoll, perhaps?), or even a patsy who had nothing to do with JFK's death. And there's a lot of repetition to that, as Jake — sometimes on his own, sometimes with the help of sidekick Bill (George MacKay), a minor character in the book whose role has been beefed up so Jake has someone to explain things to (otherwise the miniseries would be drowning in expository narration) — gets ever closer to Lee and his wife Marina (Lucy Fry) and tries to assess his relationship with George de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne), the subject of many real-life JFK conspiracy theories, and a key figure according to Al (Chris Cooper), the diner owner who enlists Jake in this crazy mission through time. Oswald's ultimately too cryptic and flat a character to carry the whole endeavor, and that's even with a good chunk of time devoted to Jake and Sadie's romance (and her attempt to avoid her creepy ex-husband, played with relish by T.R. Knight), and to Jake's early encounter with the charismatic and dangerous Frank Dunning (Josh Duhamel, excellent playing against type).
Still, Franco's a revelation as Jake. He's an immensely talented actor who's always had eclectic taste in projects — a guy with the face of a matinee idol who wants to be anything but, especially if it keeps him from doing the three dozen side projects he has going at any given time. But this is him in a conventional leading man role, and he plays it straight. This isn't a weird art installation he's doing: James Franco, Romantic Hero. There aren't any quotation marks around his performance: when Jake smiles at Sadie, or gets mad at Bill, or seems frightened at the various ways the universe tries to fight back against his attempt to change history, it's utterly sincere. Virtually the entire miniseries is told from Jake's point of view — it's not until the penultimate episode where we even get a scene that he's not in — which is a big burden to lay on any actor, not just for the workload, but for the danger that the audience will get bored with them. But Franco's eminently watchable throughout. He may not be interested in using it very often, but he's got the star quality you need to carry something this crazy, and this long.
Though Carpenter skips over the It crossover, the miniseries is littered with Easter eggs for King fans, including several actors from prior King adaptations (Annette O'Toole from It, Gil Bellows from Shawshank) in smaller roles. And even without enough of the Jodie scenes to provide emotional support to the thriller plot, the miniseries' concluding hour is very strong, and actually improves on a few aspects of the book.
As I've written about several times recently, I'm not an adaptation purist. The goal should be to tell the best possible story for the new medium, with the particular people involved in adapting it. If Carpenter wanted to take the basic concept, throw out everything else, and make a dark, Groundhog Day-esque sci-fi comedy where Jake keeps traveling back in time, over and over, and failing to stop Oswald each time, and it was great? By all means. But this is a relatively faithful version of the book that minimizes the best part of it while leaning heavily on the thing that sold the book, even if it's not what ultimately kept people reading all 849 pages. A Hulu viewer who doesn't know the book at all won't miss the Jodie interludes, and may well find 11.22.63 a pretty good What If? story.
King's books often defy adaptation because they have so much going on, or because the most important parts aren't the monsters but the very interior journeys of his heroes. Maybe the Oswald spine of this story would cause problems even if Carpenter had spent a lot more time in Jodie, and/or if she'd done the full It crossover.
One of the aspects of the diner's time portal is that it always takes you back to the same moment in history, meaning each trip erases everything that happened on the previous one. And Al warns Jake that time doesn't want to be changed, and will work very hard to stop anyone who tries. If Carpenter could take her own trip through the portal, maybe she'd make some different choices about what she did and didn't borrow from King. But maybe forces would conspire to make her realize that this was the only way the book was ever going to be adapted, for good and for ill.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com