The name Stephen King is synonymous with modern American horror and any effort to divide the two would be both foolish and misguided, yet for all the genuine horror classics which have flowed through from those fingertips onto paper – Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Christine, It, to name even the most selective few – there is much more to King than the unforgettable nightmares which have stalked suburbia for four decades.
Such was the impact of the film adaptation of The Green Mile that when Hearts in Atlantis was released two years later the trailer coyly offered “from the author of The Green Mile” without rather than directly trading on the King name, more often associated with low budget straight-to-video fare than the human drama of those two works, tinged with the supernatural though they were.
Yet further afield within his oeuvre there are frequent aspects of fantasy and western (The Dark Tower sequence) and science fiction (The Tommyknockers, The Mist and Under the Dome), even if the expression of these themes does eventually turn bloody. It is in this latter category where the novel 11/22/63 found itself, having unexpectedly stepped through a closet door into a time portal into the past, a rabbit hole leading to a land of sunshine, optimism and plenty.
Developed by playwright Bridget Carpenter and executive produced by The Force Awakens‘ J J Abrams, the double length premiere of the television adaptation of King’s novel directed by The Eagle‘s Kevin Macdonald opens with a direct-to-camera confession of a shattering childhood event, a trauma which changed everything in the life of a once-young boy, the epitome of the work of King, the adult looking back to their lost youth and how it is shaped the person they have become, what those moments have taken from them and what it has given to them.
This confessional the product of a creative writing course taught by Jake Epping (Oz the Great and Powerful‘s James Franco), resident of Lisbon, Maine, he tells his class that the truth will set them free, but he hides the broken pieces of his own life, the recent death of his father, his just-finalised divorce, that he himself is not writing.
He visits the diner run by Al Templeton (The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s Chris Cooper) and is shocked when in a matter of minutes the health of his friend deteriorates; Al confesses that he has cancer, but that there is something he needs to show Jake, something he would not believe if he only told him, and he persuades Jake to step into the supply closet in the back of the diner where he finds himself in October 1960.
The premise of the show is immediately engaging nor does it waste time examining the portal; instead Jake and Al discuss the possible repercussions of the butterfly effect with a shorthand which assumes the viewer will be as well versed as they, and Al explains the rules of time travel as he has learned them, that changing the past effects the future but that as the portal always arrives at the same point any subsequent revisitation will wipe out the previous changes.
Al’s goal, which he is now to sick to undertake? In his study, he has recreated a miniature of Dealey Plaza on Elm Street, Dallas, and assembled a wealth of information, documentation and analysis of the events of November 22nd, 1963, the day President John F Kennedy was shot and killed, officially by lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, though with as many competing theories as there are theorists.
It is Al’s belief that by preventing that single act he can divert history to a better course, not just for him but for the world. Initially resistant, it is no surprise to the audience that Jake accepts; fortunately his appearance doesn’t stand out so significantly as to garner more than a few odd looks, but quickly he blends in with a haircut, a new suit and a hat, though his choice of car indicates that he is a not a natural at operating undercover. What is important is that Jake must stay focused, not be drawn into the lure of the past even though his present offers nothing for him to return to.
Both Franco and Cooper are as good in their roles as would be expected of performers of their experience and reputation, and already the threads which are strung across the opening titles are beginning to be woven, with every angle to be considered, every approach to be taken in order to ensure first that Oswald is indeed the assassin and then to prevent his date with history, but already there are indications that time does not wish to be tampered with and if Jake pushes too hard, it will push back.
While it will very much be a single-person narrative as experienced by Jake, with the requirement for period locations to be recreated and populated with costumed extras, not to mention whole fleets of the unmistakable cars of the era, despite the expenditure there is no indication that corners have been cut, and the production values are as good as those on that other celebrated recreation of the swinging sixties, Mad Men.
With the Kennedy assassination one of the greatest mysteries of modern times, converting an eight hundred page novel of conspiracy theories and looping time into a feature film would never have been possible and the mini-series format has always been better suited to the dense, layered and deeply personal novels of King better than a necessarily condensed movie which could offer little more than a synopsis, though even at this early stage it is a concern how the eventual payoff can match the setup of the preceding weeks.