It’s almost embarrassing how long it’s been since I’ve posted on this blog. It’s not that I haven’t watched many movies, although I’ve seen fewer than I’d like. Mostly, I’ve simply found that I didn’t have much to say about the movies I have watched–nothing beyond a simple tweet or two.
That changed recently, starting this past Mother’s Day when my oldest son gave me a copy of Stephen King’s 11/22/63. He’d kept the receipt because he knew that it was likely that this book was already a part of my massive collection of King’s novels. What he didn’t know was that I had started reading the book a few years ago, didn’t get drawn into it for whatever reason, and never finished. In fact, it never left the bookstore where I had first found it. But, because it was a gift, I felt like perhaps I was meant to give it another try. So I did.
I’ve written before that expectation matters when you’re first approaching a story, whether it’s a book or a movie or a play. This was especially true here. I remember when I first picked up the book, all I knew was that it was about the assassination of JFK. What I didn’t seem to realize at the time was that it was really a book about time travel. I suppose if I’d read past the first chapter or two, I’d have learned that. But my process for book browsing (at that time) was to read the first chapter in the store, and if it held my interest, then I’d buy it. Political dramas have never really been my thing, which is probably why I didn’t take it home with me back then.
But the great thing about books is that they’re always around, ready for you when you’re ready for them. And so I spent chunks of the summer reading the book, and finding that I definitely enjoyed it quite a bit. By this time, Hulu had produced and released an eight-part mini-series based on the book, and at a couple of points during my reading, I was tempted to indulge in a bit of the TV series. Thankfully, I decided to wait and finish one story before starting the other.
It certainly is true that King’s stories have been adapted for both TV and film that run the gamut between success and failure. As of this writing, IT has all but shattered opening weekend box office numbers for horror films, and has gained massive acclaim. The long-awaited Dark Tower movie, however, did not receive the same praise. Even successful movies like The Shining were often successful in spite of King’s thoughts on the matter. But with King himself on board as an executive producer for 11.22.63, I figured it wouldn’t be awful.
Indeed, the Hulu mini-series was incredibly good. James Franco did a fantastic job as Jake Epping, Chris Cooper (whom I had last seen in The Muppets, so that was weird) was an unexpected delight as Al Templeton, and Sarah Gadon was stunning as Sadie Dunhill. I was very impressed with things like set design and costuming, and constantly astonished at the large crowd (and array of vintage cars!) that filled the world and breathed it into life.
What surprised me the most, though, was that in more than eight hours of visual storytelling, there were still huge elements of the book that were left untouched. Some characters–like Miz Ellie and the kids from IT–went missing entirely, while minor character Bill Turcotte was given much more screen time and an entirely new story arc. Many subplots vanished, such Jake saving a young girl from being shot to death in 1958, both of the variety shows at Jodie High School, and much of Jake’s consultation of Al’s book–although the last was turned into a series of flashbacks to actual conversations with Al instead. In fact, much of the screenplay was altered by necessity purely because the novel was written in first person and much of the exposition happened in Jake’s head. For this reason, Bill was made into Jake’s sidekick, primarily so the guy’d have someone else to talk to besides the viewer. And while I didn’t expect Bill to survive to the end of the tale (kind of hard to work him into the “take me to the future with you” scenario, after all), his story ended in a way I didn’t see coming–and I’d been trying to guess, for once. Well done, Bridget Carpenter.
Other elements of main plot changed as well; Deke’s story in particular was a bit lighter. He was noticeably absent from the attack at Sadie’s home, and appeared only briefly in other parts of the story where he’d been more present in the book. When Deke eventually fired Jake, Jake gave a throwaway line about getting Mike Coslaw to act–a line that makes some sense if you’ve read the book, but was likely a distraction if you started with Hulu. Bill was a bit too much of a Jake proxy in Dallas, so you saw less of Jake’s struggle to be everywhere at once. It drained some of the tension from the overall story, but again, there’s only so much you can do–even with eight hours of screen time. And Bill’s attraction to Marina was certainly its own odd distraction as well.
All that said, there were some amazing moments in this mini-series. Franco and Gadon had some really beautiful, “wide-eyed innocent” chemistry. Through much of the story, Franco’s Jake is a man on a mission. But when Jake is with Sadie, he’s purely a young man head-over-heels in love. Infectious boyish smile and all. And I’ll be honest, I was practically in love with Gadon’s Sadie myself. She brought a breathtaking ingenue quality to the role that I hadn’t really seen in the book.
I do think that having exposition with Al happen in flashbacks rather than in moments with Jake reading Al’s book made a terrific choice on the screen. Sure, you could have done a voice-over, but seeing Al talking to Jake–mostly from the viewer’s perspective–gave a stronger sense of urgency. And speaking of Al, I particularly loved the choice to have Al take his last journey while Jake and Christy were signing their divorce papers. Seeing Al healthy one minute and stubble-cheeked and sick the next gave a quick and clear signal that Something Strange Was Happening.
Although I wasn’t alive when JFK was assassinated, I imagine that older viewers experienced a heightened sense of dread during that final hour, when Oswald was in the book depository, nervous and sweating, with a finger on the trigger and the presidential cavalcade in his sights. I’ll admit, I found myself unexpectedly emotional when Jake got the call from President and Mrs. Kennedy when it was all over. How amazing to experience, if even briefly, the idea that something terrible had been narrowly avoided. But of course, this is Stephen King we’re talking about. And none of his fairy tales have the kind of ending you’d expect.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the opening credits–and the fact that they changed at each episode! That, along with some sneaky little Easter eggs (the “REDRUM” in the depository stairwell was my personal favorite), gave some subtle King-style flair to the production without being campy or over-the-top.
All in all, I found this adaptation of King’s work satisfying instead of frustrating. This is a big deal for me! In particular, I found myself comparing the restructuring of the story to the work I do in my day job as a web designer. When I’m building a new website, my first goal is to make it look good and function well on a standard desktop or laptop screen. However, part of my end goal is to make that same design work well on mobile devices, which are often a third of the size (or smaller!) and oriented in portrait rather than landscape. Do all of the specific elements of the design make it from one device to the other? No. Does it still represent the same business or organization? Of course it does. Just…differently.
Although I’ll never forgive whoever was behind the film adaptation of Hearts in Atlantis (that ENDING!), at least now I won’t automatically cringe at the thought of a King novel being adapted to a different medium. It’s about time.