FTP: 11.22.63 (2016)

JULY 24, 2023


I can’t say with 100% certainty, but in my head, “The Pile” began with the blu-ray of 11.22.63, seven years ago. As I’ve explained, most of the discs in the pile were either won at trivia, blind buys, or – most common – unsolicited review copies. And by unsolicited I mean I didn’t ask for them; some studios just send stuff out to everyone on their list, while others only do it when you ask. Well, 11.22.63 was one I requested, but it unfortunately arrived at the worst possible time: when I was suddenly forced to move in the summer of 2016. Like most Los Angelenos, we were renting the place we were living in, and the owner decided she wanted to sell it, and while it would have been nice to just buy it ourselves and spare ourselves a move, we couldn't afford it. So I had to scramble to find a new place with as much free time as work would allow (my wife, who works in the mental health sector, couldn’t really join the “fun” as her day job is much harder to suddenly take time from), and thus I didn’t have much time to watch an eight hour series in a timely manner.

I tried though! I distinctly remember getting the PS4 connected to my TV and watching the first episode one night after a long day of unpacking at the new place (even more specific: my couch was at an awkward angle as unpacked boxes were in the way), hoping that maybe I could do one episode a night and get a review up within a reasonable adjacency of the time of its street date. Except I passed out before I even got through that whole episode (in my slight defense, the premiere was a double length affair), and then something came up the next night, and the next, and before I knew it the street date had long passed and I hadn’t even finished the premiere. And by that point, other things I had requested had come along for review, and rather than let THOSE slide too I just sort of backgrounded 11.22.63 for a rainy day, promising to get to it eventually. Well, that day has finally come!

The funny thing is that I never intended to review it here at HMAD; having read the book I knew it wasn’t horror, despite being from Stephen King. No, I was going to use it as one of my infrequent but welcome “mainstream” pieces on Birth Movies Death, where I wrote about non horror things outside of my usual Collins’ Crypt piece for the week. Obviously that isn’t a possibility anymore (insane that it’s been over three years now since the site died twice), and I probably could have just finally watched it to satisfy my weird feeling of guilt of requesting it only to let it sit there, but since it’s such a legacy player in “the pile” I figured (along with the King connection) it’d be fine to say a few things here and, at long last, fulfill my promise to the publicist who for all I know doesn’t even work there anymore.

Anyway, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, at least in general. Both tell the story of Jake Epping, an English teacher who is shocked to discover that the reason his buddy Al is able to sell hamburgers so cheap at his diner is because he time travels to the past to buy them. Thanks to a wormhole of sorts in the diner’s backroom closet, Al (and then Jake) is able to transport back to a specific point in time in 1958; whether he stays there for five minutes or five years, he’ll come back to a minute or so later in his own time, and if he steps through the wormhole again, it’ll just be that same moment in the past, every time. Al has decided to use the ability to prevent the assassination of JFK, but he develops cancer and dies before being able to complete the job, passing on the idea (and his notes and such) to Jake. So Jake steps through the hole prepared for a very long journey, but finds a new love named Sadie that distracts him from the mission, and also makes him not want to return to his own time. He also discovers that the past does not want to be changed, so his attempts at following Lee Harvey Oswald and getting proof he was the shooter are always derailed in some way, forcing him to stay until the actual day in question rather than just shoot Oswald immediately and go home (the story wouldn’t work with RFK, or Lincoln, or any other notably assassinated leader where the killer was clearly identified).

I must admit it wasn’t my favorite of King’s books; the weirdly long time frame (five years in between his arrival and the assassination; the show changes it to three) kept the book from feeling very urgent the way the best time travel stories do, and so it just got kind of draggy (it’s also over 900 pages). The show does attempt to speed things up a bit by reducing the number of years in between, but even with that it still feels drawn out, as if King (or the writers of the show) couldn’t decide if they were making a legit procedural about what preventing the assassination would entail (following George de Mohrenschildt! Tracking Oswald’s attempt on General Walker!) or a love story about a man who travels back 50 years and finds himself more at home than he ever was in his own time. Having it played both ways just muddles things up, something the show actually makes worse by inexplicably having scenes from Oswald’s perspective, when Jake isn’t even around. King decides to go with “Oswald acted alone”, which is for the best, but it makes these scenes weirder than they already are with the POV shift, as if they want us to have sympathy for the guy.

They also made the curious decision to upgrade the character of Bill to a full lead. In the book, Bill is barely even a supporting character; he’s a guy who helps Jake kill Frank Dunning (an abusive father to one of Jake’s students) and then has a heart attack and exits the story. Here, his backstory is the same, but after Frank is killed Jake takes Bill along for his quest, telling him he’s a time traveler and having him pose as his brother as he helps keep tabs on Oswald while Jake goes to work and/or romances Sadie. Then Bill starts falling for Oswald’s wife, which causes friction between the two. I assume this was all an effort to give Jake someone to voice what was inner monologue in the book and give it a little more visual variety since it’s a TV show and not a book, but it doesn’t fully work, and at a certain point it’s clear the writers never really figured out what to do with him. There are some other minor changes here and there (for one example, Jake and Sadie kill her psycho ex, whereas the man killed himself in the novel), but this is the biggest and also least successful.

Of course, the biggest issue with the show was the casting of James Franco as Jake. Even disregarding his icky personal life, he’s just the completely wrong choice for this character. The ideal would be Tom Hanks or Bill Paxton/Pullman circa 1995 – an everyman who you can imagine being the sort of kid who would have gone to a Presidential parade, watched the astronauts coming home on TV, etc. You know, that quintessential all American good boy who grew to be a good man. This isn’t a skillset Franco possesses; to be fair he’s actually putting in a decent performance, but it’d be like Weird Al giving 110% to play Abraham Lincoln or something. There’s just no getting around the fact that Franco is best used as a weird/stoner kinda guy, and the role is written for a completely straight arrow. Even some of his Apatow-verse cronies would have been a better option; Jason Segel or Paul Rudd can/have shed their comic persona to solid effect, but Franco never has, and it’s baffling he’d make his biggest attempt to do so here, with a preconceived character that drives nearly every second of the story.

That said, it still more or less works. The suspense scenes (Sadie’s ex attacking, everything with Frank Dunning, the assassination sequence) are all well executed, and the rest of the cast is pretty on point; Josh Duhamel was shockingly scary as Dunning (Duhamel being another actor who’d make more sense to cast as Jake), and I believe Sarah Gadon may have been put on this earth to portray the ideal 1960’s blue eyed blonde. And it was great to see Kevin J. O’Connor as the “Yellow Card Man”, the mysterious person who seems to be aware that Jake is traveling through time. Chris Cooper also shines as Al, though obviously due to the story’s nature he isn’t in it that much (the use of flashbacks to keep him around isn’t particularly successful). And the 60’s setting is pretty well depicted; there are quite a lot of exteriors but I was never taken out of it by poor VFX or obvious anachronisms (cue someone pointing out a 1962 car in a 1961 scene or something dorky like that – those people need lives. Just keep cell phones and Starbucks out of the hands of a 1960s character and I’m fine). I think a six episode structure (as opposed to nine, as the premiere is double length) would have been better as it would streamline the Bill/Oswald stuff that seems extraneous, but after so many examples of the books being robbed of their souls due to being cut down for movies it seems weird to complain that a King adaptation left too much in.

But most importantly: I can finally get rid of it. And now the oldest movie in the pile is, I believe, only like 3-4 years old. That’s some real progress.

What say you?


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