A date that will forever be etched in the mind of this nation. A day that we lost a great man and leader. Since that fateful afternoon many have questioned what actually happened and what would a future look like where JFK was never assassinated. The book 11/22/63 by Steven King attempts to answer both of these questions. I was originally recommended the book from a friend a few years ago. Ten pages in and I was immediately hooked. Finishing the over 850 page novel in the span of three short nights. Upon completion of the historical thriller the book immediately jumped to my second favorite book of all time. Falling just short of the timeless classic Where A Red Fern Grows (I still cry like a little girl every time I reread it). Once the mini series was announced I was filled with excitement and anxiety. I was overjoyed to be seeing one of my favorite books on screen. Though, the history of book adaptations especial for Steven King have been mixed at best. For a series that I hold to such high esteem it, nothing would be worse for me than a half-baked adaptation. Now That I have completed the series I will now put it up against its source material to see how it fared.
****Note: To allow for the use of specific examples this review will contain spoilers from both the book and Mini Series.****
Why I liked the book
11/22/63 was a perfect blend of historical fiction, romance, and sifi thriller that seamlessly transitioned back and forth between all three. One page the main character would be teaching at a small town Texas high school and the next he would be wiretapping Lee Harvey Oswald’s apartment. This varying course of events completely sucks you into the story. This story is matched with fascinating characters lead by Jake Epping and Sadie Dunhill. Jake on his own steals the show. Perfectly playing the role as the tragic hero in the unfamiliar world of the early 19060’s. Sadie on the other hands provides a powerful female lead and a perfect love interest. Growing up in the south, she perfectly embodies the southern belle persona and adds much needed color and humor to the story. All in all it was a book that made me laugh and cry while keeping me glued to the pages from cover to cover.
What the mini series did right
The past pushing back
A key characteristic of any time travel story is that the past does not want to be changed. As Jake comes closer and closer to accomplishing his end goal the past pushes back in a number of different ways. The show does a great job of making sure this remains an integral part of the experience. Many of the situations that were essential to setting the uneasy tone could be amplified with the transition to the screen. One example is when Jake is tailing George de Mohrenschildt at a JFK rally. When being chased by the cops Jake takes refuge in a maintenance room. As soon as he enters the room the door locks by its self, the light starts flickering, and an army of cockroaches proceed to maul our protagonist. Forcing him to flee the room and be caught by the cops. While Stephen King is a master wordsmith and could set an amazing scene in his print version, the visual and audio stimuli took things to the next level. Watching the lights flicker as a horde of cockroaches took over the screen created a level of creepiness that greatly enhanced the experience when compared to just reading the events in the book. In this aspect, the transition to the screen, did wonders in sustaining the unsettling tone of the story.
Execution of Setting
This story had two extremely difficult and differing setting to portray thought out. First, the show had to accurately depict what American life was like back in the 1960’s. Second, the nuances of Texas during this time-period needed to be recreated correctly. In the book, King described in such exquisite detail the subtleties of the time period that it felt like you were being sent back in time with Jake Epping. Taking from the cues of King, the mini series took the setting to a whole new level. Visually being able to be engulfed in the 60s had an even more impressive impact than King. Which almost made me want to wear a three-piece suit in my everyday life. On top of that the unique personality of Texas life needed to be integrated into this 1960s world. Being both a Texan and Dallasite I had a particularly intact in this aspect. It also was a driving factor for me picking up the book in the first place. In my opinion the execution of Texas life was portrayed to a T. From a strong southern twang to the importance of high school football, the metroplex that was so familiar to me felt just as real to me during the duration of the show. This exquisite world building allowed the audience to be completely engulfed in the story.
In any work of fiction the ending to a story is monumental to the quality of the overall experience. Everyone has watched a movie or read a book that was great throughout although with an ending that fell flat. In-turn ruining the overall experience. In 11/22/63 that was not the case. First I would like to tip my cap to J.J. Abrams who masterfully crafted the closing moments of the book for the small screen. Second, the performances of James Franco as Jake during the final act was nothing short of exquisite. The last episode was pretty much word for word and scene by scene as it occurred in the book. An ending that was so masterfully crafted in the book it had no need to be augmented. By perfectly translating these events to the screen the same emotions were conjured up in the most powerful scenes. Which evoked in me the same feeling that I had when I finished up the book. The final episode was the exactly how I pictured the events in the book and served as the payoff to the long anticipated wait for the release of the mini series.
What the mini series did not so well
A unique factor to the 11/22/63 universe was the specific rules to the “rabbit hole” that allowed Jake to travel back in time. If Jake were to travel back to the preset, reentering the rabbit hole would reset all the changes made on the previous trip. In the book Jake doe not 100% succeed in saving Harry’s family in his attempt forcing him to return to the present and to see the repercussions of his decision forcing him to go try again. This establishes two important factors of this universe. One, Jake is not a perfect person. He was forced into this insane circumstance with little to no experience or knowledge except for the few notes given to him by Al. By having Jake fail, it makes this impossible situation seem more human to the audience. This is something Jake could not prepare for and it makes complete sense he would not succeed the first time, thus allowing him to grow as the story progresses. Second, the reset establishes the weight of this ability to travel back in time. The “butterfly effect” is very much put into play by the reset.When Jake is able to save Harry and only a few members of his family, Jake returns to the present to go and try again. When he returns it is revealed that because Harry did not become disabled after his father hits him in the head, he goes on to die in the Vietnam War. Even though Jake is able to save him the important concept that changing the past for the better does not mean things in the present will also follow suit Serving as an important piece of foreshadowing for events later in the book. The scenes described above do not appear in the mini series. Jake is briefly introduced to the concept of returning at the very beginning by carving something in to a tree and returning to the present. By altering this timeline, most likely due to time constraints, this entire emotional aspect of the series is lost. Yes, the concept of resets is still present, but the concept does not carry the weight it does in the book. Thus blunting some of the avoirdupois of Jake’s mission to alter the past.
Time in Jodie
While 11/22/63 is primarily a mystery thriller, the story also posses a fantastic slice of life segment that gives the reader a break from the books more intense moments. Jake Epping, originally a high school English teach in the present, is able to get the same position at a small Texas high school outside of Dallas. There the love story between Jake and Sadie is able to blossom, along with providing an insight into the life of a small Texas down in the 1960’s. While Jodie is still an important part of the show, only around one episode of airtime is used on the happenings of Jodie high school. Due to this, many of the events that occur in the book did not make it to the series. One example is the book is able to go into more detail on the different students Jake has in his class. Making them important side characters in the book. In the mini series, though the students due show up some, the audience is unable to form a relationship with them since they are only used as background characters. In my opinion, this diminishes the enjoyment during this part of the mini series, since some of the students were extremely interesting characters in the book. The one great part about Jodie was the execution of Sadie. Sarah Gadon does a fantastic job playing the beautiful and fiery southern belle Sadie Dunhill. She is exactly what I would have imagined Sadie to be if she jumped out of the pages of the book. She represented the one high point of this part of the series.
This change from the book struck me as the most surprising. In the book Bill only played an extremely minor role and was in and out of the story within fifty pages. In the book he was shifted into a more important role as Jake’s assistant in protecting JFK. I honestly did not understand the inclusion of Bill as a more important character in the story. When you look at what he added to the events of the series I can’t comprehend his addition would be that better than the original with out. Though, with Stephen King himself assisting in the production, this could of potentially been a change wanted to make to the original novel. More so, it seems Bill was included more so as another roadblock for Jake to overcome rather than a compelling character. While he doesn’t greatly hinder the story, I would have rather them focused more on Jodie instead of including Bill. Though I do have to hand it to the writers for the TV series how they handled the exit of Bill was unique and clever. Once Bill goes rouge, having him admitted to a mental institution based on Jake’s experiences from the future was a sagacious direction to guide Bill out of the show. This development also presented a deeper analysis to the overall genre of time travel. To those living in the 1960’s the events that were soon to occur seemed so outlandish that it would cause someone to be thrown in a sanitarium for presenting them as facts. For the audience this turn of events stresses a little thought of danger of his mission. If someone else were to find out about Jake’s true purpose in Dallas he would most likely share a similar fate to Bill, being labeled as nothing more than a schizophrenic quack. Bring forth in a unique way one of the many burdens of time travel.
The Achilles heel of any media adaptation is that it will undoubtedly be scrupulously compared to the original. Coming in to this series my intent was to damper these expectations. Unless this series had a ridiculous number of episodes it would be impossible to competently transcribe the book into the show. While I knew the series would not be a perfect adaptation, having the series remain true to the original was the utmost importance to me. Through the first seven episodes I felt that it was only an alright adaptation of the book. Then my rating would have most likely been a 6.5-7/10. The last episode had both a positive and negative effect on my grade of the series. With its flawless execution of the ending of the book immediately raised my opinion of the overall series. Yet it also left me with a feeling of disappointment of why the previous seven episodes were not adapted as well as the finale. Even with this small disappointment, the final episode moved me enough to raise my overall grade to an 8/10. For fans of the book the adaptation was very good, but not great. Those who have no previous exposure to the book may have a higher regard for the series overall since they will be unknowing of the variations from the source material. Whether you have read the book or not, I highly recommend checking out the 11/22/63 mini series.
Feature image provided by: variety.com