When the news first hit that Hulu was developing a small-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling book “11.22.63,” this writer was doing backflips. OK, not literally, but the JFK rescue story is one that deserves this sort of retelling and with Stephen King and J.J. Abrams on board, the team bringing Jake Epping’s tale to TV sounded like the appropriate people for the job.
With the eight-episode miniseries coming to a close on Monday (April 4) after the final episode, “The Day in Question,” our opinion of the project as a whole has drastically changed. Could it be the stark differences from the book? Is it the episode limit writer/producer Bridget Carpenter chose to stick with? Yes. The answer is yes to both of those questions.
Tackling a story surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination is nothing new and when done well — “JFK” and “Quantum Leap” come to mind — it can do wonders in sparking up new and interesting conversations. King’s book did just that in presenting Al’s (Chris Cooper) plan to drastically change this “watershed moment” in American history. If memory serves, he does not use that term in the Hulu series, but it’s a theme that resonates throughout the 2011 book.
The series isn’t a total mess, don’t get us wrong here. There are things that definitely work: Jake and Sadie’s relationship (for the most part), Jake’s immersion in 1960s life, the drive to stop Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) — they all work in their own way. Let’s break down the four things that do not.
When the series began, Franco eased into the bored/slightly damaged character of high school teacher Jake Epping. Recently divorced, sporting a very awful goatee, it’s diner owner Al who presents him with an otherworldly proposition to travel back in time and save JFK. Sure, our reluctant hero is sent on his way and throughout these first few episodes, his confused every man persona mirrors the audience. Seriously, you think you’d do this better?
However, the story takes place over a three year time period and not only do we see Epping/Amberson make new connections in this time period, he begins to embrace this new life. Once Sadie receives that scar, it begins to feel that Epping’s behavior becomes erratic, and yet, his character doesn’t seem to receive any growth what-so-ever.
The audience’s eyes are on Franco a lot in this series as Jake is in almost every scene. He’s our focal point. He’s the instrument driving the story forward, guiding us on this weird journey. For him not to experience any real change as a character leads one to point fingers at either the writing, the acting … or both.
The time constraints
Originally, “11.22.63” was supposed to be four episodes long. Can you even imagine how that would work? With the amount of pages contained in the bestseller, it’s safe to say Hulu could’ve easily turned this into a multi-season series. Yet, they did not. Sometimes, decisions to tell a self contained story in a run of episodes like this is the right way to go, but with all the story details omitted or changed from the original subject matter, one must wonder if more episodes were added, would the show have fared better?
In an interview with HitFix, producer Bridget Carpenter talked about what the series would’ve looked like with more episodes:
“I actually do think more school stuff and his relationships at school would have been great. I could have made it ten [episodes]. At every turn, (Hulu) was like, “Whatever the story needs to be,” which is unparalleled. I do think it would have been rich to do that.”
At the end of the day, Carpenter decided to make Jake’s drive to stop the assassination his sole purpose in the series. This may have been the worst decision made in the whole adaptation process.
The lack of character development
Sure, there are many characters introduced throughout the Hulu series. The book presents a whole other world and life to Jake Epping who travels back to 1958 (not 1960 as presented in the show). Still, whether it’s three years or five, Jake takes on a new life where he not only gets a job teaching at a school in Jodie, Texas, he makes friends, impacts the lives of students and pretty much dives into every lovely possibility life in the ’60s present to him.
This issue of character development goes hand in hand with the time constraints and character growth referenced above. To help move the story along, the show presents time jumps to attempt to maintain the high stakes a rescue mission like this would have. But it’s the smaller more mundane details — like fleshing out the Deke/Miss Mimi relationship and exploring Jake’s decision to direct a school production of “Of Mice and Men” — that would have added more color, warmth and emotional depth to Jake’s motivations and actions.
To make up for this, the series took full advantage of time jumps. That narrative tool can either be a really intriguing way to push a story forward or an annoying — and somewhat lazy — method to gloss over other details deemed unimportant.
Not to mention, the changes to Bill Turcotte’s (George MacKay) character and decision to entirely alter the Yellow Card Man (Kevin J. O’Connor) for the show really throw things out of whack. With just eight episodes to get everything right, it’s understandable that some details needed to be cut or changed but these new additions made things feel clunky and confusing.
The lack of stakes
At the end of the day, “11.22.63” is a mission to stop a very horrible thing from happening. The assassination of John F. Kennedy changed the trajectory of American history. We all know this. But there’s something lacking in the sense of high stakes in the Hulu series.
It may be Jake’s consistent knack for making dumb decisions. It could be the way the series portrayed Lee Harvey Oswald. Heck, it’s hard not to point a finger at the constant mention of the Past pushing back … yet hardly any real pushing — compared to the subject matter in the book — really happened.
RELATED: JJ Abrams says ‘time is an enemy’ in ‘11.22.63’
Ultimately, though, it may simply be the notion that Jake, at any time, could simply head back to the rabbit hole at Al’s Diner and reset all the changes he’s made. It’s a thought that pops up time and again throughout the series and one that Epping finally follows through on in the most un-climactic way.
Hey, at least Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon) ended up having a nice life …
“11.22.63” is currently streaming on Hulu.