It Was You and Me
Although you wouldn’t know it from reading this blog, I don’t really pay that much attention to Stephen King anymore. He’s far past the stage where he’s ever going to write anything interesting again (I’d say he has been for at least 20 years), and even when he does something surprising, like write a sequel to The Shining, the results are pretty dreary. His books are enormously long and deeply dull, and he’s mostly operating as a public figure/multimedia content provider these days. The only time it’s really necessary to give him any notice is when one of his properties is developed into a movie or television show, but unfortunately for America, he has written 18 million novels, and so this happens roughly once a month.
The latest King adaptation is a Hulu original based on his Kennedy assassination contrafactual-slash-alternate-history-slash-time-travel thriller, 11/22/63. Like its predecessor, Under the Dome, it’s being hailed as a major television event; unlike its predecessor, it’s an eight-episode miniseries rather than an ongoing serial, which fortunately sidesteps the question of what exactly is supposed to happen once the events onscreen overtake what happens in the book. (This wasn’t Under the Dome‘s only problem, but it was probably the biggest.) The two books don’t have a lot in common, but they do share one unfortunate quality: they aren’t very good.
Like many other Stephen King novels, 11/22/63 features a morally unblemished main character who is a writer; a small-town Maine setting; a bunch of clunky pop-culture references; and an overcomplicated story that, once it gets set in motion, goes nowhere in an extremely rickety way for hundreds of pages. Because of the rich historical background of the Kennedy assassination, it’s a lot more interesting than Under the Dome, and because so much of it is set in the past, we’re spared King’s ungodly attempts to write dialogue for contemporary teenagers. But King is credited as a producer on this one, and his fingerprints are all over it.
11/22/63 is the story of Jake Epping (James Franco, in what one hopes is a moneymaker of a role), a high school English teacher who discovers a portal in the broom closet of a local diner; instead of leading to a tub of Simple Green, it leads to a time warp to 1960. The diner’s owner, Al Templeton, tells him that he has to go back and prevent JFK’s assassination because it will result in a better world, but that he can’t just put a slug in Lee Harvey Oswald’s brain, because he’s not sure Oswald did it. What makes him so sure of one thing and not the other is not explained except through the existence of the phrase “plot contrivance”, but one thing is for sure: casting the talented Chris Cooper as Templeton is an enormous waste, as all he does in the two-hour premiere is yak off King’s endless expository monologues.
So Epping has to go back and donk around in the early ’60s waiting to make sure that Oswald really did kill Kennedy, which gives us a lot of opportunity for some real doozies. Franco, occasionally capable of good acting, gets to veer between uncomprehending terror and whoozy nostalgia, the only two emotions the script allows him to have; the script gets to make a lot of chronological errors; and the plot throws in needless complications to give an otherwise dramatically stagnant story some movement, as when Epping makes money by getting involved with sleazy bookies instead of just playing the stock market. Another King hallmark is that the villains are either cartoonishly evil monsters, completely insane, or both, and that’s fully on display here; bad guys who are interesting because they possess a degree of moral complexity are almost entirely absent. (We haven’t seen much of ol’ Lee Harvey, so this may be solved in future episodes, but given the way he’s treated in the book, there’s little reason to hope.)
I wish there was something more to recommend 11.22.63, since I’ve already sunk so much time into it, but really, it’s a terrible bore. It’s a testament to the creators that they’ve managed to take one of the most titanic historical events of the past century and changed it from a nightmare of conspiracy and dread into a turgid non-thriller where the scariest things that happens is James Franco getting bugs on his new suit jacket. The series was shepherded to air by J.J. Abrams, and it’s pretty depressing that the man who once made a plane crash so endlessly fascinating on Lost is rubber-stamping this kind of foolishness. While it’s still possible, with seven episodes remaining and the real meat of the story — such as it is — still to come, that the show might find a way to redeem itself, there’s really nothing to like here: it’s not visually interesting, it’s not well acted, the script is flimsy, the plot is ridiculous, the dialogue is over-expository and corny by turns, and the implications of the premise are barely explored. Even the period setting is kind of a wash, as the set and props are straight out of a repro shop and bear none of the weathered look that would at least added a degree of verisimilitude. Anyone looking for a Mad Men-style retro thrill ought to just watch reruns of that show instead.
King has always been absurdly generous with his stories when it comes to seeing them adapted for film, both cinematic and televisual. But he’s also aimed notoriously low, and the number of actually good movies and TV shows made from his work could be counted on one hand. (And, of course, he famously hates the best one.) I’m not sure what he thinks of the final product here; he attached his name to it, so he presumably approves. But so far, aside from an ambition that’s not even remotely close to being realized, 11.22.63 belongs with the kind of low-rent budget studio fare that characterized King adaptations in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The day John Kennedy died may have been when America lost its innocence, and I lost my faith in Stephen King about 10,000 pages ago.