Thoughts on 11/22/63 (TV Series, 2016)

I have a long history of commentary on Stephen King. It boils down to this: his long form work is totally hit or miss with me. I think he works best with the restraint of short stories, but that restraint is lost once he reaches novella length. He has wonderful ideas and a strong style, but can get lost in minutia in longer form. It took me over a year to read 11/22/63. It's not a hard book. It's not a particularly long book, either. I just kept waiting for that point in most modern King novels where he completely loses me and makes me hate the book.

It never came. 11/22/63 is one of King's strongest novels, up there with CarrieMisery, and the original crop of Richard Bachman novels. It's a story all about minutia and precision, so the ambling, almost distracting, attention to detail is perfectly appropriate.

Essentially, an alternative school teacher is tasked with traveling back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The portal is in the back closet of a diner and always takes you to the same day in 1960. No matter how many years you spend in the past, you've only been gone for two years in real time. Anything you do when you travel does change the present, but everything gets reset if you go through the door again.

The 11/22/63 series is an original miniseries event on Hulu. James Franco stars as the time traveling teacher. Chris Cooper is the diner owner who teaches him about time travel, only stopped from finishing the job by a cancer diagnosis in 1962.

The show is being released in eight episodes and not all at once. Hulu is experimenting with how digital content is distributed for original series to see what model works best for them. For a show like 11/22/63, spacing out the episodes builds up much more suspense.

I'm really impressed with the first half of the series. James Franco is perfect as Jake Epping. It's a believable performance. None of his usual winks to the camera or sarcastic sneers are present. It's an authentic performance as a character who is equally concerned with changing the course of national history and helping the average person along the way.

The design of the 1960s town is excellent. It feels real. The clothes, the decor, the quality of light and shadow cast by a more sparse time is gorgeous. This level of detail is not only essential to the story, it gives the actors the perfect playpen to make the spoken cadence and dialect of the period believable.

Special note must be given to Alex Heffes' original music. The theme song is perfectly eerie for a time traveling suspense series. The minimalistic underscoring that pops up when history begins to push back on Jake Epping (history doesn't want to change and will fight back against alteration) is haunting. It's the perfect little flourish to make the series come alive.

I'm eager to see how the back half of the series holds up. So far, it's a strong adaptation of the novel. It's true to the original story, but altered in sharp ways to work in a visual medium. King's books rarely work literally onscreen. It takes a strong writer to get to the core of the psyche and make it scream onscreen. 11/22/63 is doing it right.

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