This article contains spoilers for 11.22.63, both Stephen King’s novel and the Hulu adaptation.
Last Monday, the final episode of Hulu’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 went up. I read the book as soon as King released it, and I really enjoyed it. I would argue that it’s one of the best books he’s written since On Writing. It’s a big one, as many of his books are, but it doesn’t feel overstuffed the way some others do. I was nervous when it was announced; adaptations of Stephen King’s works are notoriously hit-and-miss, where some are Oscar-winning masterpieces and others are best forgotten. Now that I’ve had a week to digest the full adaptation, I’m overall very pleased with it, even where it made changes.
I thought the casting was pretty great. It took me a little bit to get used to James Franco as Jake Epping (Amberson), but he grew on me through the series. I was particularly pleased with the way he captured Jake’s ineptitude about being in the past. It’s a prominent feature of Jake’s character in the books that he has a hard time adjusting to life in the 60s, quoting song lyrics and talking about movies that haven’t come out yet, and James Franco’s Jake retained this. In the show it was more a quirky comic-effect trait than anything else, but in the books it was a flaw that wound up revealing his true time-traveling identity to people he never intended to involve in his plots.
Sarah Gadon as Sadie was also a delight. Her bright, happy face and her seemingly unshakeable optimism were charming, and I fell in love with her right along with Jake. It was not hard to understand why he seemed, at times, content in forgetting the reason he came to the 60s in the first place in order to spend more time with her. This was facilitated by the expansion of George MacKay’s Bill Turcotte, who in the book is not a major player. The showrunners, wanting Jake not to spend the whole show in inner-monologue voiceovers, made Bill a bigger presence. This worked at first, allowing Jake to focus on Sadie and events in Jodie, and then careened quickly into “did not work” territory, as it seemed the showrunners had no idea what to do with Bill after they’d allowed him to take on Jake’s gambling problem (and a pointless infatuation with Oswald’s wife, Marina). This resulted in Jake pulling a nasty bait-and-switch on Bill in the hospital, having him committed, and then ultimately watching him commit suicide, as his storyline had found him trapped in a corner with no way out.
Daniel Webber’s Lee Harvey Oswald was a fascinating character to watch, and his performance was fantastic. King wrote Oswald as the same intense, quiet man with occasional manic outbursts, and watching it on-screen was very intriguing. Again, Bill having a bigger role allowed for some great interactions, most notably the scene in which Oswald and Bill share a political exchange in Oswald’s doorway.
The biggest change they made was streamlining the story. In the book, Jake actually tests the tear in time a few times before he really gets going, and he also returns to the present-day after killing Harry Dunning’s father to see the results of his actions. This is done to see just how changing the timeline would affect things in the present-day, a luxury that an 8-episode miniseries did not have the time for. Having Jake do everything he does in a single visit to the 60s made another major change necessary, and that change was in the Yellow Card Man.
In the book, the Yellow Card Man is one of many. They are sentinels of time, in a way, meant to guard holes in time and keep people from coming through and changing things. The reason is that each visit into time starts a new, parallel timeline, and stacking too many of these in one area really screws time up. The reason time pushes back at people who travel through it is because time is really big on self-preservation. You don’t want to mess with time. This is evidenced in what happens to the people who are aware of the process of changing time–people who have traveled through it, and the sentinels themselves. The card in Yellow Card Man’s hat is yellow because he’s starting to feel the effects of time. As Jake repeatedly moves back and forth between present-day and the past, Yellow Card Man becomes haggard and his card turns red, and soon enough, Jake sees a new man with a fresh, green card in his place. But the miniseries, having done away with all of this for the sake of streamlining the story, were then required to change Yellow Card Man’s storyline altogether in order to retain the necessary explanation of why Jake could not just come back to the 60s in the end. Otherwise, the biggest question every viewer would have is, “Why didn’t Jake stay with Sadie in the 60s?”
As much as this story is about Jake going back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, the real meat of the story is the characters and their relationships. In the 900-some pages that King wrote, he spent the majority of it introducing you to the 1960s and the people that Jake comes in contact with. Most notably, the citizens of Jodie, Texas, and Sadie Dunhill. He spends the years between arriving in the 60s and the assassination as a teacher in Jodie, befriending the staff, falling in love with Sadie, and being a mentor and genuinely good teacher to the students of Jodie. The luxury of the book is that there is no time limit, and thus King is able to immerse you fully in the time period and allow you to get to know everyone that Jake cares for as well as possible. The miniseries did a surprisingly good job of filling out the characters it did give us, given the time limits, but what we lost was Jake’s connection to his students. While we got to know Deke and Miss Mimi along with Sadie, we did not get to know everyone else. And yet what we did get felt like quite a lot.
However, this change affected the ending quite a bit. The show did us a favor, allowing Jake to realize at the end that the car passing him as he first enters the ’60s has Sadie in it. This allowed him to have one last moment with her, a bittersweet moment broken by the Yellow Card Man’s last-minute explanation of why he could not stay–something I think should have been paced better throughout the show, as saving the Yellow Card Man and his story for episode 7 felt like it was crammed in as an afterthought. Upon returning to the present-day, Jake looks Sadie up online, and finds that she is retiring after a long life of librarianship in Jodie. He then chooses to attend the celebration, and is able to dance with her one last time.
James Franco knocked that last scene out of the park. He managed to show love and sorrow on his face at the same time in a heart wrenching and understated performance. In sharing that last dance with Sadie, he was able to see that she had a good life, and that her unbending spirit was intact the way he remembered. In the book, this scene is even more heartrending, as the room is full of the students that you got to know through Jake’s job as a teacher.
Of course, you can’t talk about this story without addressing the Kennedy assassination plot and Jake’s mission to stop it in its tracks. The show did a great job of twisting Jake’s story to fit in with the history of the time. King worked hard when he wrote the book to use what historical facts were available to him, and the show remained true to them as well. Oswald posing for his infamous photo comes to mind, as does the faithful recreation of the people in Dealey Plaza on that fateful day. There were some surreal moments in episode 8, including camera angles and moments that were straight out of the Zapruder film, as well as Jake moving in police custody through a crowd that clearly resembled the famous photo of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.
I do think that the book did a far better job of showing just how much time pushed back against change. The show taunted its characters with visions of dead loved ones and an occasional car charging full-speed into a phone booth, but for the most part, our characters ran into minimal trouble on their way to their destinations. In the book, time tried to kill Jake every step of the way, resulting in a tense and thrilling final push toward the book depository.
Overall, I would say that this adaptation was a good one. There were some issues with pacing, like in episode 4 when we met Sadie’s terrible husband, and in episode 7, which felt like an out-of-control dumpster fire in comparison to the rest of the series. The murder of Harry Dunning’s father felt somewhat unnecessary, since the time-reset that followed in the book was excised for time. And on occasion, the things that make the story so clearly a Stephen King story feel almost out of place (brutal, brutal murders in idyllic 60s houses, Sadie’s husband’s “dark secret” being a sex-suppressing clothespin). But overall, the series was strong, and it was a faithful (though pared-down) adaptation of the core story. Just like in the book, the Kennedy assassination plot felt secondary to Jake and Sadie’s love story, and just like in the book, it was the characters that ran the show. I’m very pleased with what Hulu was able to achieve in eight episodes. I hope they do it again.