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KING'S CORNER: 11.22.63 (2016)

11.22.63 - King's Corner Review


Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.


On 11th November 1963 three shots were fired at the presidential motorcade of John F. Kennedy as it made its way through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. The motorcade was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital and 30 minutes later it was declared that the President was dead. The incident shook the world and is one of the defining moments, not just in the Cold War but in the history of the 20th century. In the 60 years since the event there have been dozens of books written about the fateful day and countless conspiracy theories have been effused from all corners but one of the lesser questions relating to the event is, "What would the world be like if Kennedy lived?" If he wasn't killed what effect would his presidency have had on the Civil Rights movement, America's involvement in the Vietnam War and the course of the Cold War in general. These kinds of questions clearly played on the mind of Stephen King when he was developing his novel, '11/22/63'


Director: James Strong, Frederick E.O. Toye, James Franco, John David Coles, James Kent, Kevin Macdonald

Starring: James Franco, George McKay, Sarah Gadon, Chris Cooper, Daniel Webber


Written by: Bridget Carpenter (Creator), Brigette Hales, Quinton Peeples, Joe Henderson, Brian Nelson

Produced by: Joseph Boccia, James Franco, Athena Wickham

Cinematography by: Adam Suschitzky, David Katznelson

Original Score by: Alex Heffes


Synopsis:

High school teacher Jake Epping gets a chance to travel back in time to avert the death of John F. Kennedy. However, history's aversion to alteration and his love for the era and a woman endanger him.

11.22.63 Review

Thoughts:

The origins of this time travelling tale stretch back as far as 1971 when King was a high school teacher. One day, himself and some of his colleagues were reflecting on the death of John F. Kennedy and they debated what the world would have been like if he wasn't assassinated and the intricacies and coincidences that surrounded Lee Harvey Oswald's ability to kill the President. This conversation inspired King to write a story called 'Split Track' but after 14 pages he abandoned it as the level of research required to complete it would prove to be too daunting. He also felt that the timing wasn't right as the death was still a fresh wound in the minds of many Americans. 



The idea never really left King though and it has permeated through much of his work with 'The Dead Zone' being the most notable example. Whilst promoting 'The Dark Tower' comic book in Marvel Spotlight magazine he spoke of his idea for '11/22/63' again highlighting how he would love to explore the idea that stopping the assassination of JFK could lead to a darker timeline even though it is being done with the best of intentions. Spurred by the idea he embarked on a journey alongside researcher Russ Dorr to look into the assassination (including the conspiracy theories surrounding it) and life in America in the late 50s/early 60s. He even consulted noted presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on what the worst case scenarios would be if JFK was not killed on that fateful day in Dallas. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in October 2011 King described the experience of writing '11/22/63' as “...strange at first, like breaking in a new pair of shoes" as he had never written anything like this before at length but it would go on to be lauded as being one of his best novels to date with high praise from both the New York and LA Times. 



The novel's journey from page to screen began in August 2011 when 'Silence of the Lambs' director Jonathan Demme wanted to adapt the epic novel into a movie but this caused friction with King who had veto power over the project. This led to a creative impasse between the two with Demme departing from the project. Shortly after this J.J. Abrams made a deal with King to turn the novel into a miniseries. Not knowing this deal was made, James Franco approached King about adapting the book after falling in love with it but was told that Abrams beat him to the punch. Afterwards he tweeted about his disappointment at not getting the rights to the novel and posting an essay about it on Vice. It caught the attention of Abrams who offered him the leading role of Jake Epping. Franco accepted under the condition that he would be allowed to direct some of the series to which Abrams agreed. The difficult task of developing the series was passed to playwright and screenwriter Bridget Carpenter who had previously worked on shows like 'Friday Night Lights' and 'Parenthood' who relished the challenge and put her own stamp on the project. 

James Franco and Sarah Gadon in 11.22.63

For the entirety of '11/22/63' we are with Jake on his epic journey through time so casting the right person for the role is crucial and unfortunately they seem to miss the mark with James Franco. Jake is supposed to be an everyday man going through the motions with his life. His marriage has failed and he has lost the passion in his job as a teacher. We first meet him during a creative writing night class where his student Harry Dunning (played by Leon Rippy) is telling the harrowing story of the night his father murdered most of his family. The camera pans to Jake who is sitting amongst the students and as a viewer you make the immediate assumption that he is a student rather than a teacher. It isn't the best of first impressions and from here his performance doesn't get much better as it is rather disjointed throughout. His line deliveries and general performance carry very little dramatic weight. It is completely devoid of the world weary quality that defines Jake as a character. You almost get the impression he is disinterested and is there purely to get a chance to direct (which comes with Episode 5). Another problem is that he doesn't have the presence or charisma needed to carry the entire show. You can see through any attempts to act charming as a smarmy quality rises to the surface more often than not. It is a performance that is as out of place as Jake when he first arrives in 1960, but it thankfully doesn't derail the entire series as a whole. 



The series is blessed with a talented supporting cast. When Jake travels back in time his sole mission is to prevent the assassination of JFK but he ends up falling in love with librarian Sadie Dunhill (played by Sarah Gadon). Just like Jake we as audience members instantly fall in love with Gadon too who has the striking looks and presence of an actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Gadon plays well opposite Franco and they exhibit a decent amount of chemistry but the problem is that their relationship is the beating heart of the story and here it lacks the intimacy conveyed in the novel. It feels somewhat sidelined at times as you get the impression that the propulsion of the series is the prevention of assassination alone which is perfectly fine but it hampers the bittersweet ending of the show that doesn't have the emotional impact it should. 


On his quest to prevent the assassination Jake infiltrates Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) to see if he acted alone on the fateful day in Dallas. In the role Webber is great as a weasel-like figure who is driven but in all the wrong ways. The itchy manner in which he plays the role is uncomfortable to watch at times and makes Oswald a very threatening character as he is so unpredictable. In a major change from the book the character of Bill Turcotte (George MacKay) is given a much larger role. He finds himself helping Jake monitor Oswald's activities. He plays the role with a gruff sympathy that is sometimes overwhelmed by his brash instincts. It really works in favour of the show as Jake has someone to bounce off when he is learning more about Oswald rather than trying to visualise a lot of internal monologues that come from the book. 

James Franco and George MacKay in 11.22.63

This device isn't limited to Jake's relationship with George as Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) acts as exposition to not just explaining the process of time travel but in warning Jake about the dilemma that can arise thanks to the butterfly effect. There is no better actor for this kind of role than Chris Cooper because if he is giving you the dos and don'ts of time travel, you are going to sit down and pay attention. His gravitas as an actor gives weight to the importance of Jake's mission and how it provides him with the opportunity to do something extraordinary with his life. Another stand out performance in a relatively small role is Leon Rippy as Harry Dunning. Amidst the grand idea of vastly changing the future for all through one action, in Harry he sees the opportunity to change Harry's life for the better by stopping his father from going on a murderous rampage. As Harry, Rippy is wonderful cutting to the sympathetic core of the character at all times. Even when Jake encounters him in an alternative future that quality remains, even though he is a different person. 



The show captures the period of the early 60's brilliantly through the production design, costumes and use of music as these elements transport the audience back to that time. Even a distinct change in the look of the show enhances this when Jake goes back in time for the first time. He leaves the greying and gloomy look of the present (which can almost be a reflection of his internal feelings) to a vibrant past where the colours pop and everything stands out. It is a rose tinted view of the time that encapsulates the phrase of "the good old days" but it doesn't shy away from the dark side of this era of American history. The character of Mimi Corcoran who is a white woman in the novel is portrayed by black actress Tonya Pinkins in the show and it is a brilliant piece of casting as it adds more depth to the character. Her struggles with racism in the Jim Crow South offer a broader societal view of America at that time exposing the lies of supposed politeness and decency that many prided themselves on. Then there are the characters Frank Dunning (Josh Duhamel) and Johnny Clayton (T.R. Knight) who carry themselves in a clean cut manner but underneath they are vindictive spousal abusers capable of committing heinous acts. These aspects of the show work well at grounding a story which involves the impossible high concept of time travel. 


Another refreshing aspect of the series is how it tries to not get bogged down in the mechanics of time travel. In short the portal is just there, it takes you to a specific point in history and it resets a timeline everytime it is used. There are no flux capacitors here, there are just simple rules in place to allow the story to unfold. Within this concept the idea of time pushing back at any attempts to change it is at play. It works so well in the show as the bigger the change, the bigger the push comes into play. This heightens the tension behind the show's major set pieces like preventing Frank Dunning from killing his family or facing the consequences of gambling when you know the outcome. These moments help build to the big day when a ticking clock element comes into play where almost everything and anything tries to stop Jake and Sadie from stopping Lee Harvey Oswald that leaves doubts as to whether or not they can succeed to the last minute. 

Daniel Webber as Lee Harvey Oswald in 11.22.63

There is no doubt that '11/22/63' stands as one of King's best novels of the 2010s so anyone attempting to adapt it for feature length film or even a limited series would have a tall task ahead of them. For the most part Bridget Carpenter does a good job with this particular adaptation as she hits the key points of the novel, even if her version of the story is more about the propulsion of the story over the emotion of it. She is also hampered by a flat performance by James Franco in the leading role but the supporting cast more than make up for his shortcomings. Ultimately it is the thrilling nature of the story and the world of 1960's America that is realised in the show that makes it well worth watching. 


Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½


-Joseph McElroy


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