When it comes to turning the works of Stephen King into films, we’ve gotten something of a mixed bag over the past few decades. There are some good ones out there, including Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile,” but there are also plenty that have yielded iffy results, including the “It” miniseries from 1990, “Dreamcatcher,” “Salem’s Lot,” “and “The Mist.” The latest in the long line of adaptations, “11.22.63,” takes the route that many of King’s sprawling novels are forced to take in that nothing short of a miniseries will do to contain it. Even so, it runs for much longer than your standard King affair, taking eight episodes that total around seven hours to tell its story. With such hit and miss results over the past few decades, it seems a major gamble to pour so much effort into something that could easily turn out to be another dud on the list. However, like with all of King’s adaptations, all we can do is venture into it in the hopes that his passion for storytelling comes through, thereby dazzling us with an original and captivating tale.
“11.22.63” tells the story of an English teacher, Jake Epping (James Franco), whose friend, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), shows him a time portal that allows people to travel back to 1960. His main reason for showing him all of this is to try and convince him to go back in time and prevent the assassination of President Kennedy in November of 1963, therefore preventing the Vietnam War from ever happening. Jake is obviously skeptical at first and has a ton of questions about how it would work. How would he live in the 60’s for three years? How is he supposed to accomplish the mission? Luckily, Al has had a long time to think about all of this, having tried to do it himself before. Eventually Jake decides to give it a try, and so, taking along all of Al’s notes and setting himself up with an apartment and a job, he goes about following the man thought to be responsible for Kennedy’s death, Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber).
“11.22.63” is the kind of story that has seemingly limitless potential thanks to the multitude of things that can be done with it in regards to changing the past, or simply interacting with it. This basically turns the story into one big “What if?” scenario that focuses on one major event in US history, one that has been examined over and over again in an attempt to find out all the details of what really happened. Even so, it’s not really known to this day if there was a bigger conspiracy surrounding JFK’s assassination, which gives such a story even more liberty to expand upon the premise of simply going back in time to stop the event.
Indeed, King’s story could make for a fascinating one, that is, if executed correctly, and it’s here where “11.22.63” shows much of its weakness. This is a show that works best when it’s focusing squarely on the plot at hand, that being when Jake and his eventual sidekick Bill (George MacKay) are keeping tabs on Oswald in an effort to figure out whether he was acting alone. Now there doesn’t seem to be any way that this would be able to sustain a seven-hour show, so it’s understandable that there would need to be something else going on to help supplement the main plot. This is what leads to the addition of Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon), a fellow teacher at the school Jake gets a job at in the 60’s.
The relationship that strikes up between Jake and Sadie might have seemed like a good idea on paper, but for the purposes of the show, this sideplot comes off as nothing more than a distraction from the main storyline. It wouldn’t be problematic if it were something small that only got in the way every once in a while, but there are large portions of most of the episodes that deal with it, sometimes throwing the plot completely off track as we wait for it to get back to Jake’s mission.
Again, it’s understandable that there would need to be something more to anchor Jake to the time period, something more for him to fight for while living in the past than just trying to change the future for the better, but it needed to be something that was integrated better. “Distraction” really is the right word here because that’s exactly what Sadie becomes to Jake as he tries to continue his work, leaving Bill to do a lot of it himself while Jake goes off and deals with things like Sadie’s crazy ex-husband or the possibility of the past fighting back against her in retaliation for trying to change it.
There is still quite a lot to like throughout “11.22.63,” especially when it’s dealing with trying to put together the larger picture surrounding the assassination attempt, and the last episode in particular is quite good as it reaches its climax, which has Jake struggling to do what he came there to do all along. Really the main issue is that it just doesn’t focus on the events at hand quite enough, sometimes using entire episodes of its brief eight-episode run to get sidetracked on other things, including saving the lives of a present student’s family and a pointless twist that has Jake getting amnesia after being attacked.
The most obvious solution to the problem here is that this simply didn’t need to be eight entire episodes. Miniseries that have consisted of just a couple of parts have worked fine in the past for King adaptations, so as to why they felt the need to stretch this out to about seven hours is a mystery, especially when there wasn’t enough compelling material to fill that time. Cutting it in half would have allowed for the premise to shine, instead of getting buried under a lot of superfluous material. It’s a shame because a lot of this does work very well. It’s just unfortunate that those behind it couldn’t see what was most important.
“11.22.63” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. The image is perfectly sharp and clear throughout all eight episodes, which does a great job of showing off the show’s exquisite period detail. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue and score in outstanding quality. Overall, the show has been given top-notch treatment that will leave all viewers satisfied.
When the Future Fights Back (15 Minutes): An interesting look behind the scenes at the making of the show, featuring interviews with the cast and crew in which they discuss such topics as bringing the 60’s to life and adapting the novel for the small screen.
“11.22.63” sets forth with a fascinating premise, but gets a little too distracted by superfluous material that only causes it to get sidetracked from the main plot, resulting in a slightly unfocused show with problematic execution. There are lots of things that the show gets right, including the excellent period detail, the casting of James Franco, and a good amount of tension that it’s able to build, but in the end, you just can’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much better if it had been shorter and more on point.
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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