The majority of Stephen King’s novels have been adapted for film or TV since the publication of his first book Carrie in 1974. While varying in quality from masterpiece (The Shawshank Redemption) to sloppy monster truck horror (Maximum Overdrive), King adaptations specifically tailored for TV have been, overall, of a lesser quality than the big screen outings.
Despite the mini-series format always seeming the sensible option for a faithful King adaptation, considering the duration and brick-thick girth of his novels, TV diminishes the spectacle levels, and (in the case of 90s adaptations Golden Years, Tommy-Knockers, The Langoliers and The Stand) leave a bleary, video-shot lustre. These adaptations were nauseatingly grainy, but did sometimes make for a more edifying, informative experience than their cinematic counterparts.
The latest, 11.22.63, is one of King’s very few swerves into sci-fi: time travel to be precise, yet the story is teeming with his common characteristics. A small town setting resembles the leafy Castle Rock, while an every-man writer/ teacher protagonist takes centre-stage, along with sequences featuring the kind of supernatural unrest that wouldn’t seem out of place in his earlier horror novels. But in 11.22.63, the otherworldly elements afford an unsettling edge within the sci-fi context (even though they may merely be constructs of our protagonist’s fractured mind-set).
After the recent passing of his father, English teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) befriends local diner manager Al Templeton (Chris Cooper). Al confides in Jake and unveils some secret research he has been conducting that relates to the assassination of JFK, and could also be linked to a theory on time travel. Or is Al’s mission to travel back and thwart the killing of JFK merely a balderdash musing in the mind of a crazy old man? To reveal any more at this stage may ruin it but fans of King and time-travel movies have plenty to enjoy.
11.22.63 is Stephen King out of his comfort zone but marking brave new territory with familiar traits. It’s similar in tone to early 90s time-travel oddities like the curious cryogenic comedy Late for Dinner (1991) starring Peter Berg, Jack Sholder’s dark Groundhog Day-like 12.01 (1993), Timescape AKA Disaster in Time (1992) starring Jeff Daniels and JFK, which obviously isn’t a time travel film but scrutinises over conspiracy theories in a similar manner to 11.22.63.
Director Kevin Macdonald mines suspense with an edge while imparting political/ science stuff in as concise a manner as possible (no cross-eye time-travel paradoxes at this stage). There are decent performances from Franco and Cooper within an authentically rendered 60s setting. Flashback scenes suggest the nostalgic trenchant of Back to the Future (with a nip of Quantum Leap) while JJ Abrams adds weight, even if it is just as Exec Producer.
If the first episode is anything to go by, 11.22.63 will be a good old-fashioned slice of sci-fi/ horror hokum with a welcome edge that revitalises the time-travel sub-genre. It may also even be the best Stephen King adaptation in a very long time.