Stephen King has scared the heebie-jeebies out of millions of readers for over 40 years and is still going strong. However, the Master of Horror took a detour into SF territory with 11.22.63. The novel finds time traveller Jake Epping on a mission to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President John F Kennedy. What Jake doesn’t realise, however, is the devastating ripple effect his mission might have on the future. Now, Hulu has turned King’s thriller into 11.22.63, a nine-episode TV series that airs from today (UK viewers will be able to watch it from April 10th on Fox).
“I had read the book before Bad Robot asked if I wanted to come in and talk about how I might adapt this,” explains executive producer Bridget Carpenter. “I knew the book and how incredibly epic it was. It’s such a great journey. It does have this scale of Homeric Odyssey, but the main character is a teacher. “You have a very Stephen King universe, where you can step into a closet and fall back to 1960,” Carpenter continues. “There are spooky elements, but it’s grounded. There are characters that you know and recognise and that you fall in love with. There’s a depth of character, and a lot going on.”
Anybody familiar with King’s body of work will know that his sagas tend to begin and end with conflicted characters. In 11.22.63, English teacher Jake Epping’s (James Franco) life is in a rut before he stumbles across a portal that can transport him back to the ’60s. “We find Jake at a road in his life and he doesn’t know where he is on it,” says Carpenter. “He just signed some divorce papers with his wife. He’s a devoted teacher, but his students are listless. An adult education student that he cares about asks him to write a recommendation so he can be a head janitor. Jake can’t even get that to happen. He’s sort of wondering what his life is about. At that moment in time, his closest friend, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), shows him a closet in Al’s diner that when you walk into it, inexplicably brings you back into the past.”
The “rules” of time travel vary from author to author, but most agree that the past cannot be changed without potentially screwing up the future. King also put his own unique spin on the mechanics of leaping backwards in time. “King’s rules are very simple,” offers Carpenter. “Once you go through the time portal, which happens to be a pantry closet at the diner, every day you get there it’s 23 October 1960. No matter how long you stay, time passes there as it normally does. And, whether you stay two minutes or two weeks or two years, if you go back through the rabbit hole, only two minutes has passed in the present day.
“The third rule is if you return through the rabbit hole, once again it’s like you have reset the world,” adds Carpenter. “It’s October 1960 again. None of the stuff you did has happened. There’s a Groundhog Day aspect to it. It’s a new day. Nothing you have done has had any consequences. So, if you want your action to have permanent consequences, you cannot return through the rabbit hole.”
11.22.63 features Franco, a busy actor usually associated with films rather than television. As it turns out, he was interested in the material at a very early stage. “James had tried to option the book himself,” explains Carpenter. “He wanted to direct it. Certainly, he loved the story. Then, he found out JJ Abrams had optioned it. Then, he tweeted something like, ‘Oh, man. Some guys get all the fun.’ We saw that tweet and we were like, ‘JJ, call him.’ They started talking. Then, he and I met. He jumped in. What appealed to him was he loved the idea of playing an everyman. Jake is a fellow who had quiet hopes and dreams, but then is called upon to do something possibly extraordinary.”
There’s a high cost to saving the President from Oswald (Daniel Webber), and Jake faces many twists, turns and conundrums along the way. In addition, compelling science fiction often provides a canvas for larger themes, and 11.22.63 is no exception. “There are two messages to this story,” concludes Carpenter. “I know that Stephen King believes this, which is ‘Love is stronger than hate.’ And, I believe that ‘Actions have consequences.’ For me, I really appreciated the considerable violence that was in this story. Not because it’s gratuitous, but because it matters. There’s no act of violence that didn’t matter. What you do matters and I loved that.”