Viewers hurtle deep into the unpredictable darkness of the American dream. James Franco stars as Jake Epping, a high school teacher at a loss with his life, who wants to make a difference and do something meaningful. Encouraged by his ailing friend (Chris Cooper), Jake journeys back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The story transports audiences into the world of 1960s Texas as Jake explores the multiple mysteries surrounding the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber). But Jake's mission faces threats not only from Oswald, but from Sadie (Sarah Gadon), a beautiful librarian he falls in love with, and from the Past itself... which doesn't want to be changed. And if the Past doesn't want to be changed, it will push back – often violently. With something for everyone, this edge-of-your seat mystery offers an epic and emotional thrill ride.
I've never considered myself one to elevate source material to sanctity. This is an ongoing battle with die-hard fans and the franchises they love. Yet, I've always stayed on the outside. Understanding why those who love the source material could be upset with certain decisions, while simultaneously feeling empathy for the filmmakers who must, at times, make impossible choices. They aren't going to please everyone.
Now I find myself in the unenviable position of reviewing an adaption from source material that I absolutely adore. Stephen King's masterpiece of a novel, "11.22.63," is one of my favorite pieces of fiction written in the 21st Century. It's difficult not to find myself on the fanboy side of the argument.
When the '11.22.63' adaption was first rumored, Jonathan Demme was attached and it was most likely going to be a feature-length film. While I like Demme's work, and think he would've done a great job, I had to pause at the stifling runtime. King's book, whose hardback version is just shy of 850 pages, certainly needed much more time than a film could provide. A mini-series was the perfect solution.
Hulu and J.J. Abrams' production studio Bad Robot teamed up to create an eight-part mini-series that had the potential to pack in asmuch of King's original content as possible. While I liked, for the most part, what they did with the story. I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. Perhaps it was the feeling I got while reading it. Maybe it was missing the personal touch that King's first-person narration brought to the narrative. Whatever the case, '11.22.63' covers its bases as far as an adaption goes, and yet it finds itself lacking in others.
For those who haven't read the book, '11.22.63' follows the story of Lisbon, Maine resident and high school English teacher Jake Epping (James Franco). One day his friend Al (Chris Cooper), who owns a local diner, comes to him with a wild proposition. See, the closet in Al's diner is, inexplicably, a time machine of sorts. Once you step through the closet you find yourself transported to October 1960 (in the book it's September 1958). Every trip, no matter how long is spent in the past, only takes two minutes in the present. There's no explanation of why this portal exists, or its true purpose – if there is any. All that we ever know is that the portal is there.
Al is convinced that if the assassination plot of John F. Kennedy is foiled, then the world would turn out to be a better place. His reasoning is unsound, but he's sure of it. Al has tried and failed. He's contracted cancer and can't complete the quest he set out to do. He recruits his friend Jake to help him save JFK.
It's a wacky premise, but it works.
I seem to be in the minority of people who actually liked Franco in the lead role. I think he's just fine. Sure his supporting cast is even better, but Franco isn't the biggest problem. The issues I had with this adaption seem to stem from excavating the nuance of King's source material, and replacing it with tropes. Plus, there's the addition of a new character, Bill (George MacKay) who joins Jake in the past. The addition seems to be a way of overcoming the first-person-ness of the novel, but ends up throwing in unnecessary storylines that feel out of place (like Bill falling in love with Lee Harvey Oswald's wife).
There is so much to talk about, but such little space to do so. This review would be far too long otherwise. What's evident is that this adaption is solid enough, and entertaining enough to be considered a success. Are there other things they could've done to make it better? Of course. And even though I'm, for better or worse, a fanboy of this particular material, I understand the need to pare it down. With that said, the adaption feels like it has less emotion, less characterization, less intensity, and less soul.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a two-disc release that comes with 50GB Blu-rays. They come packed in a standard keepcase with two disc hubs. There's an insert included that provides the episode list, along with another that provides a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy.
Warner Bros.' 1080p transfer of '11.22.63,' which first aired as a streaming series on Hulu, has its ups and downs. This isn't a consistent presentation by any means. Some scenes will be full of the clarity and sharpness you expect from Blu-ray. Then there are other scenes that are awash in what appears to be unintentional softness, and strange color grading.
The color grading here is something that really feels weird. There are a few culprits that could be at play. Sometimes it seems that they're using green screen to fill out some of the backdrop, only those scenes never look great. Trees and sky mush together and detail is lost. Colors are flat, especially in the background, causing strange, non-lifelike colors to appear (vegetation as flat pink?). Back light is noticeably too hot, creating some blinding moments that completely wash out foreground objects and people. Night scenes lack delineation, and are subject to crushing. In short, there are moments where the show looks decidedly like a made-for-TV movie.
Then there are other parts that look amazing. These are usually times when the scene is in full sunlight and there doesn't appear to be any computer-generated effects helping out. Close-ups usually featured great detail, yet there are some fairly soft close-ups too. That's really the takeaway here. The inconsistency of this release hurts it in the end.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is much more disciplined. It is constantly solid (except for its unusually heavy emphasis on surround noises), and provides a much more compelling presentation than its video counterpart.
Yes, there are moments where the surround sound seems weirdly emphasized over front-centered sound. So, at times cars whizzing by in the background can sound louder than they need to be when compared to dialogue. This doesn't happen all the time, but it is noticeable as the series progresses.
Dialogue is clear though. Whispers are easy to hear too. Low-end frequencies are frequently heard on the soundtrack during the show's many intense moments. Panning effects are smooth. The 1960s music sounds great.
When the Future Fights Back (HD, 15 min.) – Strange that we only get one special feature here. It helps that it's a rather informative behind-the-scenes piece featuring interviews from Stephen King, executive producer J.J. Abrams, and writer/producer Bridget Carpenter. They do a good job chronicling the changes between the book and the series, which I really enjoyed.
It may not have been the adaption that my heart wanted, but it's the adaption that my brain accepts. I understand that recreating something like King's book for the screen might be an impossible task. They do a great job here even if the end result is left wanting in places. The real bummer is the lackluster video presentation though. Audio is solid. You should give it a look if you loved the novel like I did.