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If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know I’ve been watching Game of Thrones and I also just began the task of re-reading the books. Before I began reading that series, I finished re-reading (what can I say, it’s been a re-read kind of summer) one of my favorite Stephen King books, 11/22/63.
I wanted to re-read it because I had watched the Hulu TV series made from the book and while I liked the show quite a bit at first, as I got deeper and deeper into the book I realized that I the show really wasn’t that good. In fact, when compared to the book, I got seriously bummed out about what was left out.
Now, before I get into things you should know there are spoilers afoot and that also, I quite certainly realize that they can’t put everything into an adaptation. I just have to wonder at the choices made is all and why they would leave out some of (what I think) are the best parts of the book in order to make a multi-part TV “event”.
In the beginning we get a moment with Jake Epping where he tells us;
I have never been what you’d call a crying man … I wish I had been emotionally blocked, after all. Because everything that followed–every terrible thing–flowed from those tears. ~Stephen King 11/22/63
Epping is a teacher and he reads a theme one of his students rights, an older man named Harry who is off, a little slow, a little different. It’s because his father, in a drunken rage, killed his family with a hammer and while not killing Harry, he whacked him in the head and gave him some brain damage. This moment, this small, few pages of talking, is what sets into action the events that unfold in 11/22/63 and while that’s touched upon in the TV series, it’s not given the importance it should have gotten.
I also think that James Franco was bad casting, but that’s a different blog post.
Regardless of casting, what unfolds in the first portion of the book is that Jake is told by his buddy Al that there is a time traveling portal in a closet at his restaurant and Al needs Jake to do something for him, something big, something world changing.
Al wants Jake to go back in time and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Why can’t Al do it himself? Well, because Al has cancer and he’s dying. When you go through the portal you continue to age even though in the current world (at that 2011) only 2 minutes pass by, years can pass by for our intrepid time travelers and Al is simply too sick to carry out the mission. When you step through the portal you are in 1960 and it have to then wait potentially 3 years to take care of business. After some hemming and hawing, Jake finally decides to give it a try, but first he has to know the rules of time travel.
Before Al dies, he gives him as much info as he can, he even has a notebook full of notes about Lee Harvey Oswald’s movements up until that fateful day in 1963. But Jake wants to test this theory of what happens when you change time, Jake wants to see if he can not only save Kennedy, but maybe he can help his student too. Maybe he can prevent the death of that mans family and his brain damage and give him a real chance at life (or so he thinks).
The thing about this portal is that every time you go through, it resets itself. So if you change things in 1960, go back to 2011 and then go back to 1960, everything resets itself, so you have to be sure you have things right or you’ll be doing them over and over again, like a twisted version of Groundhog Day. This happens to Jake as he screws up his first attempt at preventing the murder of Harry’s family, has to go back through the portal and do it all over again (but this time, he does it quicker), but not after putting a phone call through to Harry to see what happened to him and discovers it’s not such a good future for Harry after all.
The Repercussions of Time Travel
We all think about it, or at least, I have anyway. What would happen if you changed one event in a persons life? How would things turn out? Would they still find their way to that point in time? Would they have a better life? Would the world around them be the same? In 11/22/63 we get Stephen King’s answers to those questions. What Jake discovers is that changing an element of a person’s life has a profound effect on them, but it’s not always a good thing. If Harry is never injured, he ends up at Vietnam and he ends up dead. But that doesn’t stop Jake because he thinks, if Kennedy lives, maybe there is no Vietnam for Harry to die in. Maybe he can prevent Harry’s premature death if he keeps Kennedy alive!
It’s a mind twister of a book because Jake is constantly faced with the idea that time is obdurate and that it does not like to be changed. We see that a little bit on the TV show, but not to the extent we see it in the book. Jake also ignores the advice of his friend Al who tells him not to get involved in the lives of the people in the “Land of Ago”, he ends up falling in love with a woman, making friends, establishing a life. Which of course turns out to be a big mistake. This is a Stephen King novel after all, while we don’t see the death toll rise like in a George R.R. Martin book, King doesn’t always do perfect happy endings.
For Jake Epping, his life in the 1960s slowly becomes more real to him than his life in 2011. He says, near the end of the book, after everything has gone to Hell and he has to make a choice he doesn’t want to make,
I should also tell you that I no longer think of 2011 as the present. Philip Nolan was the Man Without a Country; I am the Man Without a Time Frame. I suspect I always will be. Even if 2011 is still there, I will be a visiting stranger. ~Stephen King
I’ve already said that 11/22/63 is one of my favorite Stephen King books, right after The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon. The reason why I love it so much is that it isn’t a typical King book. It’s not horror, it’s more of a sci-fi adventure. It’s a love story. More than anything else, it’s a toe dipped in reality, the “what-if” scenario that so many of us wonder about.
What if Kennedy had lived?
I won’t tell you what King’s answer to that question is, but it’s a hum-dinger, that’s for sure. The quick reveal of 2011 post-Kennedy Alive was a shocker to me and it is a reminder that these things happen for a reason. If presented with the opportunity to change a moment in history, would you, and more importantly should you even try to change it? Who are we to play at being God? Who are we to mess with the strings of the Universe? It’s an amazingly thought-provoking book and a great summer read. If you like history mixed in with fiction, then 11/22/63 is a great choice.
Also, read the book before you watch the show if you can. It’s so much richer and more interesting. Besides that, I am seriously bummed out that they really lessen the impact Harry’s life had on Jake. For pete’s sake, Harry is the entire reason Jake goes back! Harry is the reason Jake gives up years of his life to try and stop Kennedy’s assassination. And yet, Harry is barely a footnote in the show. To me, that was an opportunity lost to really showcase the acting Franco can do and how poignant the story really is.
Pick up your copy of 11/22/63 online or borrow one from your local library!
What do you think? Would you change the past if you could? Why or why not? What would you change? Sound off in the comments!