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- American author
- American screenwriter
Now that the final chapter is up on Hulu, it’s time to officially close the book on 11.22.63, the streaming service’s eight part adaptation of Stephen King’s blockbuster time-traveling page-turner, about an ordinary English teacher (James Franco) who travels back to the ‘60s to save JFK. Even by the author’s standards, the novel was an epic read, clocking in at nearly 900 pages. Thankfully, Hulu handed showrunner Bridget Carpenter nearly nine hours to distill the book into a satisfying — and satisfyingly faithful — series. And yet, as happens with most adaptations, some elements from the novel still fell by the wayside as the series took shape. We talked about five of the most significant page-to-screen changes with Carpenter… and got King to weigh in as well via e-mail.
A One Way Trip
Just like a long-distance runner, time-traveler Jake Epping needs a few warm-up laps before embarking on his race against a past that doesn’t want to be changed. So in the book, Jake’s plan to prevent Harry Dunning’s father from murdering his family is treated as rehearsal for the main event: preventing Oswald from shooting the President. For the series, though, Carpenter folded that side mission into Jake’s extended stay in the past, with no trip back to the future to see whether saving Harry’s family changed the janitor’s life or not. (As readers may recall, Jake returns to his time period to discover that Harry wound up dying in Vietnam.) While that change gives Jake–and, by extension, the viewer–less time to grow accustomed to the past, it also raises the dramatic stakes of his adventure. “In the book, it’s luxurious to live inside Jake’s head for those many testing months,” Carpenter explains. “But what would happen dramatically is that it would suggest that he can try this over and over, and take as long as he needed. And we didn’t want it to feel that way: it should be like, ‘You’ve got one shot. Just do it.’”
King Says: “The series could have had Jake going back to see how it turned out with Bill’s family, but only if it had run an hour or two longer, and I’m not sure that would have been worthwhile. What that return does in the book is give just one more example — a very good one — of what happens when you change the past. Jake discovers that Harry died, which should give him a clue about what’s going to happen if he stops Oswald. Did I miss it? No. What Bridget did was to streamline the narrative, and I approved.”
For much of the book, Jake’s mission is a lonely one, at least until his lady love, Sadie (Sarah Gadon), figures out what he’s up to and becomes his accomplice. While being a solitary time-changer works on the page, Carpenter realized early on in the adaptation process that Franco would benefit from having a scene partner rather than endless amounts of voiceover narration. “I love voiceovers in movies like Days of Heaven, but it’s often something that feels laconic and considered, and the series had to have the pace of a thriller. It needed to be pulsating forward. So in my first meeting with [executive producer] J.J. Abrams we agreed that Jake needed someone to talk to.”
Enter Bill, another victim of Frank Dunning’s wrath, who becomes the Robin to Jake’s Batman. Carpenter says that Bill evolved out of a minor character that appears in the novel, and was specifically modeled to function as an admiring little brother who grows up to develop a will of his own. “I thought that it would be poignant to have someone who initially would look up to Jake, and think ‘Wow, you’re the bomb!’ And then later on, he gets tired of Jake and wants his own heroic life story.” Unfortunately, Bill’s heroic story ends in tragedy, as he jumps out the window of the mental institution where his “brother” had him committed. Carpenter insists that was the character’s fate all along. “There’s no version [of the series] where Bill survives. I thought it was important that Jake have a personal sacrifice. You don’t get anything for free, and you don’t get out clean.”
King Says: “Bill is necessary because the book is a first-person narrative, and Jake needs someone to talk to.”
Throughout the book, Jake is pursued by a recurring phrase: “Jimla.” A seemingly nonsense word that’s initially hurled at him by the freaky Yellow Card Man, “Jimla” turns out to be Jake himself — the name that the past invents for the human monster that’s trying to change history. Apart from one stray reference (Jodie principal Deke Simmons is heard addressing pupil Jim LaDue as “Jimla” in one episode), the concept of Jake-as-Jimla is absent from the series. “I could never see a way to truly dramatize it,” Carpenter admits. “To show that the past is pushing back against Jake, we had to really hone the focus of what the obstacles he encounters were. Hearing ‘Jimla’ in different versions sounded like a boogey monster coming out of a closet; it was something to be scared of, rather than an obstacle.”
Removing “Jimla” did mean losing one of the most memorable scenes of the book: a Jodie football game where the crowd breaks into a “Jimla” chant that sets off alarm bells inside Jake’s mind. But thanks to her time as a writer/producer on Friday Night Lights, Carpenter also knew how much of her budget a football scene would eat up. “I was like, ‘That’s the first thing to go!’” she says, laughing. “That’s some straight producer talk from me to you.”
King Says: “No Jimla. The Yellow Card Man is enough. Jake as Jimla, the Time Altering Monster, works in the book, and probably would have worked in the show, but you’d need that extra time.”
Turn Down the Honky Tonk
At first, Jake takes great pains to keep his pop culture references in the right era. But he slips up in a big, bad way when he treats Sadie to his best Mick Jagger impersonation, belting the Rolling Stones hit “Honky Tonk Woman” while driving home. While he tries to play it off like it’s a tune he heard on the radio, there’s just one problem: “Honky Tonk Woman” wouldn’t hit the charts until 1969. It’s the mistake that blows his cover with the increasingly suspicious Sadie, and eventually forces Jake to ‘fess up about his real identity.
Unless you’re Martin Scorsese and/or HBO, licensing Rolling Stones songs can be a pricey proposition. But Carpenter says that cost wasn’t a factor in leaving “Honky Tonk Woman” out of the series. “Sometimes you just think about what you’re asking your actor to do,” she explains. “And I thought that asking James to sing ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ a cappella was going to be very silly. It’s such a raucous song! I know I’m not singing ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ when I’m alone. Maybe Stephen King is different. I’ll go to the mat with him on that!”
King Says: “My go-to shower song is ‘Bring It On Home to Me’ [by Sam Cooke]. But yes, ‘Honky Tonk Women’ could be sung a cappella — all apologies to Bridget on that one. In fact, I’ll try it in the shower tomorrow morning.”
A Loving Farewell
In both the book and the series, Jake succeeds in saving Kennedy and returns to the present… only to discover it’s been transformed into an apocalyptic wasteland. (King devotes a number of pages to outlining the history of this alternate future — including a timely reference to President Hillary Clinton — and Carpenter says that she wrote several drafts that preserved many of those details before deciding it dragged the narrative to a halt.) So Jake heads back to the past and resets the timeline, meaning that JFK is doomed, along with any hope he has about living happily ever after with Sadie. But the series grants him one last encounter with the love of his life in the past: when he reappears in 1960, he discovers that Sadie is a passenger in the car that passes in front of him every time he emerges from the portal. Following her to the local diner, he essentially bids her a tender goodbye even though she has no idea who this stranger is. “I love the idea that Sadie and Jake were meant to know one another,” Carpenter says about this added scene. “She was there, and he didn’t even know it. There is synchronicity in peoples’ lives and I wanted to build that into this love story. I thought it would be something to earn that last dance.”
That “last dance” refers to the scene that ends King’s narrative and the series as well. Back in the present day, Jake looks up Sadie and discovers that the now 80-year-old librarian is preparing to retire, so he makes the trip to Jodie to share a dance at her farewell party. It’s a beautiful tearjerking finale that King has often credited to his son, author Joe Hill. (He later published his original ending on his official website.) And Carpenter confirms that the ending was something she never intended to change. “It’s such a sweet ending to a story that doesn’t begin so sweetly. Stephen cried! He told me so.”
King Says: “Did I cry at the end? No. I’m a real man. But I must admit I misted up a little. It’s a fine show and an excellent heart-tugger of a conclusion. I’m sorry it’s over. I loved working with Bridget and James, and loved the way the show turned out.”
11.22.63 is currently streaming on Hulu