History Fights Back
“What if JFK had lived?”
It’s a simple question that has tantalized historians, storytellers and ordinary Americans for half a century. It’s easy to imagine a world with no Vietnam War, peace with Russia and a colony on Mars if only our most idealistic President had been able to fulfill his destiny. Not knowing how history would have played out strikes at the heart of what makes John Kennedy’s murder so tragic — we were robbed of seeing what this extraordinary man could have accomplished. Or prevented. The new Hulu series 11.22.63, based on the novel by Stephen King and produced by J.J. Abrams, tells the story of Jake Epping, a school teacher who has the opportunity to answer the question once and for all by travelling back in time to save President Kennedy.
Despite the pedigree of talent behind 11.22.63, this is far from a new concept. Profiles in Silver, a 1986 episode of the Twilight Zone revival, tells the story of a time-travelling descendant of Kennedy who thwarts the President’s murder with disastrous consequences. The 2002 film Timequest also depicts a time traveller who helps the Kennedy family prevent the assassination which yields decidedly happier results. Even the Star Trek film about travelling back in time to save the whales was originally about travelling back in time to save JFK.
So why would a writer like Stephen King renowned for his originality explore such well-trodden fictional territory? According to King, he had planned on writing the book in the 1970s but realized it would take more research than he was willing to do at the time. It is clear from the amount of detail that the author poured into the 842 page novel that he finally put in that work. When I first read the book I was confounded as to who King expected to slog through such a lengthy volume. For assassination buffs like myself it was an exercise in redundancy. For casual readers it’s an exercise in numbing excess. Never underestimate the power of Stephen King and the Kennedy assassination to sell books. 11.22.63 ended up spending 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
As a master of obsessive wish fulfilment, J.J. Abrams is the perfect filmmaker to bring King’s novel to the screen. With his Star Wars and Star Trek films, Abrams took a universe of information which people preoccupy over and brought that obsession to life. With 11.22.63 he offers a similar fan service to those who fixate over the minutiae of the Kennedy Assassination. For JFK researchers, the act of obsessive wish fulfillment is more than just seeing Captain Kirk in his academy days or finding out what happened to the Millennium Falcon after the Battle of Endor. We literally want to travel back in time to find out who really killed JFK. More than that, we want to fix it.
In 11.22.63 The concept of “fixing” the JFK assassination becomes yet another prism through which to view the emotional trauma of the event. Al, the character who shows Jake how to travel back in time, is the prototypical Orphan of Camelot. A Vietnam vet, he is convinced that JFK would have prevented the war and has collected every scrap of information available on the assassination. For Al, the Kennedy assassination wasn’t a murder, it was a robbery. The theft of our future.
Kennedy’s death is often cited as the death of our “national innocence” and when Jake finally steps back in time, the contrast between the cynicism of the modern world and the supposed “innocence” of Camelot are painted in stark relief. Early in the pilot we see Jake chastise a student for rudely playing with his cell phone in class. Once he steps back in time, Jake encounters a polite teenager in a crisp ROTC tie who refers to him as “sir.” Jake’s boss in the present day is a jaded bureaucrat who’s been stuck in her hometown all her life. When Jake encounters her younger self in the past, he finds her to be a perky idealist who wants to get as far away from home as possible. The idea is planted in Jake’s (and our) heads that if he can only save JFK, that polite optimism could be saved.
A shot of a segregated drinking fountain snaps us out of our sentimental revery and reminds us that the world wasn’t as innocent as nostalgia wants us to believe. And if our assumed innocence is a lie, then maybe saving Kennedy wouldn’t fix things after all. In fact, maybe it would be worse. After all, JFK had none of the legislative prowess his successor LBJ used to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Maybe if JFK had lived, that drinking fountain would have stayed segregated for far longer. There is an ambiguity at play in 11.22.63 that is crystallized by the way Jake funds his expedition to the past: Gambling. Stealing a page out of Back to the Future II’s infamous Sports Almanac, Jake uses knowledge of past sporting events to make money. Like his efforts to “fix” history, Jake is doing it for the right reasons but you can’t escape the thought that he is cheating. History, for its part, “pushes back” at Jake when a cavalcade of freak accidents nearly thwarts his efforts.
Jake’s fight against history mirrors Stephen King’s own 1979 novel The Dead Zone, whose protagonist Johnny Smith develops the ability to see into a person’s future by touching them. Upon shaking hands with up-and-coming politician Greg Stillson, Smith catches a glimpse of a future in which Stillson becomes President and causes a nuclear holocaust.
In order to preserve the future of the planet, Smith concocts a plan to assassinate Stillson before he can reach the Presidency. So while Johnny Smith uses his knowledge of the future save the world, Jake Epping uses his knowledge the past to do the same. Johnny must murder a future President to fulfill his mission while Jake must save a past President to fulfill his.
Like the novel, 11.22.63 spends most of its time following Jake as he spies on Oswald and his associates. There is a voyeurism to these efforts that serves a metaphor for JFK assassination research. To grasp who killed JFK and why, understanding Oswald’s activities leading up to the assassination is key whether or not you think the alleged assassin did it or not. There is an inescapable tawdriness to this effort, which forces researchers to wade through the personal, financial and sexual problems of a massively misunderstood misfit who would have an indelible impact on the course of history. 11.22.63 is far from the first film or series to dramatize the short and sad life of Lee Harvey Oswald, time will tell if this version will be able to captivate an audience for 8 episodes.
From viewing the first episode, it’s clear that a lot of effort was put into making 11.22.63 an entertaining and well-researched product that far outshines the vast majority of TV movies and miniseries about JFK. It also provides an angle that is more appealing and intellectually challenging than the straightforward melodrama of Killing Kennedy or the scandal-obsessed soap operatics of The Kennedys. So far it seems to be the most mature, thoughtful and well-crafted television dramatization of the assassination in years and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.