After finishing The Dark Tower series, I walked away from King again for awhile. But with the release of the 11.22.63 mini series pending, I picked the book up late last year and read it for the first time. It was definitely a joyous return, as there's nothing quite like coming back to King with a really good one of his books, where it's all comfortable and familiar and yet also totally new. This one is fairly light on horror, and trades in supernatural for the science fiction of time travel. "What if you could go back in time and stop Kennedy's assassination?" is a question King has brought up casually in other books of his before, so it was no surprise to read in the afterword that this was a book he has been planning for a very long time. I'm no expert on the event, and I certainly wasn't alive in the 60s, but the book at least seems like King did his homework and prepared appropriately.
While the look at Oswald and what he's doing and whether it could be prevented, and what would happen if you could are all very interesting and thought out, the real strength of the story is Jake Epping's life that he builds for himself in the past while waiting for the event to occur. Because this isn't some time machine that will bring you exactly when you want to go, but rather a portal in which Jake arrives in 1958 and has to bide his time and prepare for the big day. I could see someone potentially feeling impatient, but for me the stories that unfold while Jake tries to make a friend's life better, then travels to Texas where he falls in love and finds a new group of high school students to inspire make the journey interesting and worthwhile. The way the past is trying to stop him because it doesn't want to be changed helps build a nice amount of tension and urgency throughout. I also think it's nice that it isn't just accidents and disasters that work to stop him from accomplishing his goals, but also his happiness. Another thing that I think is important is that King tempers his rose colored view of the past where everything tastes better and people are more trusting and kind with the harsh reality of the racism that also existed at that time.
When I first heard of the mini-series, my main reservation was related to their choice to cast James Franco as Jake. While I loved Franco on Freaks and Geeks, his roles since have largely been one note. He has a "serious face" and a "wise guy face" that he alternates between, and not only did I see Jake as a bit older, I also imagined him a lot softer than Franco tends to be. The first change I heard they were making is that the portal brings you to 1960 rather than 1958, and that didn't bother me at all. Speeding things up a little is pretty much expected in these adaptations. The book itself jumps ahead fairly rapidly at certain points, so making things happen in two years less time doesn't hurt anything.
The first episode contains some logical changes and some real headscratchers. We see Harry Dunning read aloud his paper about the night his family was murdered by his father, as well as watching him graduate. What doesn't make a whole lot of sense is moving the events of his childhood to Kentucky instead of right there in Maine. His wife shows up with the divorce papers, a good way to provide that background of his relationship with her, but she also drops a line about his father dying recently. This is basically an excuse for him to call his father via payphone when he gets to 1960. I get that they wanted an action packed sequence early on showing what happens when he tries to change the past, but it also makes Jake look really stupid. Yes, let me call my father who doesn't know I exist yet and even refer to myself as his son. This will go well.
One thing that I felt was mostly an editing mistake was the way they had him talk to Al for quite a while, have the two of them argue, and then he changes his mind overnight and comes back to find Al dead. At least I assume he was dead? But on top of that we get cuts of Al giving exposition dumps while he's in 1960. While I agree that cutting up the exposition is good, it also leaves me wondering just how long he was sitting there with Al before he went to bed, and why would Al be giving him so much information when he hadn't even agreed yet to go back and fix everything? It's not a detail that ruins anything, but it is a bit distracting.
Obviously it's hard to judge this completely without knowing where the mini-series is ultimately going, but my main concern at this point is that this may be the only trip Jake takes back to the past. In the book he goes once and botches it so badly that it requires a reboot, but he's done so much by now, having gone to Dallas early and all, that I'm not sure if he's going to do that. At least it would seem to me that if you were going to do a restart, you would do it in the first episode, and not somewhere down the line. It's possible that the incident at the Dunnings will still result in his starting over in the second episode. I hope so, as he's screwing up so badly this time around that it certainly seems like it would require a do over. At the least it's making me a little less sympathetic to him as he just seems like a moron who is stumbling his way through this rather than the educated and clever character he is in the book.