Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hulu's 11/22/63 - Early Thoughts

This is a series that I have been looking forward to for quite some time. As many of us constant Stephen King readers by now know, movie or television adaptations of his work tend to be hit or miss. Sometimes you get a Misery or a Shawshank Redemption, and other times you get Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return. When this project was first announced, I was beyond thrilled. In addition to being a personal favorite of mine, 11/22/63 is really one of King's overall best novels, and by far the best one he's written in recent years.

Left to right: James Franco, Stephen King, and J.J. Abrams
As more news came about this project, the more optimistic I became. Hulu brought an all-star cast and crew to the table, with J.J. Abrams directing, and the inspired choice of James Franco for the story's lead, Jake Epping. I also believe that a miniseries works much better for adapting a long novel like this than a movie, and a story like 11/22/63 doesn't need some eight figure Hollywood Budget budget to pull off. And of course Netflix and Amazon have certainly set the bar high for original programs produced by digital streaming services.

Last night, after a long wait and many high expectations, the first episode has finally aired. Amazon and Netflix typically drop a full season of one of their shows all at once, embracing the habit that their viewers typically have of binge-watching shows over a single week. Hulu does things differently, releasing a single episode per week, more like traditional networks, so rather than offering up a review of the whole series, as I had hoped, I'll be dropping my early thoughts and impressions here, and updating them as the series progresses.

As to that, after viewing the first episode, The Rabbit Hole, my feelings are . . . mixed.

The talent assembled for this project is nothing short of staggering, and the directing, acting, and cinematography are everything I would expect from an all-star cast such as this. In particular the shifts in tone, from the sunny optimism in "the land of Ago," to the slow and menacing presence of Little Eddie the bookie, provided an immersive atmosphere worthy of King's original novel.

Unfortunately for all the points that The Rabbit Hole gains for acting and atmosphere, it loses for pacing and storytelling. The first episode felt extremely rushed, and it seemed like a lot of King's original material was being pushed aside to make room for hokey or nonsensical subplots born in the writer's room.

Now bear in mind, there are always going to be some changes when adapting a story across different mediums. There are some storytelling techniques that are used in books that aren't available in movies or television, and vice versa. With TV shows in particular, which boast significantly smaller budgets than movies, there are sometimes plot elements that have to be changed for monetary reasons. The best adaptations are almost always those which stay truest to the books (Blade Runner notwithstanding), but a writer or directer that treats the source material as unimpeachable or sacred will quickly see their project fall apart over practicality issues alone.

The problem comes, however, with the fact that television writers often have less intellectual respect for their audiences compared to novelists. We're living in what many are calling the Golden Age of television, and with the explosive popularity of HBO's Game of Thrones, we are also seeing a lot of novels (and comic books) being adopted for TV. Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend lately of dumbing down material, either because writers think that the average television viewer won't be able to understand a complex story, or to convey a sense of false drama because we're just too dim to be invested in the story based on its own merit. The latter, I think, is the crux of The Rabbit Hole's pacing issues.

There's very little action during the first fourth or so of King's novel. Much of the plot is dedicated to Jake's planning with Al, trial and error with the time portal, and his exploration of and acclimation to the land of Ago. King's vision of 1958, seen through Jake Epping's contemporary eyes, is rivaled only by his descriptions of rural New England in stories like 'Salem's Lot and One for the Road. Without idolatry or adulation, King gives us an endearing yet honest vision of a simpler time, warts and all. We get the clean air and root beer right along with segregation and the Cold War. Jake's conflicting feelings about this time is really what puts us behind the proverbial wheel, and King accomplishes this very well.

The show, by contrast, skips over most of this is in a brief montage and some expositional narration on Al's behalf. Had the plot been pressed for time, this might be understandable (though I find this hard to accept in an eight-episode miniseries), but it seems that most of the time made up skipping over the source material is dedicated to subplots that are artificially inserted into the narrative in a lazy attempt to get people's hearts racing.

Did anybody really buy, for example, that Jake would bring a knife back in time with him that had the name and dates of the Vietnam war on it? Or, can you think of a more cliche way of escaping a violent bookie than by distracting him with a video on a smartphone (which somehow was able to stream in 1960)? I won't even get into the Benny Hill chase scene where a schoolteacher from Maine almost escapes the Secret Service, or what Jake hoped to accomplish by calling his father up on the phone, and even going so far as to call him "Dad."

I can't help but think that these scenes were inserted only because the studio felt that audiences would tune out if they were bombarded by too much political backstory, or travel scenes, or nuances of the less sexy parts of Jake's quest. If there's one lesson that we can take, however, from a show like AMC's Breaking Bad, it's that audiences are willing to A) use their brains while watching television, and B) wait for the pig payoff.

Overall I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first episode of 11/22/63. Part of this, I suspect, is due to the high expectations I had going in. As far as your typical Stephen King adaptation goes it's okay. Not the worst, but certainly not up to par with the best either. It was better than Under the Dome, that's for damn sure, but it also had a much better story to draw upon, and (with the exception of Dean Norris) a better cast and crew to bring the material to life. Whether or not 11/22/63 lives up to its own promise remains to be seen. I'm still optimistic, but my enthusiasm has dulled somewhat after the first episode.

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