Friday, May 20, 2022


James Franco is a time-traveling hero in King's story.

    Since H.G. Wells built his famous Time Machine, time travel has been a staple of science fiction and SFR. The heroes and heroines of countless novels, television shows and movies have used any number of devices, from tunnels and portals of all kinds to slingshots around the sun, Guardians of Forever, discs placed in library players, and machines and conveyances of every description to propel themselves to another time and place. 

The rules governing these trips through time have been as varied as the means of transportation. Every author or screenwriter has a different grasp on the slippery eel of time travel and a different way around the paradoxes that threaten to derail every attempt to manipulate the past. And as difficult as it is to think through the ramifications of movement through time, time travel just seems an irresistible draw to SF/SFR writers.

Even Stephen King entered the fray with his 2011 novel 11/22/63, sending his hero back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Not surprisingly, King came up with an intriguing set of parameters for his time travel:  a portal (found by accident in the back room of a diner soon to be replaced by an L.L. Bean outlet) opens on the same location at the same hour of the morning of September 9, 1958. If his hero, Jake Epping, takes the same actions every time through the portal, the same actions will follow—the same conversations, the same people crossing his path, etc. But if he changes his actions, other reactions follow, in a chain which has far-reaching consequences, not all of which can be predicted. Every time he leaves the past to return to 2011, the changes remain in place, but if he goes through the portal to 1958 again, things reset to zero. That is, it is as if he had never been there the first time.

And there’s another complication—the past itself seems to be setting up roadblocks, making it difficult for Jake to do what he has set about to do. Minor obstacles—cars breaking down, power outages—interfere with the test cases he’s set up to prove he can actually change the past. Then major problems begin appearing as he gets more serious about his task—run-ins with the bookie he’s been using to make money to finance his stay, the draw of community and connection at the school where he works, love with the librarian at that school, a horrific suicide attack by the librarian’s ex-husband.

Many times Jake is tempted to give up on his quest to murder Lee Harvey Oswald and alter the course of history, a quest he’s undertaking not so much for himself, but out of a sense of obligation to the dying man who began it all, the owner of the diner. The more he learns about Oswald, the more he wonders whether he has it in him to kill this pitiable creature. And yet he realizes how much is at stake.

As usual, King brings his gripping story-telling skills and marvelous characterization to this tale. He has us from the first sentence and doesn’t let go, with that wonderful, deceptively rambling voice of his giving Jake life and letting us see 1958 from his eyes. King chose wisely in making Jake around 35 when the novel begins in 2011. Until Jake lives it, Kennedy and Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis (which happens while Jake is stalking Oswald), is all just a history lesson, and a vague one at that. He explains to someone that he’s just an English teacher; he doesn’t understand the politics. He, like the rest of us, learns the hard way when he walks into a bar on a night in October, 1962, and sees that “everyone was watching the man I had come to save. He was pale and grave. There were dark circles under his eyes.” 

That’s just the way I remember it, too, Steve. I was only nine, but even I didn’t miss the implications of that speech. In fact, readers of the Baby Boomer generation will relate most to Al Templeton’s character, the Vietnam veteran owner of the diner who dragoons Jake into his quest in the first place. Al is dying of cancer, contracted in the past on one of his own journeys to change the course of history. But he is absolutely obsessed, convinced that Kennedy’s assassination is the pivotal moment in the nation’s past that changed everything and led to our current chaos. Many of us, inspired by Kennedy’s optimism, his creation of the space program and the Peace Corps, his support of civil rights and can-do government, would agree. What wouldn’t we sacrifice to divert Lee Harvey Oswald from his murderous course?

I’ve been watching the television miniseries adaptation of King’s book (by King himself and J.J. Abrams) on the Hulu streaming service. Originally aired in 2016, and starring James Franco as Jake and Chris Cooper as Al, some slight changes were made to the storyline, but it remains faithful to the original and as fascinating as ever. The idea that the past, or the original timeline as it happened, is a force to be reckoned with, is even clearer onscreen. And somehow even more gut-wrenching in light of all that has happened between 2011 and 2022.

I can’t tell you how the story ends. This is one spoiler I won’t give away. I’ll just tell you the concept that’s usually enough to give even James T. Kirk a headache is no more than another notch in the handle of the best gunslinger in the writing biz.  Time travel?  Yeah, that one’s easy for Stephen King.  Just like all the rest.

Cheers, Donna



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