11.22.63

Two years ago, 11.22.63 marked Hulu and Bad Robot’s first foray into the Stephen King multiverse and it represented a strong start for the partnership that would eventually lead to Castle Rock. That start was so strong, in fact, that some of the tension in this eight-episode miniseries started to dissipate toward the back half. 11.22.63 is still worth a watch, however, and for lovers of time travel stories, the past has never felt as perilous as it does in this one. That’s the show’s juicy hook: you can journey into the past, but if you try to mess with the past and change it, it’s going to “push back” and mess with you in return.

Teacher turned time traveler Jake Epping (James Franco) learns that the hard way as freak accidents start piling up around his efforts to thwart the assassination of JFK. Before Castle Rock, if you weren’t familiar with King’s concept of “thinnys” (weak spots in reality where the fabric of the worlds has been worn thin), then the basic premise of a time closet in the back of a retro diner might have seemed silly. As the diner’s owner, Al Templeton — who disappears behind the kitchen’s swinging doors, only to reappear two minutes later having visibly deteriorated — Chris Cooper really sells it, however, and makes such a time portal believable.

Al’s guiding voice establishes firm rules for this universe, like how the portal keeps depositing you at the same exact moment in time and how any changes you have made to the past reset themselves every time you go back. The show employs humor, revealing at one point that Al has been secretly smuggling raw meat back into the present to keep the burgers at his diner cheap. As it turns out, there’s also some real intrigue to being a spy from the 21st century, undercover in the 1960s—particularly when your protagonist has to solve one of history’s greatest mysteries (who killed Kennedy?) before he can take action.

Jake needs to piece together enough clues to definitively implicate Lee Harvey Oswald. He soon finds himself getting sidetracked by a burgeoning romance with Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon). The wild country of the past feels most dangerous when Jake embarks on a personal mission to save the family of one of his future students from being murdered. This puts him in the orbit of Frank Dunning (Josh Duhamel), a butcher and abusive father who exudes sheer menace as he takes Jake on a tour of a slaughterhouse’s “kill floor.”

Books, Books, Books

Being such a prolific writer, King’s track record as a novelist is inevitably hit-or-miss, and since Hollywood has already adapted and re-adapted many of his most famous novels, the freshness of the story may be lost with some of those when it comes to new potential readers. His magnum opus is The Dark Tower series, which is in development at Amazon and which Castle Rock flirted with heavily in terms of its multiverse-spanning mythology (as related by the Kid, who may or may not have been lying about where he came from). It’s quite the commitment to read seven long novels, of course, but not to fear: there are other viable reading options for those who want to get a more manageable sampling of some of King’s written work.

Personally, I’m a big proponent of his short story and novella collections. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and the Different Seasons collection is what first got me into reading King’s books back in middle school. It defied the notion I had of him being solely a horror writer (horror held a stigma in my churchgoing household and King was widely known as the master of the macabre).

The first time I ever met Roland Deschain, the protagonist of The Dark Tower, it was in the novella, “The Little Sisters of Eluria,” part of the collection, Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales. That collection also contains King’s O. Henry Award-winning short story, “The Man in the Black Suit,” as well as the short story “1408,” among others. The film adaptation of 1408 starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson is one of the better-reviewed King adaptations but I think the story has it beat simply by leaving more of what happens inside the haunted hotel room up to the imagination.

Another personal favorite is the story “The Boogeyman,” which has its own feature film adaptation coming (the fact that it’s being written by two of the scribes behind the recent smash horror hit A Quiet Place is encouraging). “The Boogeyman” was part of King’s very first short story collection, Night Shift, which also contains the gems “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One for the Road,” both of which feed into the overall vampire legend of Salem’s Lot that we saw in the 1979 TV movie. With its epistolary form, “Jerusalem’s Lot” is a good example of how not every story needs to be translated to the screen. Prose can achieve some things that film can’t (at least not in the same way).

Yes, Comic Books, Too!

Again, there might be some King fans out there like me who had the character of Roland Deschain introduced to them in ancillary media before they ever read any of the Dark Tower books. Back in 2007, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born was a big to-do at Marvel Comics. This seven-issue miniseries, which has since been collected into trade paperback form, was plotted by Robin Furth (King’s personal research assistant) and scripted by Peter David (whose lengthy Incredible Hulk stint remains perhaps the definitive writer’s run on Hulk).

It’s the gorgeous illustrations, however, by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove that make this essential graphic novel reading. Turning the pages on The Gunslinger Born is like flipping through a book of lush paintings. The series is a prequel expanding on the flashback material of the fourth Dark Tower novel, Wizard and Glass. The same creative team would return for The Dark Tower: The Long Road Home and The Dark Tower: Treachery, both of which are also available as trade paperbacks.

In 2008, Marvel started a comic book adaptation of The Stand, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and penciled by Mike Perkins (whose art you might recognize from writer Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run. It’s the run that re-introduced Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier). While there has often been talk of a new live-action adaptation of The Stand, we’ve yet to see one get off the ground, and in the meantime, all we’ve got is the 1994 TV miniseries, which gave Randall Flagg a mullet and hasn’t necessarily aged all that well.

Here in the comics, King’s 1,152-page tome received an equally sprawling adaptation, with the story being spread out over six five-issue mini-series—which have since been collected into an omnibus edition. For the time being, this is perhaps the better visual adaptation of King’s classic story of good versus evil on a depopulated Earth.

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