Based on Stephen King's bestselling novel of the same name, 11.22.63 (2016) is a somewhat successful adaptation of well-researched work with an accessible, fascinating premise. Originally attached to director Jonathan Demme (how great would that have been?), this eight-episode Hulu mini-series eventually ended up in the hands of uber-producer J.J. Abrams and playwright Bridget Carpenter, with star James Franco given the title role as a consolation prize after expressing interest in helming it himself (he also directs an episode). Though not without a few bumps along the way, 11.22.63 does a respectable job of condensing the book into a relatively sleek and visually stunning affair with terrific production design, interesting hooks, and engaging performances all across the board.
Though Hulu allowed plenty of creative freedom in regards to the mini-series' length (a must, when adapting any novel nearly a thousand pages long), 11.22.63 is nonetheless substantially different from King's book in many ways. Yet its core story remains the same: English teacher Jake Epping (Franco) travels back in time to hopefully prevent JFK's assassination. Streamlining his journey (which begins in 1960 rather than 1958, as Carpenter wanted to propel us right to Kennedy's election year) obviously gives 11.22.63 a more urgent atmosphere, with the trade-off being a few layers of Jake's character. This condensed setup, which also involves Jake losing every reason to stay in the present within 25 minutes, feels sloppy in hindsight and saddles double-length opener "Rabbit Hole" with an uneven, patchwork pace. It plays out as a handful of interesting twists (not the least of which is "the past fighting back", a fascinating gimmick rendered more literally here) hindered by clumsy exposition and convenient encounters.
Luckily, 11.22.63 doesn't take long to find its footing: sophomore episode "The Kill Floor" and its follow-up, "Other Worlds, Other Voices", serve up a harrowing side-quest that leads to one of 11.22.63's biggest deviations from its source material: the introduction of new character Bill Turcotte, witness to a murder and Jake's voluntary partner in his newly-focused attempt to prevent JFK's death. This also leads to the re-introduction of Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon), whom Jake met during the pilot and is now estranged from husband Johnny Clayton (T. R. Knight), after Jack gets a teaching job while he and Bill spy on Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) from their nearby apartment. It's a respectable amount of world-building in relatively short order and, much like Jake's double life as "teacher with a girlfriend" and "covert time-traveler", 11.22.63 pulls off the balancing act pretty well for a while.
Unfortunately, the seams unravel as this eight-episode series progresses...and, with the knowledge that Hulu allowed J.J. Abrams, Bridget Carpenter, and company plenty of freedom to control the show's running time, it's a shame that the end result feels so poorly paced at times. 11.22.63 veers into "daytime soap opera" territory during the home stretch, pulling out all the stops (Amnesia! Time jumps! A love triangle!) to limp towards the finish line instead of building suspense and intrigue by actually staying focused on the task at hand. What should be an organic, momentous three-year journey feels more like a road trip with all the driving removed: we're left with a few interesting landmarks and several unplanned detours, but little to connect the dots. Even worse, 11.22.63 seems fine with ignoring its own rules as Jake's journey continues: the once-fascinating premise of "the past pushing back" is used sparsely and at random during the series' second half, and only then as a convenient wild card.
60-minute finale "The Day in Question" almost sticks the landing, finally letting a handful of earlier seeds grow while dealing with the fallout from Jake's actions (pessimists, on the other hand, may be disappointed that November 22nd barely occupies half of the finale's running time). During and after a brief journey into the altered future, 11.22.63 reminds us that regrets and "what ifs" are better left in the past where they belong: tragedy is inevitable, and it might actually be pointing us in the right direction or saving us from something much worse. It's a somewhat satisfying coda for an entertaining, uneven, and at times frustrating mini-series; one that I'm glad exists but is littered with small, irritating problems that some viewers, ironically, will wish they could've gone back in time to correct.
Presented on Blu-ray by Warner Bros., 11.22.63 feels right at home on disc: it was developed for the small screen and is perfectly suited for marathon viewing. Sporting a clean and polished A/V presentation, the only drawbacks here are a lack of meaty bonus features and slightly limited replay value...but whether you're an interested newcomer or an established fan itching to revisit the past, it's great to see a production like this available on Blu-ray.
Presented in its original but unusual 2.00:1 aspect ratio (not 1.78:1, as the packaging advertises), 11.22.63 looks extremely satisfying from start to finish. It's a quality presentation of this digitally-shot production with noticeable texture and consistent image detail, a color palette that accurately reflects the mostly warm and hazy color palette of its 1960s setting, and no glaring digital imperfections. Black levels and contrast are also uniformly solid (even during nighttime and low-lit sequences), and a few rare moments of CGI also blend in almost seamlessly. Overall, I'd imagine that this represents a substantial improvement over any streaming version available on Hulu, so those returning to 11.22.63 (and, of course, new viewers) should be extremely pleased with its appearance on Blu-ray.
DISCLAIMER: The photos, screen captures, and promotional stills featured in this review do not all represent the disc under review.
The default DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix certainly gets the job done as well, serving up crystal-clear dialogue that's obviously mixed with home theaters in mind, as the sporadic music cues and action sequences are balanced well and rarely fight for attention. Surround activity and channel separation are also quite noticeable at times, as is LFE activity (none greater than the rumbling whoosh of instant time travel). A Dolby Digital 2.0 Portuguese dub is included, as well as roughly a dozen sets of subtitles including English SDH, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Norwegian, Swedish, and Dutch. Both the dub and more than half of these subtitles aren't even mentioned on the back cover; combined with the errant aspect ratio listing, Warner Bros. should pay more attention to their own packaging.
Presented in Warner Bros.' typical no-frills style (albeit with slight longer transition time, as well as a few helpful pop-ups that summarize the episodes and bonus feature), the interface is smooth, basic, and easy to navigate. This two-disc release is packaged in a dual-hubbed keepcase with a matching slipcover. Also tucked inside are two inserts: an HD Digital Copy redemption slip, and a handy episode summary list that's been repurposed above.
Much less than expected; no deleted scenes, promos, in-depth interviews, or commentaries...just a surface-level but entertaining behind-the-scenes featurette, "When the Future Fights Back" (15 minutes). Featured participants include Stephen King, JJ Abrams, Bridget Carpenter and James Franco, who speak about a handful of expected topics like development, casting, and the challenges of adapting and 849-page novel into, well, anything. We also hear briefly from costume designer Roland Sanchez, who discusses the monumental task of dressing 1,200+ background extras in period clothing. It's a shame that this important aspect of the production, as well as countless others that aren't even mentioned (visual effects, editing, music, historical accuracy, etc.), isn't covered in greater detail.
Though fans of Stephen King's well-received novel may not approve, this TV adaptation of 11.22.63 does a fairly decent job of translating the lengthy book into a digestible mini-series. That's not to say there aren't problems along the way: the omission of several early plot elements---and a lot of the setup, which makes the first two-part episode feel awfully uneven---drags things down, while its tendency to lose focus and ignore its own rulebook can be frustrating. But Franco's winning performance, the top-notch production design, and intriguing time-travel hooks are definitely big factors in the show's partial success, and that may be enough for some. Warner Bros.' Blu-ray is appreciated: not every show is granted a high-def release these days, so it's good to have an A/V presentation that plays to 11.22.63's technical strengths. The lack of extras and limited replay value hurt this in the long run, but it's still worth a purchase for established fans and interested newcomers. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night (and day, if he's bored enough). He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.