To what extent did the assassination of President John F. Kennedy alter the course of history?
That's the question posed in 11.22.63, the Stephen King-novel-turned-Hulu-series about a man who gets sent back in time to stop Kennedy's assassination on the titular date, thus (hopefully) preventing the chain reaction that marked one of the most volatile periods in American history. The novel, which was released in 2011, has been adapted into an eight-part event series starring James Franco that premieres Monday (ahem, President's Day).
In Hulu's version - which can best be described as one part supernatural thriller, one part historical drama - Franco plays protagonist Jake Epping, a high school English teacher who embarks on the time-traveling mission. Giving him the assignment is Al (Chris Cooper), a diner owner who discovered the time portal in a storage closet and has made his own progress in stopping the assassination, getting all the way to 1962 before a cancer diagnosis derailed him. Al's theory: If JFK hadn't been assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. probably would have also been spared, the Vietnam War would not have escalated, and so on. In other words, according to Al, "You save Kennedy's life, you make a better world."
Produced by J.J. Abrams (among others, including King himself), the series poses Lost-esque questions: Can the past be changed, and should it be? Do some things really happen for a reason? And, in order to change one big event, how many small events preceding it need to be altered as well? Oh, and there's also a love story thrown in to boot.
The portal drops Jake (and anyone who enters it) into 1960 - October 21, to be exact - so he's got more than three years to kill until the date of Kennedy's death. (Another quirk: No matter how long someone spends in the past after passing through the portal, only two minutes elapse in the present, and upon the person's return through the portal, everything in the past resets.) In the interim, he spends time chasing down conspiracy theories, following people who may have also been tied to Kennedy's assassination, and earning money by placing bets on sporting events whose outcomes he already knows.
And all the while, Jake is reminded by various mysterious figures that he shouldn't be there. (If there's anything to be said for the casting of Franco - who originally threw his name in the ring as a producer, unaware that Abrams had already snapped up the rights - it's that you'd be hard-pressed to name an actor whose looks and mannerisms feel more out of place in the 1960s. Fortunately for producers, that's what they were going for here.)
He also, of course, puts the inevitability of the past to the test - attempting to call his father in one episode, stepping in to prevent the murder of a former student's family in another - to mixed, but mostly disastrous, results. As Al warns Jake before sending him down the rabbit hole: "If you do something that really f---s with the past, the past f---s with you."
"What [executive producer Bridget Carpenter, who adapted King's novel for the screen] put into the series is this concept that the past doesn't want to be changed, that events have happened in a very specific way, I guess, for a reason," Franco tells TVGuide.com. "So, when somebody like a time-traveler goes and tries to change it, there's this mysterious force that pushes back. Whether I try to change small events or large events, they resist. So it's this new, added obstacle for the character. Not only does he have to try to figure out who did what to make sure that he's changing things in the right way, he's got this whole force working against him."
But in spite of all the negative repercussions, Jake eventually starts to build a nice life for himself in the 1960s, working as a teacher at a local school, where his students are much more engaged than their 2016 counterparts, and where he meets an alluring librarian named Sadie (Sarah Gadon). The supporting cast includes Josh Duhamel as the murderous father of one of Jake's present-day students, T.R. Knight as Sadie's estranged husband, Daniel Webber as Lee Harvey Oswald, and Cherry Jones as Oswald's mother.
"What happens is that, in addition to all the espionage he's doing and trying to figure out who shot JFK, he falls in love, and he likes his life in the past much better than the life he had in 2016," Franco tells TVGuide.com. "So, he now becomes torn between his mission of saving JFK and just wanting to live this life he has there."
For fans of King's book, the general plot stays mostly faithful to its source material, though some edits were necessary in the course of adapting an 850-page novel into an eight-part series. It's a gripping tale, and a rare opportunity to watch a history program whose ending is up in the air.
11.22.63 premieres Monday on Hulu. New episodes will be released weekly. Will you watch?
Watch Franco talk more about the series and its time-traveling elements here: