This week commemorates the fifty-third anniversary of the JFK assassination, and I have just finished binge watching the Hulu miniseries, “11.22.63,” which is based on Stephen King’s 2011 novel with the same title. Produced by King and J.J. Abrams, with one episode being directed by the series star, James Franco, this eight-episode 2016 series asks us to indulge in a little time travel speculation. Specifically, we are asked if we could travel back in time to change one historical event, what would it be? Turns out that the two most common answers are killing Hitler to prevent the Second World War and showing up on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 p.m. Central Time on November 22, 1963 to make sure Lee Harvey Oswald doesn’t have the opportunity to kill President Kennedy.
Much, if not most of the speculation surrounding President Kennedy’s death centers around what might have happened if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed his target on that fateful afternoon. Of course, we are still debating whether or not Oswald was the lone assassin, although all of the available evidence points to that conclusion. Accepting that Oswald was indeed the lone assassin in fact makes it easier for us to imagine our time travel experiment. If we could travel back in time to November 22, 1963, having only one shooter to deal with makes it easier for us to imagine that we could change the course of events without too much difficulty. And the object of our travel experiment is to answer the question: What would our world be like today if Kennedy had lived?
This version of events is what drives the Hulu miniseries. In it, James Franco portrays a modern-day Maine schoolteacher named Jake Epping. After his friend, Al, shows him how a closet in his diner is a portal to 1960, Jake discovers his mission in life—to prevent the assassination of JFK. In a rather convoluted plot development, Jake travels from Maine to a little town outside Dallas, where he secures work as an English teacher and meets Sadie Dunhill, another teacher at the school, with whom he falls in love and, with her assistance, changes the course of history. As it turns out, Jake doesn’t like the outcome of his mission and returns back to the 1960s to reverse the course of his intervention. If you haven’t seen this miniseries, I will graciously refrain from giving you any spoilers. All I can say is that if you have seen “Titanic” (and who hasn’t?), you get the picture.
This series, like “Mad Men,” goes to great lengths to obsessively recreate the world of the early 1960s, down to matching the clothing of the actors playing Dealey Plaza witnesses to the attire depicted in the infamous Zapruder film; if only the producers had noticed that when Franco/Jake enters the School Book Depository we catch a brief glimpse of the modern-day cornerstone denoting its status as a Kennedy museum. In any event, this series functions as a time machine, transporting us back to a time that is far from the “simpler era” as imagined by the usual nostalgic versions we far-too-often imagine.
Which brings us to the subject of time travel, the focus of James Gleick’s fascinating new book, TIME TRAVEL: A HISTORY, which I finished reading on the same day I binge-watched “11.22.63.” Gleick, who has written previous books about chaos theory, the physicist Richard Feynman, the internet, and a thought-provoking history of information theory, gives us a succinct and reflective history of time travel ideas, ranging from Aristotle to modern pop culture and science (i.e. Einstein and “Back To The Future”). The centerpiece of Gleick’s narrative is not surprisingly H.G. Wells’ influential and seminal 1895 novel, THE TIME MACHINE, which was made into a movie during the Kennedy era—we can easily imagine Jake passing a theatre marque with the movie title on it. Key to Gleick’s interpretation is the supposition that “The past appears fixed, but memory, the fact of it, or the process, is always in motion.” We can never really re-experience or revisit the past, but only our memories of it—memories that, we should understand, are always being revised and should rarely be trusted. In fact, Gleick concludes that while we may never be able to actually travel back or forth in time or change the course of human events by doing so, our memories are a form of time travel. “It might be fair to say,” observes Gleick, “that all we perceive is change—that any sense of stasis is a constructed illusion. Every moment alters what came before. We reach across layers of time for the memories of our memories.”
As in several past versions of this column, I am reminded of selected “Twilight Zone” episodes. In this case, I think about a not-so-good episode, “Back There” (aired on January 13, 1961), starring Russell Johnson (the “Professor” from “Gilligan’s Island”) as a time traveler who makes a journey back to April 1965 in an attempt to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And, in a much better episode, “Walking Distance” (aired on October 30, 1959), Gig Young plays a harrowed advertising executive who finds himself in the hometown of his youth, where he meets himself as a young boy. When his father realizes this is the grown-up version of his son, he tells him in a poignant speech that he needs to return to his grown-up world because “we only get one chance. Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer. That little boy, the one I know, the one who belongs here, this is his summer, just as it was yours once—don’t make him share it.” Interestingly enough, there is a recurring character in “11.22.63” that reminds Jake on more than one occasion that he doesn’t belong in the Kennedy era.
I urge you to watch “11.22.63” if haven’t already done so, along with your favorite time travel movies (i.e. “Back To The Future,” “Time And Again,” etc.) and I hope you will think of your memory as a time machine—just be careful that you don’t fall into the “nostalgia trap.” And if you figure out what really happened in Dallas on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, please share it with our readers.
See you next week (when what I am writing now will be in the past).