Stephen King revisits a horror story that belongs to history
In a 1981 treatise on horror fiction, Maine author Stephen King famously explained the popularity of the genre by writing, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” And though the writer of “Carrie” and “It” is indeed a maestro of make-believe macabre, his novel “11/22/63,” published in 2011, is actually a genre-bending inversion of that sentiment.
The 849-page book follows a high school English teacher (from — where else? — Maine) who travels back in time to 1958, hoping he can prevent a true American horror story — the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — five years later. As the titular date draws near, however, he discovers the past is none too amenable to alteration.
King is serving as an executive producer on Hulu’s big-budget miniseries adaptation of the novel, which will premiere Monday and stream one episode a week. Despite ditching the slash marks in the title and sending the protagonist (played by James Franco) back to 1960 instead of two years earlier, “11.22.63” is still classic King, filled with richly drawn characters and suffused with a sense of menace.
Ahead of the show’s arrival, the author — who is also serving as an executive producer on CBS’s “Under the Dome,” watching as long-planned film adaptations of “The Dark Tower” and “The Stand” (among others) creep closer to theaters, and preparing the final installment of his “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy for release in June — found the time to answer the Globe’s questions by e-mail about time-travel mechanics, how he put his pen on the pulse of the ’60s, and why the miniseries format suits his style.
Q. The idea of someone traveling back in time to prevent the JFK assassination first came to you almost 40 years before “11/22/63” was ultimately published. What about that specific historical event appealed to you so lastingly as a moment worth revisiting and — in Jake Epping’s case — reshaping?
A. Well, Al Templeton, who owns the diner, is my stand-in on that one. I regard the assassination as one of maybe four watershed moments in the 20th century (along with the killing of Archduke Ferdinand, the failure of the German plotters to kill Hitler, and 9/11). Change the Kennedy killing, and everything changes. Also — this haunts me — it was all done by a scrawny loser with a mail-order rifle.
Q. “11/22/63” was first meant to be adapted as a movie before J.J. Abrams became involved and the project progressed as a miniseries, on which you’ve served as an executive producer. How did working in that entertainment format, and watching the book become an eight-part series, differ from the experience of seeing your novels and stories become feature films?
A. I love the miniseries format, which gives stories room to breathe. It has to be used wisely, but when it is, viewers form an almost visceral attachment to the characters. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Most movies are short stories. Long-form TV, like “Fargo” and “11.22,” are novels.
Q. Your book and now this series don’t just explore the JFK assassination, they explore the ’60s as a vibrant, eclectic, socially complex whole. What challenges did you face in not just setting a novel there but telling it from the perspective of an outsider in that time?
A. We’re all outsiders to the '60s now, including those of us who lived then. The moving finger writes, as Omar Khayyam said, and then moves on. By writing about it, I tried to recapture what those times were actually like. I used some research, but a lot of it was pure memory. The biggest challenge was putting aside the rose-colored glasses and remembering the bad stuff, like segregation and rampant pollution. If I regret missing anything in that regard, it would be the callous treatment of gay people, and the assumption that women were second-class citizens. On the plus side — the series does better at this than the book, actually — is how great the clothes and cars were.
Q. Between “11.22.63” (on Hulu) and “The Man in the High Castle” (on Amazon), series that reach into the past to wonder “what if . . .” seem to be in the midst of a cultural moment. What do you make of why we’re so fascinated as a society by these hypotheticals?
A. It’s human nature to wish we could go back to re-experience things, and to change the stuff that went bad.
Q. It seems like every piece of entertainment that deals with time travel comes with its own unique set of rules for how jumping around in time would work. What guided and inspired you as you nailed down the rule book for “11/22/63”?
A. There really aren’t many rules in “11/22.” Believe me, I stepped into this concept very carefully, because time travel is full of paradoxes. Jake says to Al at one point, “What if you went back and killed your own grandfather?” To which Al replies (in the book), “Why the [expletive] would I do that?” Which closes the subject. I loved the idea that you always start your trip into the past at exactly the same moment, and each trip is a complete reset. People have mentioned “Groundhog Day” in that respect, and while I didn’t think of that while I was writing my story, it has that element.