Focusing on essence rather than particulars of the novel, "The Kill Floor" stakes the series' claim as its own story.
Cast: James Franco, Chris Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Cherry Jones, Josh Duhamel
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 2 - "The Kill Floor"
Air date: 2016-02-22
"Every writer needs a greater chapter one… I'm about to give you yours".
Adaptations are a funny thing. Stray too far from the source material, and the viewer is left to wonder why the creators bothered. Hew too closely to it, and you run the risk of a bloated mess. In the best scenario, a film or series emphasizes the theme of the story and the motivations of the characters while streamlining the necessary introspection and description present in the source material. It's the difference between, for example, the first two Harry Potter films, which ran in excess of three hours each and were practically a page-to-screen remakes of the books, and the third, which cleverly and visually emphasized that novel's theme (time) while making the necessary shifts/deletions in character and plot.
11.22.63's adaptation, having several hours to work with, has a bit more latitude, although the novel's length is daunting even so. While the pilot episode stayed fairly close to the original, "The Kill Floor" hints at substantive changes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; in the novel, Jake Epping (James Franco) travels back and forth between 1958 (1960 in the series) and 2011 several times. His reason for these numerous trips (besides preventing the Kennedy assassination) was the focus of this week’s episode. Having decided to try and change the history of a single person, his adult education student Harry Dunning (Leon Rippy), Jake ends up trying multiple times in the novel, with varying degrees of success and negative consequences in the future.
This is where the adaptation makes two excellent narrative choices. First, they conflate all of these attempts into a single night of violence/violence averted, sparing the viewer the several return journeys in the novel; an instance of understanding that what works in one medium doesn't always translate well into another. While Jake's motivations for this undertaking are still a bit undercooked, spending more time with the young Harry (Jack Fulton) is well worth it. While child actors' performances can often be hit or miss, Fulton does a wonderful job in the opening scene: chased by bullies through the woods, who spit on him and throw his pants in the river, Harry just lies still, his eyes fixed and distant, until the bullies get bored, then makes his way through town to the drug store, where he's left a pair of shorts with the druggist for just such an eventuality. The scene, and Fulton himself, manage to convey, with minimal dialogue, a child who's resigned to hard times, and yet still gets the job done, not unlike the older version we meet in the pilot episode.
Second, it allows the narrative to deepen, if not make remotely sympathetic, the character of Frank Dunning (Josh Duhamel), Harry’s father. Duhamel does a great job in conveying the simmering rage that led him, as Harry revealed in the previous episode) to kill his wife and two of his children with the same hammer he used on the cows at the slaughterhouse where he used to work, without going over the top. Particularly effective is the scene in which Dunning drags Jake from the bar, where Jake had been quoting James Agee to connect with these "little guys, struggling in the dirt" (as Jake calls them), to the slaughterhouse. He wants Jake to prove his manliness by bringing the hammer down on a struggling cow to "put it out of its misery"; the scene nicely illuminates Frank's motivations and punctures Jake's pretensions. While this moment doesn’t appear in the novel, it’s both similar in tone to King's work, and offers the necessary connective plot and character tissue for the episode to earn its brutal ending.
This episode, to paraphrase Frank’s words quoted at the start of this review, is the real chapter one of the story. While "The Rabbit Hole" set the stage, it's in "The Kill Floor" that the play really starts. Jake’s attempt to change Harry’s past ends with the discovery, by the local bartender Bill Turcotte (George MacKay), of Jake’s secret, Kennedy-saving mission. It not only ties this episode into the series’ overarching plot, but also seems to foreshadow that Jake's mission to bring the hammer down on Oswald is going to be harder and more brutal than he could've imagined. Like the process of adaptation itself, every change Jake makes to a past already written is going to disturb someone, somewhere.
As for me, I'm excited to see where it's going.