When J.J. Abrams called screenwriter and playwright Bridget Carpenter, told her he had the rights to Stephen King’s 11.22.63, and asked if she would like to talk to him about possibly writing and executive producing an adaptation of the bestselling novel for the screen, she was eager to meet with him. "I was like, 'Yes! I can come in today! Tomorrow? No problem. Whenever! I'm ready!' " she recalls.
A lifelong fan of King's work who says her father introduced her to the author's novels when she was probably way too young to be reading them, Carpenter had read 11.22.63—a mashup of fiction and history that follows a modern-day Maine teacher's trip back in time to try to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—when it was first published in 2011, tearing through 849-page tome "like a house on fire," she says.
Carpenter has a particular fondness for stories that involve time travel, and when she went in to meet with Abrams about 11.22.63, she rattled off the titles of her favorite time travel movies, citing Primer, Looper, Peggy Sue Gets Married, and Back to the Future among others during their discussion, and shared her vision for what 11.22.63 could be on screen. "It was a passion project for me right away," says Carpenter, who has written and produced TV series including Friday Night Lights, Parenthood and The Red Road.
She was hired to spearhead the massive adaptation after King gave his approval.
Now complete and rolling out on Hulu one episode at a time starting on February 15, (which is President's Day) the eight-episode event series adaptation of King's book stars James Franco as Jake Epping, the idealistic young teacher who is out to change history and falls in love along the way. The cast also includes Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Josh Duhamel, T.R. Knight and Daniel Webber.
Carpenter let Co.Create in on the process of adapting the book for the screen and the critical change that had to be made, what it was like to work with a master storyteller like King and her commitment to creating a writing schedule that allowed her to be present for her family.
"I'm an outliner," says Carpenter, who created a visual roadmap for herself—as well as the four other writers she would eventually hire—at the outset of the project. "I had an office that I rented in Hollywood. It was a big office, and it had three walls that were top-to-bottom bulletin board, and then the other wall was a window, which was nice. I would walk around and just put up cards, and I outlined the whole thing on cards for months," she says. "I put up the book as I saw it in my head."
Carpenter spent a lot of time talking through her outline with her assistant Megan Kelly. "I would ask her to come to the office, and I would say, 'Okay, I am going to talk this through,' and then I would talk to her for three hours, and she would dutifully nod her head and listen," Carpenter says, noting Kelly also provided valuable feedback.
One of the biggest challenges in plotting the story for the screen was pacing it just right. "There was so much I loved about the book as a book, and then I went, 'Well, what are the things that are going to make the most incredible and compelling piece of drama?' I felt the adaptation of this book demanded a real sense of pace and a pace that was a bit different from the book," she says. "I wanted it to be a show that was sort of sprinting ahead of the viewer so we were always trying to catch up because I thought that is what the character was doing, chasing after a situation that was just out of his reach."
Any time a book is adapted for TV or film, things have to be changed, of course. So what’s different here? "J.J. had an idea which really helped me and drove me in a way, and it was this: He and I spoke early on, and I said, 'I love the voice of this book so much, but I do not think this should be a show with a voiceover. I do not want to be inside Jake's head in the way that you are in the book for 900 pages,' and J.J. said, 'I agree completely.' So we were talking about that, and J.J. said, 'Jake's got to have somebody to talk to,' " Carpenter says.
Carpenter went off to figure out who that person should be. Ultimately, she took a character that existed in the book—Bill Turcotte, a young man with a tragic past—and turned him into a sidekick for Jake. "He had a bit part in the book—like a walk-on part. He played a small but momentarily important role, and then we did not see him again," Carpenter says. "I thought, 'What if Jake has to tell Bill he is from the future for reasons that will become clear, and what if Bill idolizes Jake?' I thought, 'That is the sidekick!' He gives Jake company, and therefore, dramatically, Jake has somebody along with him on the journey, and he can talk to him and externalize all the things that he is thinking about in the book."
Giving Jake a sidekick was the most significant change that Carpenter made in adapting 11.22.63 for the screen, and any time she did alter something from the book, which she only did when absolutely necessary, she ran the idea by King, emailing him to let her know what she was thinking and to ask him how we felt about it.
So when she broached the idea of making turning Bill into a sidekick for Jake via email, what was King's response? "He wrote—God bless him—a huge group email, and it was to Bad Robot, Warner Bros., and I think Hulu—and he said, 'I think what Ms. Carpenter has proposed is genius,' and then he said, 'The best adaptations of my work are not slavish. They take liberty, and this is really in line with the spirit of the story, and I approve wholeheartedly,' " she recounts.
Carpenter, who wanted to script an adaptation that would satisfy King as well as fans of the book, was thrilled and inspired by this supportive and encouraging response from the author. "It was so incredibly generous and also thoughtful about drama," she says, reflecting, "It was a good day. This is a book that he took years to research, and it is so incredibly compelling, and I am saying, 'I would like to do this big, different thing,' and he was all for it."
This was a big production. Nine hours of story are told across 11.22.63's eight episodes, and Carpenter went into the shoots with solid scripts, but she was open to changes. "The actress who plays Jake's counterpart—her name is Sarah Gadon—would often come up and say, 'I do not need to say this. I can do this just by looking at him.' I love the less is more approach, so I would go, 'Okay. Cut it,' " Carpenter says. "It was about cutting dialogue to the bone and letting the story do its work. When actors are that attuned to their own abilities, you want to listen. I want to listen. Any time an actor says, 'This is a little too much. We can do this without saying all this,' I love it, and I absolutely will cut [dialogue]."
It's important for writers to trust in the talents of the actors who bring their work to life, Carpenter says, noting, "I am alone with the words on a page for—in this case—many, many months. Then I bring it into a room with some writers, and then you open it up to the director, and then you invite the actor in, and it is not just you anymore. It all becomes your shared baby. Everything is always about the story."
Adapting a nearly 900-page book into a miniseries is a complex task, and Carpenter was all in. But she set out to write 11.22.63 a way that was productive and organized and wouldn’t impinge on her responsibilities to her family. "It is really important to have enough time to write and have enough time to spend some of your life with the people that you love," she says.
An early riser, Carpenter would get up each day around 5 a.m., take her kids to school and then be in the office by 8:30 or 9 on weekdays when she was working on 11.22.63. She would usually stay at the office until about 4 p.m. before heading home to her family. "My friend always says to me, and I have to say that I believe it, 'If you want something done, ask a working mom,' " Carpenter says, explaining, "I have stuff to do. I show up and get to work."
Production was different, she notes. Going into production meant longer hours and time away from her family.
But Carpenter, who wrote the first five hours of 11.22.63, had more control over the writing process and made sure she hired writers—Brian Nelson, Quinton Peeples, Brigitte Hales and Joe Henderson—who also wanted to work on a more fixed schedule as opposed to pulling all-nighters. "I love hiring people who share that kind of value," she says. "We all get in, and we work hard, and we look at our watches at the end of the day, and we go, 'See you tomorrow!' "
While Carpenter started working on 11.22.63 in an office she had rented in Hollywood, she moved to a larger space when she brought in the other writers and had to run a writers' room. "I found this little house in Silver Lake that a friend of mine owned, and it was connected to our editing facility. So we had this little house in Silver Lake, and each of us took a bedroom for an office, and we would work in the living room," she says. "It was really, really civilized and collegial. It was very warm and fun. We would make a pot of coffee and start going."