If you could change the past, would you? What would the consequences be? In his butterfly-effect novel-turned mini-series, Stephen King explores this question in the Hulu special 11.22.63. Next to King’s 1922 novel/film, 11.22.63 is a hidden gem that is well worth one’s time (barring the unnecessary strong language that often distracts from the narrative).
As the title suggests, this miniseries centers on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Early in the series Jake Epping is told of a secret spot that allows him to travel back in time to 1960. He is tasked with going back in time and preventing the assassination of Kennedy. The rest of the series tells this three year journey to change that seminal event.
One of the major plot points during Epping’s journey is the danger of changing the past. His goal is to prevent Kennedy’s death by Oswald, but along the way he seeks to reshape history in what he perceives to be small, insignificant ways. The most prominent example of this regards the murder of Frank Dunning. In the present timeline, Epping meets an adult student who’s father killed his siblings and mother. Epping discovers when he travels back in time he can save his student’s suffering by murdering his father. By the end of the series (spoiler alert), his student isn’t grateful for Epping’s protection, but resentful. Regardless of how abusive Frank was, he was still loved by his children. In an effort to fix the future, Epping made it more complicated.
This is a consistent pattern throughout the series. Epping confronts racism, racist, the education system, and, of course, falls in love. In his pursuit of Sadie Dunhill, he directly affects her life and trajectory.
Regarding the main plot point, King explores common conspiracy theories regarding the roll of Oswald. He is clearly deranged and radical. We see him purchasing the infamous gun that would slay the president. Yet behind the scenes, King explores who really gave Oswald the idea of killing Kennedy. At the end of the series, we are largely left with Oswald himself. King is not preachy regarding the conspiracy (unlike Oliver Stone in JFK), but he does leave a door open to it.
On the day of the assassination, Epping heroically saves the President and is hailed as an American icon. He returns home and back to the future (no pun intended). What he discovers is shocking. Instead of peace and prosperity, he finds the wreckage of nuclear war. The only solution is to return to the past and reset everything.
The moral of the story is obvious: we must let the past be. King’s answer to history is faceless fate. To meddle with history is dangerous at best. The ripple effects of the smallest change is unpredictable and dangerous. Epping must learn to accept the suffering of his students, the injustice of the past, and the tragedies of history.
The Christian answer is better. Although we are all tempted to travel back and to right all of history’s wrongs, we dare not do so. History is not a cosmic action driven by the libertarian actions of nature, but under the providential care of God. We rest in our present sufferings knowing that God hears our pains and entered into our world through Christ. The mystery of the gospel is to simultaneously conclude that history is messy, but we dare not change it. For in history lies a providential God who sent his Son and continues to work through his church. What we must do we shape history for the good where we are now.