This coming Monday, the world — or whatever part of the world has decided there’s no fighting James Franco’s ubiquity, and that everyone might as well give into it — will get to log into Hulu, watch 11.22.63 and see Franco as a high school teacher who (if the series is anything like the Stephen King book on which it’s based) travels through a portal in a diner and, instead of eggs, gets to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Since there’s a whole series to get through — and since the portal unerringly takes people back to September 9, 1958, while the assassination happened five years later, on the titular date — it seems that the central question that’ll run through the show is: will this person (who is James Franco) actually be able to revise history, or will there just be some odd, otherworldly factors woven into a fatalistic narrative where Kennedy still dies?
Unlike Amazon’s recent hit, The Man in the High Castle, this show seems to posit the potential rather than the absolute of a counterfactual history, which — as The Guardian notes — are having a bit of a moment on television. The idea of commingling history with fantasy is especially seductive because by nature and by name, the two are polar opposites. History is often treated onscreen with a rigidity and straightforwardness suggestive of objective truth — even while most historical films are wildly, and self-awarely inaccurate. It can be especially fun to counter this norm with ridiculous suggestions of how certain histories may have came to pass.
In advance of the release of 11.22.63, we’ve put together a list of the movies and TV series that weave the goofiest or most peculiar subplots into history, either keeping the ultimate historical outcome intact while insinuating odd, alternate causalities, or going off the rails entirely.
Dick is one of the most sustained examples of a ridiculous explanation of history: released before Deepthroat actually revealed himself as Mark Felt, this movie’s hilarious conceit was that two 16-year-olds — played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams — became, by happenstance, the walkers for Richard Nixon’s dog, Checkers… ultimately leading to their discovery that the man with whom they once gleefully shared their weed-infused “Hello Dolly” cookies once kicked Checkers… and, you know, covered up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, based on a novel by the co-author (with Jane Austen, of all people!) of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, sees Abraham Lincoln doing all of the usual Abraham Lincoln things — except that there’s ample vampire hunting interwoven in it. But even the vampiric digressions don’t exactly rewrite history: one of the last scenes sees Lincoln heading to the Ford Theater. So, you see, the facts match up; this is a plausible historical theory.
Abraham Lincoln v. Zombies
This direct-to-video film — a proud, unabashed member of the “mockbuster” genre, arriving right around the same time as Vampire Hunter — can be seen as a revisionist fantasy of the revisionist fantasy you see in the previous slide. Similarly, in this film, the Lincoln character hits a couple of the historical marks on real-Lincoln’s own trajectory, and it culminates with Booth assassinating him at the theater. (Though, he allows it to happen, because he of course knows full well that he’s about to turn into a zombie). Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before we see Abraham Lincoln v. Zombies v. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.
American Horror Story: Coven
Kathy Bates’ Coven character, Delphine LaLaurie, was a real and horrific person (whose house, for a moment, was oddly owned by potential vampire Nicolas Cage). As in AHS, the real life Delphine LaLaurie is presumed to have tortured and murdered her slaves, after seven brutally mutilated slaves were found in her attic following a fire in her home. She disappeared — but it’s thought that she escaped to Paris, rather than, as in AHS, being buried alive by Angela Bassett after having taken an immortality elixir, then getting dug up by Jessica Lange in the present and questioning her history of brutality after watching Roots.
Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
As depicted in this film, Diane Arbus was an influential photographer who focused on various marginalized communities. And she did split with her husband, Allan Arbus. But as the film’s title insinuates, she was not actually led to become a famous photographer of the American fringes by a neighbor with Hypertrichosis who stole her heart and opened her world to the photographic opportunities of the lives of dominatrices and dwarves.
The Da Vinci Code
This film, like the book on which it’s based, centers around a mystery fueled by the idea that Da Vinci’s The Last Supper contains an image of Mary Magdalene that people mistook to be Apostle John, and that Da Vinci’s insinuation within his painting was, in fact, that Magdalene herself was the Holy Grail, and that she and Jesus were actually a couple, and bore children. From this theory, it weaves an elaborate historical/conspiratorial narrative to show how the Catholic Church has covered up this information, as well as the fact that Jesus’ descendants still roam the Earth, and the fact that one of them starred in Amélie.
This is one of the most famously and problematically revisionist movies — and unlike many on this list of alternative explanations of historical events, this isn’t particularly self-aware about it. But apart from all of the revisionism typical of narratives depicting white colonists interacting with the peoples they’d soon oppress, this film also has some even more outlandish explanations for what’s going on: namely, explaining Pocahontas’ and John Smith’s ability to communicate (and eventually romance one another) through the translating sorcery of a singing tree.
The Boys From Brazil
Josef Mengele — the Nazi doctor caught up in the study of heredity, who used his time working at Auschwitz to perform experiments on humans — fled, as the movie depicts, to Argentina and to Paraguay following the defeat of the Axis powers. What he did when he got there, though, does not quite align with his activities in The Boys From Brazil, in which Mengele — played by Gregory Peck — is making a fleet of Hitler clones.
X-Men: First Class
This takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis (though it also flashes back to Erik Lensherr’s time in a German concentration camp). The film suggests that the crisis was started by a former Nazi doctor in collaboration with the USSR as a means of catalyzing WWIII and ultimately gaining world domination, and that all of these efforts were struck down by a team of CIA-collaborating mutants, who could stop those missiles in the sky, as you see above. This isn’t exactly how it played out IRL.
The Man in the High Castle
At this point you probably know that The Man in the High Castle has one of the most quintessential “alternate history” conceits. Rather than re-sculpting the narratives that led to real historical milestones or events, from the beginning it’s about an America that’s been divided up by the Axis Powers — who, in this alternate universe, won WWII. Interestingly, it’s implied that in this world, history was aligned with real-world history for a while, and then began forking into another reality where, for instance, FDR was assassinated.
In the world of Watchmen, the Vietnam War was won by the United States — thanks to the help of of a blue, naked apparition — and Richard Nixon got a third term. Now, as tensions continue to rise between the United States and the Soviet Union in an alternate 1985, the sinewy blue guy with radiant flesh and some other vigilante superheroes have to save the world from a plot that entails the destruction of two major cities.
This movie might seem like your usual fictionalized but history-aligned film, until at its close it decides to veer from history entirely, making a blatant break-up with history its explosive twist. Specifically, it sees all of the Nazi bigwigs burning alive in a movie theater as the image on the screen morphs into prerecorded footage of Shoshanna — the woman whose whole family was killed by Nazis — telling them they’re about to be killed by a Jew.
Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall may not be a deliberately fantastical spin on history like some of these other films — but it seemed to fit well, especially alongside Dick, wherein the insertion of fictional characters into famous histories attempts to explain the histories in the ways we’ve always known them. But in the case of Stonewall — which, unlike Dick, is not satirical, but rather a whitewashed and sentimentalized portrait of an uprising — this form of substitution came in the form of Danny, the surrogate for straight, white viewers. Instead of having Marsha P. Johnson throw the first brick and instigate the game-changing riots, it’s… that nonexistent kid pictured above.