‘Lisey’s Story’ Is the Most Star-Studded Stephen King Adaptation Since ‘The Shining’
The hotly anticipated Apple TV+ series boasts top-tier talent both in front of and behind the camera in service of a stunning (albeit overstuffed) study of trauma.
Directed by Pablo Larraín (Jackie, the upcoming Spencer), produced by J.J. Abrams, shot by Darius Khondji, starring Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Joan Allen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dane DeHaan and Michael Pitt, and written by the author himself, Lisey’s Story may—outside of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—boast the most illustrious pedigree of any Stephen King adaptation ever. Enlisting a plethora of talent makes sense for this eight-part Apple TV+ series (premiering June 4), given that it’s chockablock with everything under the sun. Fantastical worlds, parental abuse, ghosts, torture, murder, scavenger-hunt games, monsters, sisters, trauma, mental hospitals, self-mutilation, flashbacks, possession, psycho killers, and familial and marital issues involving love, trust, anguish, jealousy, and betrayal are all a part of this swirling, bursting-at-the-seams package. There are even some overt nods to Misery and The Shining thrown in for good measure, along with incessant babytalk, make-believe terms, supernatural rules, and recurring motifs.
It is, to put it kindly, a lot.
That’s in keeping with its source material, which King has remixed in ways that are mostly minor (a chronological flip here, a corner-cutting snip there), save for his villain Jim Dooley (DeHaan), who’s been transformed from a one-dimensional Southern-fried sadist to a more fully formed—if still derivative—Annie Wilkes-style obsessive literature fan.
Dooley is an antagonist fixated on the late Scott Landon (Owen), a writer of out-there tomes that made him a national celebrity replete with hardcore acolytes he condescendingly referred to as “deep space cowboys.” At the start of this saga, Scott is dead, although his presence is nonetheless potently felt thanks to the recollections of his widow Lisey (Moore), whom Scott habitually referred to as “babyluv” and who, two years after his passing, now faces the prospect of having to clean out his barnyard office, where crates of scribblings and unfinished projects lie dormant, begging to be rediscovered.
Lisey is in mourning, as well as in denial of the strange events that took place during her marriage to Scott. Those buried secrets come bubbling to the surface once entitled university professor Dashmiel (Ron Cephas Jones) shows up on her doorstep demanding that she hand over Scott’s remaining output, since the public deserves it and she—as merely his bedmate—has no right to keep it for herself. When Lisey balks, he sets upon her the misogynistic Dooley, who proves to be simply the most dangerous of many threats to her well-being. As Dooley makes ever-more-intimidating demands, Lisey is forced to contend with her sisters Amanda (Allen), who’s once more struggling with lifelong cutting compulsions that send her into a catatonic state, and Darla (Leigh), who resents Lisey for her wealth and good fortune. These calamities cause Lisey’s memories to come flooding back in waves and lead her to discover that Scott has left behind a beyond-the-grave treasure hunt of sorts (like the ones his brother made for him as a kid) that he calls “a bool,” with a mysterious prize waiting at the end.
Lisey’s Story’s basic premise is a smorgasbord of relationships and conflicts—many of which echo King’s prior work—and it only grows more complex once Lisey starts letting her mind wander to yesteryear incidents she’d just as soon repress. Scott, it turns out, grew up with an unstable father (Pitt) who believed that they were all cursed with a demonic evil known as “The Bad” (a term that’s an improvement on the book’s “bad-gunky”), which soon got its grip on Scott’s brother. Scott’s harrowing adolescence is intimately connected to his young adulthood, when he demonstrated to Lisey that he had the ability to travel to an alternate universe that he dubbed “Booya Moon” where a giant blood moon hangs in the air, a towering creature known as “The Lost Boy” stalks the forest, and a shimmering pool offers visitors healing, enchantment, and inspiration (because it’s the actual pool of creativity from which all artists drink). Lisey goes there too, at multiple points of a story that’s been shot and edited to dreamily blend the then and now, creating harmonious parallels across space and time in ways both big and small.
Totemic language and objects abound in Lisey’s Story, be it the aforementioned phrases or the crucial shovel and lighthouse model in Lisey’s possession, and Larraín and Khondji bring their winding, disorienting drama to life with misty, shadowy, shimmering beauty. Mirrors, glass, reflective water and figures framed in distant doorways all speak to the transitional heart of this tale, as do the doubles that persistently appear across its eight installments. Another of the director’s sagas about women in a state of anguished crisis, Lisey’s Story looks and—courtesy of Clark’s soundtrack of unholy noises and sparse strings—sounds magnificent. More importantly, it often captures the atmospheric essence of King’s books: that blend of terror, insanity and bittersweet longing for departed loved ones, all wrapped up in classic pop and rock songs (in this case, courtesy of an R&B wedding band) and the burning-embers light of a fall Maine sunset. At its finest, it conjures a prototypical King-ian sense of aching yearning for that which has been lost, even as it recognizes that nothing is ever truly gone—figuratively and, at least for brief moments in this magical fable, literally.
Lisey’s Story’s performances are, for the most part, similarly top-notch: the reliably great Moore captures Lisey’s determination, fierceness, fear and sorrow; DeHaan brings intense sociopathic creepiness to Dooley; Pitt goes fittingly over-the-top as Scott’s perpetually soaked-with-sweat backwoods papa; and Owen radiates warmth and hurt as the scarred Scott. However, like the proceedings themselves, the cast is undercut by a surplus of lunacy. As with his novel, King packs this highly personal narrative full of myriad real-world and fantasyland elements and interests (including patricide and the power of storytelling), but the result is a case of more being less. Just as Moore’s Lisey exhibits various traits and yet never evolves into a fully distinctive human being, the plot itself is overflowing with threads, themes and issues and yet winds up not being about much of anything, save perhaps for Lisey’s quest to seize her female agency, and to confront and let go of her grief—a mainline concern that holds true throughout, but is only one of innumerable things King aims to tackle.
Which is to say, Lisey’s Story is defined by a disconnect between the splendor of its aesthetics and the professionalism of its primary players, and the overstuffed and outlandish nature of its story. Larraín and company eventually venture into all sorts of wild places, some entrancing and others awkward, while hitting numerous notes that will ring familiar to the King faithful. Not all of it coheres, and its late, self-conscious excuses for convenient twists don’t help. But it also has moments of quiet grace in it, as well as an admirable and thrilling dedication (by esteemed artists) to truly go for it, right up to a climax featuring a titanic beast of a thousand souls. Best of all, it flickers, now and again, with that classic King magic, when the emotions, dreams and desires of the past and the present collide and intertwine, no matter how much misfortune has been shouldered or abuse has been suffered, in this world or those beyond.