Stephen King adapts one of his most personal novels in a lavish, well-acted production that maybe should have been six episodes instead of eight.
Stephen King writes Black characters like he’s never met a person of color in his life, and should be barred from ever writing a sex scene again, but the man knows emotions. Whether it’s love, fear, sorrow, rage or the dark something that drives characters like Annie Wilkes in Misery, how the individuals who populate King’s novels feel is at least as compelling as what happens to them. 2006’s Lisey’s Story isn’t just one of his most emotional novels, but among the most personal, written both as a tribute to Tabitha, his wife of more than forty years, and the complicated inner world of being a writer. Named by King as one of his favorites of his own books, he adapted it for Apple TV+, in a visually stunning, atmospheric production directed by Pablo Larraín (Jackie). Alas, as is often the case with King’s novels, as good as it is at times, it’s occasionally weighed down by too much extraneous and expository detail.
Lisey Landon (Julianne Moore) is still reeling from the sudden, unexpected death of her husband, beloved author Scott Landon (Clive Owen), two years earlier. She wanders around their home and property as if shell-shocked, swinging wildly between grief, confusion and anger, with her tough love sister Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh) the only person left in her corner.
Lisey’s other sister, the emotionally disturbed Amanda (a heartbreaking Joan Allen), injures herself and slips into catatonia, forcing Lisey to pull out of the cloud of mourning that surrounds her. With Scott, perhaps the only person who truly understood and empathized with Amanda, gone and unable to help, Lisey’s loss is only compounded, as are her complicated feelings for her family, who never thought much of Scott until he started becoming successful.
Only adding to her problems is the officious Professor Dashmiel (Ron Cephas Jones), who demands that Lisey turn over Scott’s papers and unpublished work to his college. When insulting her doesn’t do the trick, he hires Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan, chewing the scenery like it’s covered in barbecue sauce), an obsessed fan of Scott’s who’s all too eager to force “Yoko Landon” into giving up the papers, violently if he has to. Lisey initially dismisses Jim as just another one of Scott’s Constant Readers, until he starts showing up at her house.
In the midst of all this, Lisey discovers that Scott, evidently foreseeing his own death, has set up a “bool hunt” for her, a phrase from his childhood for a game he and his brother would play to escape their abusive father (played in flashback by Michael Pitt). A scavenger hunt of sorts, it sends her on a wild chase both inside and outside of her home for clues eventually leading her to “Boo’ya Moon,” a fantasy-nightmare universe overseen by the monstrous “Long Boy,” and where broken people like Scott and Amanda retreat to when their trauma becomes too much to bear. While on a quest to save Amanda from being trapped in Boo’ya Moon forever, and to escape an increasingly unstable and dangerous Jim, Lisey reflects on her life with Scott, and the dark, tragic secrets he held.
Lisey’s Story is among Stephen King’s weirder books that don’t involve dark towers and gunslingers. Like a lot of his work, it features characters slipping into alternate universes in order to confront some sort of evil. It’s also an apology of sorts to his wife, an acknowledgment that living with a writer isn’t easy. They’re moody, secretive, and often working out some emotional issues with their work (or trying to, at least). It’s appropriate that he was able to adapt something that’s clearly so meaningful to him, and it’s surprising how much of Lisey’s Story as a miniseries works. Boo’ya Moon is both beautiful and eerie, and one can see how it would be an inviting place to go when the real world becomes too much to take, until Long Boy shows up, at least. It treats with compassion and empathy both the mentally ill, and their loved ones who must care for them with equal parts fear, frustration, and tenderness.
Regardless of the quality of the material, Julianne Moore rarely hits a false note, and she’s particularly good here. Lisey may be a grieving widow, but grief shouldn’t be confused with weakness. She holds her own against her passive-aggressive, resentful sister, and even Jim, the kind of person who gets his message across by leaving dead animals in mailboxes. It’s clear that, as confounding as the bool hunt is sometimes, Scott set it up knowing she was up to the challenge. Though Clive Owen may seem initially a bit miscast as a tortured creative, he manages to pull it off, especially in his quiet scenes with Moore. They have genuine chemistry, which seems to be an increasing rarity in film and television. As painful as some of her flashbacks on their life together are, it’s believable that they bring her comfort at the same time.
It’s surprising how much of Lisey’s Story as a miniseries works.
What doesn’t work is the subplot involving Lisey’s antagonist, psychopathic superfan Jim Dooley. Although obviously a writer of King’s stature would know better than I would about the lengths colleges may go to in order to obtain a writer’s unpublished work, it seems unlikely that Professor Dashmiel would hire Jim to mow his lawn, let alone shake down someone for precious, irreplaceable documents. DeHaan, filthy and always with an unblinking Kubrick stare, looks like he dropped directly out of Cloudcuckooland, and the fact that anyone tolerates his babbling, menacing nonsense for more than ten seconds is far harder to believe than dream worlds and monster boys.
Par for the course with King adaptations, his occasionally precious phrasing (such as Lisey referring to Amanda as “big sissa Manda-Bunny”) doesn’t always sound as good when actual people say it (see Dreamcatcher for a particularly egregious example of this). The primary issue with Lisey’s Story, however, is the one drawback of a writer faithfully adapting his or her own work: almost nothing is left out. This ultimately results in it dragging in places, especially in the middle third of the series, and too often reiterates plot points previously established. One episode is dedicated entirely to Lisey discovering how to get to Boo’ya Moon, something the audience already knows. Long flashback sequences and narrative digressions may be welcome in a novel (surely one written by as vivid an author as King). On film, however, particularly in a limited series, it feels like filler.
Nevertheless, the core message of Lisey’s Story — true love lasts beyond death — is powerful and timeless. King put so much of his heart into both the novel and onto the screen that you can’t help but be moved by it, despite the pacing issues. Of course he didn’t want to take too much away in his adaptation: how do you edit a love letter?
Lisey’s Story premieres today on Apple TV+.