Given that Stephen King is one of the most popular writers in the world, it is not surprising that his novels and short stories are regularly adapted for other media. What is It is surprising how often these new versions stay flat. The good King adaptations that highlight his strengths as a storyteller while downplaying his weaknesses, typically overwriting and awkward dialogue. Bad King customizations keep the bugs and add more, from terrible performances to cheap special effects to sluggish pace. Then there are the adaptations that are somewhere in between, undeniably faithful replicas of source material that could have used some reworking to appeal to a wider audience.
Lisey’s story, the new Apple TV Plus miniseries that brings King’s 2006 horror fantasy novel to the small screen, sits firmly in that middle ground. The plot follows the widow of a writer (Julianne Moore) who tries to come to terms with her grief over her dead husband and the legacy he left behind. While the book is clearly heartfelt, it’s not one of King’s best. It is plagued by unwanted goofy slang and lyrical attempts that are at best intermittent. The show is a faithful adaptation that slightly expands the source material to fill eight 50-minute episodes. Written by King himself and directed by Pablo Larraín, it’s a prestige affair full of great graphics, soulful music and a more than qualified cast.
It’s a mess too, partly due to errors carried over from the book and partly due to structural issues resulting from the refusal to adequately translate the story to suit the needs of another medium. Veteran King fans will know from experience that “Stephen King’s Teleplay” is not a comforting phrase, and while writing in the Lisey’s story isn’t always catastrophic, it’s easily the biggest stumbling block in the series. King’s remarkable aptitude as a novelist always seems to fade when he works in a visual medium, and this series is no exception – building and building episodes with no clear aim in sight, and the themes (the secrets of a marriage, the dangers of a creative life , the power of belief) are hit again and again, as if repetition alone was enough to convey meaning. This is especially bad when it comes to the fantastic elements of the plot because the more different characters try to explain the inexplicable, the emptier and more absurd it becomes.
What keeps Lisey’s story What is of a disaster is its exceptional production design and performance. For all its flaws, the miniseries has a shockingly good cast that makes chunky dialogue sound almost natural, and elevates and often surpasses the material in ways that feel legitimately transformative at best. One of the toughest challenges a King adaptation faces is figuring out ways to make the heightened emotions of King’s characters so grounded and real on screen. If they are played too wide, they can approach the camp. Too much reluctance and all dramas are gone, any sense of threat or catharsis ruined.
in the Lisey’s story, The Libra is more or less dead. Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh play Amanda and Darla, Lisey’s sisters. Amanda suffers from periodic depression and self-harm, while Darla is well adjusted but combative. Their relationships with one another feel well lived and find an effective mix of intensely frustrating and heartbreakingly sincere. As Jim Dooley, the stalker who serves as the main antagonist for much of the miniseries, Dane DeHaan prevents a standard role from ever becoming completely clichéd and commits to an unusual intensity and physicality that keeps the character interesting, even when the writing t always up to the task.
But the show belongs to Clive Owen as Scott and especially Julianne Moore as Lisey. The story lives and dies from their ability to convey the complexities and intensity of the Landon marriage, and when it succeeds it does so largely because of the strength of the chemistry of the two actors and their ability to effectively deliver some of the more uncomfortable terms out of the world King Lexicon. (“Bool” and “Boo’ya Moon” never stop sounding ridiculous.) Sometimes the series threatens to expand, given the fact that it’s devoted to flashbacks to the author’s nightmarish childhood Scott’s story than Liseys.
Thankfully, Moore holds up with a great modulated performance that convincingly sells the heartache, confusion, desperation and strength of character. Moore justifies the more unusual twists with a practicality that makes the story appear real, even if it can be proven not to be. The best scenes with her have a tragedy and beauty that rise above the Mawkish and border on the profound. Even if the rest of the show was a complete disaster, it would be worth a look for her job alone.
The overqualified actors and the often stunning visual style should have done it Lisey’s story a triumph. But none can completely overcome the questionable decision to provide most of the backstory through intermittent flashbacks. Today’s action extends over a few days, but the course of these days is flooded with endless glimpses of the past, scenes that often stand on their own, but are arranged in such a way that they clog the narrative dynamics to the point of creeping.
The motivation behind this decision is easy to see. With most of the series following Lisey in her efforts to cope with the aftermath of her husband’s death, it is an obvious way to offer pieces of her life together to convey the broken mirror quality of her grief. The series shows how she got lost in the past and gradually came to terms with it. Your memories routinely invade the present, because that’s how grief works. And in the ideal version of this story, the edgy rhythms and stop-and-go pace could have turned into a cathartic, triumphant conclusion.
The structure could have worked in a film. But this is a seven-hour television show, and the constant reversals rob the narrative of any cumulative effect. Take Scott’s death: it’s clear from the start that he’s gone, but instead of using his ending to introduce the characters and offer a perspective on Lisey’s situation, the actual moment of his death is held back until just before the end of the Series. This scene is gripping but offers no relevant plot information, and brings Lisey further into focus at a point where the show would be better served if the dead person were moved more fully into the past. The stakes rise over time, but there is no concurrent tightening of the pace or build feel as each scene is treated with exactly the same weight and meaning as any other scene. Given that some of the flashbacks don’t even include Lisey or Scott, the result is a mess, with powerful sequences acting in isolation, briefly grabbing the audience’s attention, only to be instantly messed up again.
That doesn’t even go into the supernatural elements of the story, a crude metaphor for the creative process and childhood trauma that involves a mystical world with the power to heal and kill. This concept works best in abstraction, as an excuse for captivating imagery, and as an expression of emotional truth – the more King tries to fit it into a recognizable system, the flatter and inconsistent it becomes, mixing inspiration, abuse, and death in ways suggest the complexity, but prefer blunt solutions and sentimentality.
There are allusions to dysfunctional fandoms, mental illnesses, and authoring legacies, but none of those innuendos is ever really coherent or paying off. The show also never connects to Lisey’s and Scott’s marriage in the way it is clearly intended – we keep being told that Lisey is special because she was able to give Scott the grounding he needed in the real world for him to live could be relatively healthy and healthy life. But that results in her becoming the kind of woman-as-viewer trope that has plagued television for decades. Moore and Owen’s performances manage to temper this dynamic, but even at best, they cannot completely escape the inherent limits of the material.
What does Lisey’s story such a frustrating experience is that, despite all of this, Larraín and King still experience moments of unforgettable horror and grace. At best, the show offers regular glimpses of the experience it could have had under better circumstances if King had been more willing to redesign his book, or if he felt comfortable handing over scripting assignments to someone else. Moore is great and the rest of the cast isn’t far behind. The effects work that CGI mixes with purposely man-made sets does an excellent job of selling the other world, even when exposure falters. If nothing else, Lisey’s story is a comprehensive expression of its source. Like the novel it’s based on, the series is uneven, intermittently ridiculous, and heartbreakingly sincere. It’s not a success, but it sure is something.
Lisey’s story is currently airing on Apple TV Plus, starts with two episodes on June 4th and airs one episode weekly on the following Fridays.