Stephen King’s ‘Lisey’s Story’ Cryptically Flows Between Tenderness and Terror
The intimacy of a strong relationship doesn’t always mean happiness with the best qualities of a partner. It can also mean knowing their worst secrets and deepest wounds. That understanding of the complexities of marriage is part of what fuels “Lisey’s Story,” a visually entrancing Apple TV limited series based on Stephen King’s novel, which is one of the most personal in his canon. The man of American gothic letters has also written all eight episodes of this adaptation, while directing duties belong to Pablo Larraín, the acclaimed filmmaker from Chile now gaining wide recognition in the United States. Together their talents prove as combative with each other as a real marriage. While Larraín immerses the viewer in photographic elegance, King’s script is so faithful to the plot points that the metaphors can become confusing. Nonetheless, it is an honest work about a literary life and love, and the dangers of the obsessions great talents can inspire.
The title’s Lisey (Julianne Moore) is a widow in one of those overcast Maine towns that form the eternal geography of the Stephen King world. She lives alone now following the death of her husband, a world famous author named Scott Landon (Clive Owen). Mostly alone at her rural but opulent home, Lisey’s life mostly orbits around her sisters, the eternally envious and cranky Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Amanda (Joan Allen), whose mental instabilities keep landing her in a psychiatric facility. But Lisey soon gets pulled into a vortex of memories and danger when clues appear around the house, left behind by Landon, guiding her towards a powerful secret connected to another realm he would venture into, “Boo’ya Moon.” They key to it all seems to be a shovel Lisey famously used to knock out a would-be assassin who shot Landon during a public event. There is also increasing pressure from a local scholar, Prof. Dashiel (Ron Cephas Jones), for Lisey to hand over Landon’s unpublished material. To obtain it Dashiel makes a dangerous agreement with Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan), a deranged superfan of Landon’s who is willing to go to any murderous length in order to obtain the writer’s unseen work.
On paper bringing King and Larraín together is a brilliant idea. While the director has gained renown in the U.S. for his hypnotic “Jackie,” starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy grappling with the assassination of her husband, and his Oscar-winning “No,” about the 1988 Chilean vote to oust the dictator Augusto Pinochet, Larraín’s roots as a filmmaker are quite morbid. Less known are his Chilean films like “Post Mortem” and “Tony Manero,” about disturbed, murderous personalities wandering their society in the aftermath of the U.S.-backed coup against Salvador Allende. They are gothic, bloody films that bring out the horror of fascism. But he has also told a writer’s story before in 2016’s “Neruda,” still his best film, a sumptuous take on the life of iconic poet Pablo Neruda as he is hounded by Chilean security services over his leftist politics. Larraín’s eye for the literary and unnerving are a perfect fit for a King novel about the craft of writing, but still infused with his trademark thrills and chills. The resulting series, however, can get bogged down in trying to simplify King’s novel while still stretching it out into eight hours of television.
The heart of the series is Julianne Moore, who rises above the material’s clunky structure by bringing an emotional intensity to Lisey. This is a character that requires both toughness and also a precise tenderness. In essence she symbolizes the spouse in the shadows of many great artists. She herself is not a writer or a creative, but in many ways she is Landon’s muse and the stable center that kept him from going completely insane. Individual moments capture this only briefly after a fight where the writer smashes a window or on a trip where he shares details of his abusive childhood. Yet the series always feels as if it is holding back on the real depths of this marriage. We only learn what functions as plot devices, such as Landon suffering under the rages of his demented father in a nightmarish rural childhood. With his older brother Paul (Clark Furlong), a young Landon first discovered the realm of Boo’ya Moon, which can be accessed through water. Boo’ya Moon is a surreal dreamscape of woods and a vast, mystical lake that can heal wounds, with a giant, roaming monster composed of contorting bodies. Visually the place is beautiful to behold, with a red moon that seems taken out of the fiery images from Larraín’s “Ema,” which was denied a proper U.S. release by the pandemic. But what exactly is this place? Why can Landon access it? Why water? Is it heaven or hell or both? King doesn’t always have to provide meticulous explanations if the narrative is lean. In what remains the best recent TV King adaptation, “11/22/63,” an English teacher is shown a doorway into the past so he can travel to the ‘60s and stop the JFK assassination. No explanation is needed for how the doorway got there. What matters is that he changes history and the question of if altering the past is ever truly worth it. As a screenwriter King likes to translate literally to the screen what worked wonderfully as metaphor on the page.
Maybe Boo’ya Moon is meant to be pure metaphor for what King and Larraín wish to say about love and bonds. Yet we never get to spend enough time with Lisey and Landon and see them live life. Their marriage becomes distant and even cold onscreen because the romance is denied good space in eight hours. And for what should be a writer’s story we never get a sense of what Landon wrote, what fueled the stories that made him world famous and only briefly do we even get a glimpse of what his prose sounds like. Moore and Owen played a much more organic marriage briefly in Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 dystopian classic “Children of Men.” Ironically, the thriller outdoes the romance here. Jim Dooley is one of those classic psychos from the Kingverse, raging like a cousin of Annie Wilkes in King’s great “Misery,” the obsessed fan who kidnaps her favorite author so he can revive her favorite character in a new book. Dane DeHaan makes Dooley into a threatening, hateful creature who channels infamous stalkers and killers like Mark Chapman. In one absolutely horrifying sequence he uses a pizza slicer to bloody effect. The story’s metaphors work perfectly with Dooley, because he embodies the fanatic who has turned his celebrity hero into a god. It’s almost a darkly comic nod to book lovers, because here is a villain willing to kill and burn everything in his path just to read what Landon never published. His finale is fittingly Dantenean.
“Lisey’s Story” is not to be dismissed and has a lot that makes it worth viewing. The performances are great, especially Joan Allen, who virtually disappears as the empathetic but tortured Amanda. The final two episodes are riveting in their suspense and morbid terror (fingers get literally crushed), which makes up for what the show could have done more in terms of a gothic romance. When reading the novel one senses King writing directly from experience and from the heart. It is a phantasmagoria that is truly about moments he has no doubt endured with longtime wife Tabitha. As a series much of that comes across in Larraín’s sensuously-composed images, lit by master cinematographer Darius Khondji and scored with poetic elegance by composer Clark. It’s an imperfect piece that can be confusing and hypnotic, uneven but hard to look away from. Maybe it would have worked better as one grand movie. But as it stands it’s a fractured vision as frustrating and immersive as love itself.
“Lisey’s Story” begins streaming June 4 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.