“Behind every great man is a great woman,” as the saying goes, and when he wrote Lisey’s Story, Stephen King wanted to pay tribute to his wife, Tabitha. While King claims the book isn’t a replica of his own personal life, he’s also made it clear that Lisey’s Story was also, in some ways, Tabitha King’s story. On top of that, the prolific writer has said for years that he wanted to turn Lisey’s Story into a TV series.
King finally gets his wish with the Apple TV+ series Lisey’s Story, a maddeningly muddled saga that starts off remarkably strong before going completely downhill. King is on hand to write all the scripts, something he’s never really done before for a TV series, and it shows. There’s nothing episodic here. It’s one sprawling story; a novel uncomfortably stretched across eight episodes.
When we meet Lisey (pronounced Lee-See) Landon (Julianne Moore), she’s been mourning her dead husband Scott (Clive Owen) for two years. Scott was a wildly popular and wildly successful novelist, and Lisey has spent most of her life living in his extra-large shadow. Now, Scott is gone, and Lisey seems to be adrift. She has no real daily routine – she simply putters around her sprawling estate, or checks in with her sisters, the sassy, no bullshit Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh, so damn good here with so little to do) and the mentally unstable Amanda (Joan Allen). (Lisey has three sisters in the novel, but King wisely cuts that down here, proving he can edit himself, despite what some detractors may claim.)
When Scott died unexpectedly (how he died remains a mystery for most of the series), he left behind a trove of unpublished work. A college professor named Dashmiel (Ron Cephas Jones) wants to get his hands on those writings, but Lisey has no interest in giving them to him. Desperate, Dashmiel calls in the wildly unstable ultra Scott Landon fanboy Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan) to help persuade Lisey to change her mind. The series tries to let Dashmiel off the hook a bit by suggesting he doesn’t fully grasp how dangerous Dooley is when he sends him Lisey’s way, but that’s a crock – anyone with eyes can see Dooley is bonkers, primarily because DeHaan’s performance is extremely unhinged. It’s a series of weird tics and odd speech, and while it’s plenty effective – he’s creepy! – Dooley also starts to come across as an inhuman caricature rather than a fully-formed person.
In the midst of all this, Lisey’s sister Amanda has a nervous breakdown and ends up in a mental hospital, catatonic. These events begin to trigger memories in Lisey – memories she buried so deep that it’s almost like she has amnesia. This process of remembering allows director Pablo Larraín and his team of editors to continuously jump back and forth in time. Larraín’s visual approach to this is fascinating, in the sense that the filmmaker trusts us to understand what’s happening, and when it’s happening. There’s no trickery; no dissolves or sound effects to signal the shift. Instead, the past and present roll into each other like waves coming in and out. This approach initially tricks the viewer into thinking Lisey’s Story is better than it is.
I’m a big Stephen King fan, and I’ve seen every Stephen King adaptation under the sun, so it was a wonderful treat to watch the first two episodes of Lisey’s Story absolutely convinced I was watching, if not the best King adaptation ever, at least one of the most interesting. These first two episodes strongly resemble Larraín’s excellent film Jackie, another story about a widow reckoning with the loss and legacy of her famous husband.
But then the cracks began to show, and it became very clear that a TV series was probably not the best approach to Lisey’s Story. King and Larraín would’ve been better off cutting this down to maybe four parts, or even just a movie, rather than an eight-episode saga that’s so poorly paced it starts to border on unwatchable. Part of watching Lisey’s Story involves getting sucked into the story’s mythology, which means there’s a lot of exposition going on here. Too much of it, in fact. And it starts to get repetitive.
Here’s the catch: Amanda isn’t just catatonic. She’s actually lost in a magical land known as Boo’ya Moon – yes, that’s really the name, and it’s one of several annoyingly cutesy phrases that King throws out here. Scott always calls Lisey “Babyluv.” Scott designs a scavenger hunt for Lisey, but he calls it a “Bool Hunt,” which results in the word “Bool” being said, or written, over and over again. And the land of Boo’ya Moon is haunted by a towering monster known as a Long Boy. The design of this creature – a behemoth with a body comprised entirely of writhing, screaming human beings – is admittedly scary, but every time you get close to being frightened you remember this thing is called a Long Boy, and all effectiveness goes out the damn window.
Lisey knows about Boo’ya Moon, but she claims she believed it was a made-up place – somewhere that Scott and his older brother Paul would pretend to escape to in order to get away from their crazy, abusive father. But no, it turns out Boo’ya Moon is real, and you can get there with the help of running water. The water angle is actually established pretty quickly – we see flashbacks where Lisey walks into a room where Scott is supposed to be, only to find water running and Scott missing. The minute Lisey turns off the water, Scott appears, as if by magic. So far, so good. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it doesn’t have to.
Unfortunately, King’s scripts are working really hard to hammer this home, to the point where we actually get an entire episode where Lisey has a series of flashbacks that teach her a lesson. That lesson: use water to get to Boo’ya Moon. But again: we (and Lisey) already knew that! It’s been established! We do not need a full episode explaining it further. Moments like this underline that Lisey’s Story isn’t meant to be binge-watched – it’s unfolding weekly. And yet, King and Larraín haven’t made an episodic series. They’ve just told one big story broken across eight parts, so much so that some episodes don’t even have real endings – they just cut to black and then the next episode picks right back up where we left off. This leads to serious pacing problems, and Larraín attempts to compensate with flashbacks upon flashbacks upon flashbacks, like a labyrinthine puzzle box. The monotony is occasionally broken by bursts of graphic violence, like when Dooley tortures Lisey with a pizza cutter of all things (that may sound a tad silly, but it’s genuinely unnerving to watch).
While the constant blend of past and present seems neat and even fascinating it first, it begins to bog the series down. By constantly moving back in time, Lisey’s Story begins to lose momentum. And there are long, looooong stretches devoted to revealing Scott’s incredibly traumatic childhood that suck all the life out of the show.
As you might notice, we’re talking a lot about Scott here, and that’s another problem. This might be called Lisey’s Story, but nearly every moment of the show is devoted to Scott. When we spend time with Lisey after Scott’s death, pretty much the only thing she talks about is Scott. The mysteries she’s trying to unlock aren’t her mysteries – they’re Scott’s. A case could be made that Lisey hasn’t learned to let Scott go yet, and that’s why he occupies so much of this narrative. But while that may work on the printed page, where we can really get into Lisey’s head, it doesn’t work in live-action. Lisey feels like a supporting player at every turn.
Moore, one of our finest actors, is oddly lukewarm here. She nails the raw emotion, and her interactions with Leigh are fun in a bickering sibling way. But there are also times when Moore seems like she can’t fully commit herself to this material – there’s a moment where she’s meant to scream in rage and pain, and it comes across as half-hearted. Perhaps a bad take mistakenly found its way into the final cut. Perhaps this entire adaptation was a mistake. Oh well, we’ll always have Boo’ya Moon, Babyluv.
Lisey’s Story will debut globally with the first two episodes on Friday, June 4, 2021, followed by one new episode weekly, every Friday, exclusively on Apple TV+.
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