Considering the fact that Stephen King described this novel as his personal favorite of all his works, it was only a matter of time before Lisey’s Story was brought to the screen. As early as 2017, he expressed a desire to see an adaptation made, and specifically for it to be done on television rather than film, as the format would allow for its dense storytelling to be mapped out over a stretch of episodes as opposed to being forced into a condensed two-hour running time. The prolific writer got his wish, with Apple TV+’s new eight-episode limited series, the entirety of which has been adapted to the screen by King himself. The streamer spared no expense in putting together an impressive roster in front of and behind the camera for this new project, with Jackie director Pablo Larraín helming the entire series, Darius Khondji shooting it, and Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Joan Allen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Dane DeHaan among the major names starring in the ensemble.
In the shortest terms possible, Lisey’s Story is about a widowed woman, Lisey Landon (Moore), who comes under the threat of a disturbed man named Jim Dooley (DeHaan) due to his obsession with the work of her late writer husband, Scott (Owen). Naturally, there’s far more going on in Lisey’s world than just this, as King balances the Dooley side of the story with Lisey’s grief over the loss of her husband, as well as her relationship with her sisters, the troubled Amanda (Allen) and Darla (Leigh), the sister who is just trying to keep it all together.
Balance is the tricky word for Lisey’s Story, as the series falls apart the more it tries to tie these disparate elements together. King is doing so much with this tale, but ultimately it can’t escape from feeling like three or four different stories all awkwardly trying to be crammed together, with several of them having importance for an episode or two before mostly disappearing for long stretches of time until they reemerge far after you’ve forgotten all about them.
The most successful of this bunch comes in the examination of Lisey’s mourning, and her journey to figure out how to be alone without her husband around anymore. Through flashbacks we see Lisey’s relationship with Scott, how the two of them bonded, how he opened up to her, and how he let her into his head that is filled with childhood trauma. His genius as a writer comes from a tortured past (that classic trope of King and many others), and the many flashbacks to his deeply disturbing past with his father (a perfectly cast Michael Pitt) feel like they could be their own movie entirely. Again, it’s an element of the series that clashes harshly with the fantastical side of this story, as Scott takes Lisey into the place where he escapes to – a separate plane of existence known as “Boo’ya Moon”. Yes, Boo’ya Moon.
As can sometimes happen with King’s writing being translated to screen, there is an adherence to the text in Lisey’s Story that doesn’t come across as well on film as it may have on paper. Perhaps people saying things like Boo’ya Moon, “bool hunt”, and “Sweetheart Hill” doesn’t seem odd on the page, but in the series here not even actors as talented as Moore and Owen can make them sound anything less than ridiculous. With King adapting his own material, there was even less of an opportunity to kill some of his darlings, and many of his worst tendencies come in to wreak havoc on the elements of the series that actually do work.
Chief among the bad seeds is the nasty evil do’er himself, Jim Dooley. While DeHaan commits (and then some) to the performance, the character is such an oddball, over-the-top villain that he never gels with the rest of the series. King opens the door for some interesting examinations on the toxic nature of fame, the idea that someone as beloved as Scott (or King himself) would naturally invite obsessives who can take their adoration of an artist they’ll never truly know to an extreme. Unfortunately, those doors remain open without the writing ever walking into the room. We never get a genuine exploration of these themes, as the story quickly moves on into Dooley being nothing more than a mentally disturbed violent attacker, unleashing gratuitous physical abuse on characters that feels unnecessarily cruel to make the audience sit through.
Dooley is the storyline in Lisey’s Story that works the least, largely because it collides so harshly with the elements that do work, like the thoughtful approach to Lisey’s grieving process, which is channeled through a tremendous performance from Moore. Also doing excellent work is Joan Allen, a cinematic legend getting some of her best material in years. Allen has to do a lot of heavy lifting with a character who could (and occasionally does) veer into some questionable depiction of mental illness over the course of the series. However, Allen brings so much humanity and inner life to the character, and she is mostly able to salvage her from some of the surface level theatrics that King and Larraín employ. It’s a tough job, as the nuance of the character is conveyed internally, and they’re lucky to have someone as skilled as Allen to make it work as well as it does.
The bond between the three sisters is something that resonates throughout Lisey’s Story, especially in the second half as familial relationships get more focus, with us seeing how they can harm and heal people in equal measure. Unfortunately, that second half also means the inevitable collision of all of these vastly opposing storylines, leading to some seriously awkward attempts at fusing the Dooley plot into everything else. It doesn’t go well, leaving a lot of unsatisfying bits that make you question how well-equipped King was to handle this sort of subject matter. If nothing else, it creates a somewhat fascinating cacophony of parts that are all trying to fit into the same box that they most certainly do not belong in together. It will be up to the individual viewer how much they want to take from the good and how much they take from the bad.
Lisey’s Story premieres on Apple TV+ on June 4th with its first two episodes, followed by a new episode releasing each week. All eight episodes were watched for this review.