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Lisey’s Story review: Stephen King done with immense highs, abysmal lows

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Given that Stephen King is one of the most popular writers in the world, it’s not surprising his novels and short fiction are regularly adapted into other mediums. What is surprising is how often those new versions fall flat. The good King adaptations that highlight his strengths as a storyteller while downplaying his weaknesses, typically over-writing and clumsy dialogue. Bad King adaptations keep the flaws and add in more, from terrible performances to cheap special effects to sluggish pacing. Then there are the adaptations that fall somewhere in between, inarguably faithful recreations of source material that could’ve used some reshaping in order 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 this middle ground. The plot follows a writer’s widow (Julianne Moore) as she attempts to come to terms with her grief over her dead husband and the legacy he left behind. While clearly heartfelt, the book isn’t one of King’s best. It’s plagued by unintentionally goofy slang and attempts at lyricism, which are intermittently effective at best. The show is a faithful adaptation that lightly expands the source material to fill out eight 50-minute episodes. Scripted by King himself and directed by Pablo Larraín, it’s very much a prestige affair, full of gorgeous visuals, soulful music, and a more-than-qualified cast.

It’s also a mess, partly due to flaws brought over from the book, and partly due to structural problems stemming from a refusal to adequately translate the story to fit the demands of a different medium. Veteran King fans will know from experience that “teleplay by Stephen King” is not a reassuring phrase, and while the writing in Lisey’s Story isn’t always disastrous, it is easily the series’ biggest stumbling block. King’s remarkable gifts as a fiction writer always seem to disappear when he works in a visual medium, and this series is no exception — episodes build and build with no clear goal in sight, and the themes (the secrets of a marriage, the dangers of the creative life, the power of belief) are hit over and over, as though repetition alone was enough to instill meaning. That’s especially bad when it comes to the plot’s fantastical elements, as the more various characters try to explain the inexplicable, the more empty and absurd it becomes.

Photo: Apple TV Plus

What keeps Lisey’s Story from being a catastrophe is its exceptional production design and performances. For all its faults, the miniseries has a shockingly good cast, making clunky dialogue sound almost natural, and rising to and often above the material in ways which, at best, feel legitimately transformative. One of the most difficult challenges facing a King adaptation is finding ways to make the heightened emotions of King’s characters play as grounded and real onscreen. If they’re played too broadly, they can approach camp. Too much restraint, and all drama is gone, ruining any sense of menace or catharsis.

In Lisey’s Story, the balance is more or less dead-on. Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh play Amanda and Darla, Lisey’s sisters. Amanda suffers from periodic bouts of depression and self-harm, while Darla is well-adjusted, but combative. Their relationships with each other feel well lived-in, finding an effective mix between 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 stock role from ever falling completely into cliché, committing to an offbeat intensity and physicality that keeps the character interesting, even when the writing doesn’t always live up to the task.

But the show belongs to Clive Owen as Scott, and especially Julianne Moore as Lisey. The story lives and dies on its ability to convey the complexities and intensity of the Landon marriage, and when it succeeds, it does so largely on the strength of the two actors’ chemistry together, and their ability to effectively deliver some of the more awkward terms in the King lexicon. (“Bool” and “Boo’ya Moon” never stop sounding ridiculous.) At times, given how much of its run time is devoted to flashbacks to the author’s nightmarish childhood, the show threatens to become more Scott’s Story than Lisey’s.

Thankfully, Moore holds her own, delivering a terrific, modulated performance that convincingly sells the character’s sorrow, confusion, desperation, and strength. Moore grounds the more outlandish twists and turns with a practicality that makes the story feel real, even when it demonstrably isn’t. The best scenes with her have a tragedy and beauty that rise above the mawkish to border on the profound. Even if the rest of the show was a complete disaster, it would be worth watching for her work alone.

An uncanny magical-realm vista in Lisey’s Story, with a blood moon, a distant ship on the horizon, and a jumbled rock beach

Photo: Apple TV Plus

The overqualified actors and frequently stunning visual style should’ve made Lisey’s Story a triumph. But neither can completely overcome the questionable decision to deliver most of the backstory via intermittent flashbacks. The plot’s present-day events cover the span of a few days, but the course of those days is flooded with endless glimpses into the past, scenes which often stand well enough on their own, but are arranged in a way that bogs the narrative momentum down to a crawl.

It’s easy to see the motivation behind this decision. As most of the series follows Lisey in her efforts to deal with the fallout from her husband’s death, offering bits and pieces of their lives together is an obvious way to convey the broken-mirror quality of her grief. The series shows her both lost in the past, and gradually coming to terms with it. Her memories routinely invade the present, because that’s how grief works. And in the ideal version of this story, the offbeat rhythms and stop-and-go pace could’ve built to a cathartic, triumphant conclusion.

In a movie, the structure could’ve worked. But this is a seven-hour television show, and the constant reversions rob the narrative of any cumulative effect. Take Scott’s death: It’s clear from the start of the series that he’s gone, but instead of using his end as a way to introduce the characters and offer some perspective on Lisey’s situation, the actual moment of his death is withheld until near the very end of the series. That scene is compelling, but it offers no relevant plot information, and it further takes the focus off Lisey at a point where the show would be better served by putting the dead man more completely in the past. The stakes rise over time, but there’s no concurrent tightening of pace or feeling of build, as every scene is treated with the exact same weight and importance as every other scene. Given that some of the flashbacks don’t even involve Lisey or Scott at all, the result is a mess, with powerful sequences operating in isolation, briefly catching the audience’s attention, only to immediately fall back into the muddle.

That’s not even getting into the story’s supernatural elements, a clumsy metaphor for the creative process and childhood trauma, involving a mystical world with the power to heal and kill. That concept works best in the abstract, as an excuse for arresting imagery and an expression of emotional truth — the more King tries to work it into a recognizable system, the more shallow and inconsistent it becomes, mashing up inspiration, abuse, and death in ways that suggest complexity, but favor blunt solutions and sentimentality.

Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Julianne Moore’s sisters in Lisey’s Story

Photo: Apple TV Plus

There are nods toward disturbed fandoms, mental illness, and authorial legacies, but none of these nods ever truly cohere or pay off. The show also never connects to Lisey and Scott’s marriage in the ways it’s clearly intended to — over and over, we’re told Lisey is special because she was able to give Scott the grounding he needed in the real world, so he could live a relatively healthy and sane life. But that translates into her becoming the sort of wife-as-bystander trope that’s plagued television for decades. Moore and Owen’s performances manage to mitigate that dynamic, but even at their best, they can’t completely escape the material’s inherent limits.

What makes Lisey’s Story such a frustrating experience is that even taking all of this into account, Larraín and King still achieve moments of memorable horror and grace. At its best, the show offers regular glimpses of the experience it might have been under better circumstances, if King had been more willing to reshape his book, or if he’d been comfortable handing off scripting duties to someone else. Moore is terrific, and the rest of the cast isn’t far behind her. The effects work, mixing CGI with intentionally artificial sets, does an excellent job of selling the other world, even when the exposition falters. If nothing else, Lisey’s Story is a thorough expression of its source. Like the novel it’s based on, the series is uneven, intermittently ludicrous, and heartbreakingly sincere. It isn’t a success, but it sure is something.

Lisey’s Story is currently airing on Apple TV Plus, debuting with two episodes on June 4 and airing one episode weekly on subsequent Fridays.

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