Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews Lisey’s Story, a Stephen King adaptation for Apple TV+.
Stephen King has written more than eighty books, many of them now considered classics, but when asked about his favorite, he often cites a lesser-known title: Lisey’s Story. The 2006 fantasy romance is partly inspired by the aftermath of an incident that almost killed him. It’s a complicated story about processing grief, unveiling childhood trauma, and delving into the imagination. I wish audiences could see what King sees in it, but at least on screen, in an Apple TV+ limited series directed by Pablo Larraín (Jackie) and written by King himself, the story is utterly incomprehensible.
On paper, this ambitious adaptation of Lisey’s Story has everything going for it, from a star-studded cast including Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joan Allen, and Dane Dehaan, to J.J. Abrams being counted among its producers. It’s also one of only a handful of times that King himself has written the teleplay for an adaptation of one of his works.
Despite all this, the resulting series is so muddled and overstuffed with time (and world) jumps that it’s difficult to even tell what story is being told. This much is clear: Lisey (Moore) is the widow of a famed writer named Scott Landon, who almost died after being shot by a crazed fan — and who did die sometime later. A professor (Ron Cephas Jones) has been pressing her for any unpublished writing her husband may have left behind, and he’s recruited an out-of-control superfan (Dehaan) to shake her up a bit. Meanwhile, Lisey and her sister Darla (Leigh) are trying to help a third sister, Amanda, (Allen), who is alternating between cutting fits and periods of catatonia.
Got all that? Well, that’s only the half of it. There’s also the matter of Scott’s repressed childhood memories — or, rather, Lisey’s apparently repressed memories of him telling her his memories. These memories involve, among other things, a paranoid, abusive father, a potentially demonic child, and another world called Boo’ya Moon. The series spends a lot of time in Boo’ya Moon, a purple-hued realm that seems to consist solely of cottony-looking plants, a seashore full of figures wearing what appear to be latex veils, and a monster that’s both gross and inexplicable. On top of all that, the characters also travel to Boo’ya Moon via water … by regurgitating streams of water into each others’ mouths.
As you may have gathered, Lisey’s Story is all a bit silly. The few parts that aren’t silly are disorienting, such as the poor transitions between multiple timelines, including some that seem like they’re meant to be many years earlier but make no attempt to de-age or recast their leads. The editing and direction fail to cohere, to the point that, with so many timelines in play, it’s sometimes difficult to tell which characters are even in the same room together within a scene. There’s no internal logic to Lisey’s Story, and there’s little formal filmmaking logic, either.
The series is also frequently overwrought; Lisey spends a lot of time desperately screaming to the heavens, at her dead husband, or at whoever happens to be around. The score works overtime to create a sense of drama, often crowding out the dialogue in the process. And while King’s works always have a unique vocabulary, this story in particular is crammed with goofy phrases that undercut any sense of tension, from the term “bool hunt” to Lisey’s nickname of “Babylove,” to a creature called “long boy.”
So the series might be incoherent to casual fans, but will King aficionados enjoy it? Well, not necessarily. Much of Lisey’s Story hinges on Lisey’s love for Scott, but it’s a love that’s explained rather than demonstrated. We see scenes from early in their relationship, sure, but they’re devoid of chemistry, or even any convincing evidence that either half of the couple is a real person with interests or personality. We’re meant to believe Lisey loves Scott because the series says she does, again and again. All of the parts of the story that echo King’s real-life — Scott’s fear during his near-death experience, Lisey’s strength in the face of hardship, and even the tangled relationship between writers and fans — are hollowed out on screen, lacking any ability to make emotional impact thanks to the disjointed series structure.
There are a few scenes in Lisey’s Story that work well, namely those that include all three adult sisters — a trio of powerful actors — and some of Scott’s childhood memories. Young actor Sebastian Eugene Hansen plays Scott as a sympathetic child, and these scenes provide the series’ most tense and unpredictable moments. Unfortunately, there’s so much going on in Lisey’s Story that they also feel as if they could belong to a different series altogether.
We’re living through a Stephen King adaptation renaissance that began with 2017’s IT and has included works like Gerald’s Game, Doctor Sleep, and The Outsider. With roughly two dozen different King-inspired projects in development, Hollywood will have plenty more chances to get the horror master’s best works right. That’s a good thing because the sooner this take on Lisey’s Story gets lost to history, the better.