Preview: Lisey’s Story on Apple TV+
“Grief is a Bool hunt”
Lisey’s Story, the Apple TV+ adaptation of Stephen King’s 2006 novel of the same name, begins its eight-episode run on Friday, June 4. The miniseries features a stellar cast, including Julianne Moore as Lisey Landon, Clive Owen as her husband Scott and Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her sisters Amanda and Darla. Rounding out the cast are Ron Cephas Jones as Professor Dashmiel and Dane DeHaan as Jim Dooley. All eight episodes were scripted by King and directed by Pablo Larraín, who previously helmed the bio-pic Jackie.
King frequently cites Lisey’s Story as his favorite of his novels. His general policy towards adaptations of his books and stories is that he is either “all in” or “all out.” In the latter case, he has cast and script approval but he generally leaves the directors and other producers alone. However, he was heavily involved with every facet of the Lisey’s Story adaptation. In the video included below he says, “I thought if someone was going to screw it up, I used to tell my wife that no one was going to screw it up more than me.”
Before we get into a discussion of the series, here’s the trailer.
Lisey’s Story is a polarizing novel—it invokes strong emotions; people either love it or hate it. The detractors seem put off by the book’s “inside language”—the language developed by a couple in a long-term intimate relationship. The series preserves some of that, but it isn’t as pervasive as in the novel. Still, the series is quite faithful to its source material. As King says,“I wanted to tell the story, but I wanted to make it better.”
I can’t remember a King adaptation where the first thing I want to talk about is its overall look and feel. Not since Kubrick’s The Shining has direction and cinematography played such a integral role in a King movie or series. Some of the previous movies or shows have looked impressive, but Lisey’s Story is a cut above them all. It is gorgeous in every element of its production. Even the most terrible things are beautiful.
The wonderful opening credits featuring marionette versions of Scott and Lisey set the tone. I’m no expert on all the terms involved in what happens on the screen, but I am in awe of the way scenes are framed, the wide variety of point-of-view shots, the tracking and perspective…even some focus pulls that remind me of Hitchcock. The occasional long, continuous take. At times, the series verges on noir, especially in scenes depicting Scott’s youth. The words that keep coming to mind are “artistic” and “stylistic.” It will bowl people over.
The beginning is enigmatic—a little girl on a swing (young Lisey, we learn) morphs into adult Lisey on a swing followed by an epigram from Scott Landon accompanied by dramatic music as the scene changes to Lisey in a steaming outdoor swimming pool surrounded—indeed almost overrun—by vegetation. Viewers will instantly know this isn’t the usual King adaptation. It’s dreamlike and—I’ll say it again—artistic and stylish.
The series is a kind of Bool Hunt—Scott’s term for the treasure hunts his older brother used to create for him when they were kids. Lisey has buried many of the inconvenient memories of her life with Scott. One clue leads to another as she forces herself to remember the disturbing and incredible things she learned about her husband—or, rather, is forced to remember by her husband.
The series has a couple of recurring images/motifs: a working model lighthouse that is both elegant and, at times, creepy; and water. Lisey does most of her deepest remembering while immersed in the swimming pool, and running water serves as a gateway.
Although rockstar writer Scott Landon is at the heart of everything that happens, the series focuses primarily on his wife and her sisters (reduced from four in the novel to two). It’s been two years since Scott died when the series opens, and Lisey is still coming to terms with life without her longtime partner. She’s trying to learn how to live alone and manage her grief, while at the same time dealing with a persistent university professor who wants Scott’s unpublished papers, a psychotic and violent stalker who refuses to address Lisey as anything other than “Missus,” and an older sister who occasionally goes into prolonged fugues.
Moore is uniformly excellent playing a traumatized woman who, for many years, was treated like her husband’s appendage. When she is introduced at all, they get her name wrong, or say things like, “and his widow, of course”—an afterthought.
She met Scott before he was a published writer and, as their relationship evolves, Scott reveals things about himself and his family that are difficult for Lisey to process. She sometimes wonders if she’s living with a crazy person who has an unsettling habit of disappearing. The series is a mobius strip of memories, with Lisey-in-the-present remembering Lisey-and-Scott-that-were as Scott relates terrible stories from his childhood in Pennsylvania.
Joan Allen is a revelation as Amanda Debusher. She spends long sections of the series in a semi-catatonic state, but you can always tell there’s something going on with her even when she’s “gone.” When she isn’t staring into the distance, she’s a real pistol. She had Scott have a strong bond. They “speak the same language,” Amanda says, and he brought her back from her previous fugue.
Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Darla is the character who knows the least about what’s going on, so she is, in a sense, the avatar of the audience. Part of her role is to disbelieve everything and to force the other characters to explain. She strongly resists supernatural explanations but is gradually forced to confront the “reality” of her sisters’ experience. She is jealous, nagging, caustic, judgmental, straight-talking and pragmatic, traits that will prove useful as events unfold.
The villain of the piece is Jim Dooley, played by Dane DeHaan, a “camper” (what they call fans of Scott Landon) who believes he knows more about the writer than Lisey does. He’s a loner who hates women (his mother loved him too much and he advises men not to get married or to be careful of their wives if they are) who is so obsessed with his favorite writer that he’ll stop at nothing to gain access to the rumored unpublished material Lisey refuses to turn over. This “Deep Space Cowboy” starts with explicit threats of violence and accelerates from there. DeHaan’s portrayal of this disturbed individual is truly chilling, if, perhaps, a little familiar.
The most upsetting section of the series, though, deals with Scott’s childhood. Young Scott is played with wistful, serious and studious earnestness by Sebastian Eugene Hansen. He and his older brother Paul live in virtual isolation with their father, who has paranoia issues, is a conspiracy theorist, watches religious programs and cuts himself (and Paul) to let out the bad. The two boys live in constant fear of him, and the story that unfolds around them is dreadful and heartbreaking.
All roads lead to Boo’ya Moon, that beautiful, creepy, mesmerizing and horrific “other” place that is either the product of young Scott’s imagination—a haven he created so he could escape from his abusive father—or an alternate reality he learned to access. For adult Scott, it was both a place of healing and a source of inspiration—but it is filled with lost souls staring at the myth pool and is also occupied by the “long boy,” an eternally hungry creature that takes the body and keeps the soul. Only glimpses of this entity—another in a long line of King “outsiders”—are shown in the first couple of episodes, but more of it will be revealed as the series unfolds and, trust me, it is the stuff of nightmares.
King doesn’t leave much out from his novel, which accounts for its eight-hour length. Fans of the novel are bound to appreciate its fidelity to the source material and the wholly imaginative and creative way its weirder aspects are depicted. It doesn’t shy away from violence, either—some scenes are hard to watch. Whether people will sign up to Apple TV+ to see the series remains to be seen. Mr. Mercedes suffered somewhat in viewership because it was on a platform that many people didn’t have access to.
Featuring clips from the series and interviews with King, J.J. Abrams, Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, and Pablo Larraín, the above video explores the process King underwent to adapt and bring Lisey’s Story to life. He discusses why it was important to take the reigns on this project.
No one can plant Easter Eggs like King, the most prominent of which can be seen about half an hour into the first episode (the first two episodes will be available on Friday). Pay attention to a certain book that becomes the focus of the library scene. Of course there are mentions of Cleaves Mills and Castle View, and a character can be seen wearing a Little Tall Island t-shirt, but those aren’t Easter Eggs because this is Stephen King’s Maine, after all. You might recognize the name “Horlicks,” and the Fogler Library at the University of Maine gets a cameo. The concept of “doubles” will be familiar to King fans. Scott and Lisey have a getaway at an empty hotel that’s not nearly as creepy as the Overlook, and there’s a bathroom scene at another location that also made me think of Kubrick’s The Shining. The subtlest Easter Egg almost requires viewers to stand on their heads in a later episode, and even then it’s a tough one to spot. I’ll be interested to see how many viewers pick up on it.