For the Apple TV+ miniseries “Lisey’s Story,” Stephen King has taken it upon himself for what he has described as one of his own favorite books, the story of a writer (dead, not quite dead) and the woman who loves him.
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It’s an A-list cast. Clive Owen successfully plays Scott, the writer, on par with King himself, but also with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He’s been dead for a few years when the story begins – the novel is partially inspired by King’s brushes with death – but will appear in abundance, in flashbacks, dreams, visions and a kind of purgatory where a lot of crucial action will take place, and in which certain characters will travel with relative ease. Julianne Moore plays Lisey, Scott’s widow. Joan Allen is her sister Amanda, who has mental health issues, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is her sister Darla, who does not. Dane DeHaan plays the demented fan who directs one of the two violent storylines; Michael Pitt is Scott’s father, who controls the other. Ron Cephas Jones plays an academic with an inordinate sense of entitlement – another brand of misguided admirer. (The story plays in parts as a variation on King’s themes”misery.” As you can imagine, he’s had a lot of experience with readers who thought he was texting them or stealing their thoughts, or owed them something because they felt they owed him something.)
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Although King has stated his distaste for Stanley Kubrick‘The Shining’, ‘Lisey’s Story’ seems to be derived from the tempo, composition and camera work, with a similar emphasis on scenes where a few bodies are placed in a large space. At least it swings for something big and cinematic and artistic and deep, which you could consider a good or a bad plan. It is the kind of work that some will find unspeakably beautiful and others unbearably tiring. Recognizing the beauty and production values, and some excellent performances, I found it better than unbearable, but slightly less than beautiful.
Directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (“Jackie” is one of his American films), it creates an air of mournful dread from the first frame and rarely takes its foot off the pedal; it’s almost always spooky, even when characters are enjoying themselves for a while, which has the effect of undermining the spookiness. And where the story on the page is full of King’s stream-of-consciousness mundane asides – like the cost of a plastic bucket and where it was bought – suggesting that the characters sometimes do normal things normally, the miniseries is almost all peaks and valleys, torments and ecstasy, with a mournful score and a muted palette. It gets very dark at times – literally dark; anyone who had trouble with the last season of “Game of Thrones” has been warned. (There’s also a lot of whispering and a little howling, so adjust your volume accordingly.)
King begins the novel, which is dedicated to his wife, author Tabitha King, with “To the public, the husbands of well-known writers are almost invisible.” Yet he grants Lisey a small life of her own; she’s an asset, a sidekick, sometimes a savior from her famous writer wife, and a bit of an action heroine, but with no intellectual interests, or hobbies, or even any sort of job of her own. (“From the first moment she felt interest coming from him… which she could hardly believe,” King writes, “because he’s so much smarter and so talented.”) She doesn’t even arrange his papers, the MacGuffin who is the present day triggers plot and turns DeHaan’s obsessed psychopath on. Despite Scott’s statement, “You are every story,” among the oft-repeated mutual promises of love, she’s hardly a muse.
This is true for the television version, but Moore, as an actress that she is, gives Lisey presence and strength – she goes all in, without going over the top. The performers are indeed committed from head to toe, and if Owen’s doing less well than King’s quasi-stand-in, it’s a less profitable role, in which he is regularly called upon to stare into space, in the voice of his many younger self – a little boy growing up in a strange, ghostly household – and speaking on behalf of the author about creative matters: ‘Every poet, artist, storyteller, they go to the pool; it is dangerous, but it also heals and renews, just like the human imagination.” (The water motif – there are real pools, ordinary and magical – here is extended to good effect as a portal to Boo’ya Moon, the other world of the story.)
Ghosties and ghoulies and Stephen King beasts: TV has become a hell of our literal and metaphorical fears.
As a screenwriter on the miniseries, King – who can go on for pages regarding what can easily be said in a paragraph – did a good job of cutting scenes down to their bare essentials, and what he’s added tends to help the story. expand and clarify. That Leigh’s Darla has gotten more to do here, closer to the action, is a happy change, as she’s not ravaged by alien suckers or saddled with a lot of pain or, for that matter, under the spell of a great love – but she is real and funny, in an eight-hour series where there’s almost nothing else, grounding the story when she shows up. DeHaan’s character has also been given new scenes to amplify his obsession. Like the book, the telefilm is non-linear and multi-planar, and it’s not that too much happens, but that what happens happens slowly – meaning the (very) violent parts take a long time – and the story comes back on its own. It can feel like a bit of a slog. Still, fans of the novel should appreciate the screen translation unless they’re particularly attached to some cut-away minor characters and plot digressions. Boo’ya Moon is beautifully rendered – it has the feel of 19th century fantasy paintings – and the monster is depicted more extensively than in the novel, so you only have to look up the definition of “spotted.”
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