It’s been two years since Lisey lost her husband, the renowned novelist Scott Landon. Now, forces — supernatural and entirely natural — compel her to unearth long-buried memories. The recollection is at times painful, and at times tender. A shared intimacy is captured in their private language of made-up words, a lot of which is babytalk.
He in fact calls her “babyluv” to the point of exasperating gooeyness. Scott had his demons: inner and literal. Lisey helped him conquer them till she couldn’t. When her older sister goes into a state of catatonia, it is up to Lisey to pull her out of it. But to do so, she must remember how to travel to a world, which harboured Scott’s lifeline before becoming his purgatory.
Stephen King adapts his own 2006 novel Lisey’s Story for the screen in an eight-part miniseries for Apple TV+. Expectations were high with Pablo Larrain at the helm and Darius Khondji behind the camera. Not to mention the cast. As Lisey, Julianne Moore wears a mask of unimaginable grief, starting from a place of deep anguish to fearlessly wading through a cesspool of madness and misery.
She is supported by a cast which includes Clive Owen as Scott, and Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisey’s sisters Amanda and Darla respectively. Only, all their talents are misspent, leaving an adept team of actors and technicians appear less so. The final result, while far from unwatchable, is a tedious underachiever.
Though King prized Lisey’s Story as his favourite in a prolific career, the book was not exactly one of the most cherished triumphs (not for this fan at least). The title of the novel itself was a misleading one. For the story is really Scott’s.
It’s about his troubled childhood with an abusive father, and his creation of a fantasy world (Boo’ya Moon) to escape from it. Before his death, Scott had left Lisey clues in a “bool hunt” to help her recall repressed memories about him. The treasure at the end of the hunt is Scott’s confession on what he finally had to do to escape his father’s madness.
Remembering Scott’s whole story holds the key to saving Amanda and Lisey herself. Lisey must harness the power of the Boo’ya Moon to trap Scott’s “number one fan” Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan), a crazed stalker with homicidal tendencies.
The Boo’ya Moon is home to a pool, which can heal wounds both physical and psychological. It was also a wellspring of infinite creativity for Scott, and it provided him a blank canvas to paint the stories of all his novels. Water becomes a motif for cleansing and rebirth, and Larrain really plays up its cinegenic qualities in its movement and reflection.
The way he films Moore floating in a pool brings to mind how John Everett Millais painted Ophelia, showing water as a force of life and death. Only, Lisey is a less tragic figure, more a redeemer.
Also lurking in the forests of Boo’ya Moon is a terrifying monster which embodies the lingering traumas. King rehashes ideas which have become workaday after 60-odd novels. Childhood trauma was a key theme in The Shining and It.
Parallel dimensions also existed in Rose Madder and The Null. The villainy prowling behind the veil of fandom was never more frightening than Annie Wilkes in Misery. Madness and mourning are not just King’s, but horror’s, most familiar monsters. Furthermore, wielding creation as the supreme weapon against death and destruction is at the core of not just many a King novel, but all art itself.
Lisey’s Story however can’t justify the need for them all to be tied into one story. The series rarely feels organic, compromising the few redeeming elements of the book.
King’s stories have often inspired hard-to-shake images in their translation from page to screen, be it Carrie’s prom night, Annie brandishing a sledgehammer, or Pennywise spying from the sewers. No wonder he is treated as an inexhaustible nest egg by filmmakers and show runners. Larrain, Khondji and the production design team, working hand-in-hand, ensure the world of Boo’ya Moon comes alive.
The orange moon, the boundless pool and the monster do bring out some beauty amidst the horror. But the more time we spend in this secondary world, the less atmospheric it becomes, even distracting us from the more real monsters that ground the story.
The only way to spruce up the story would have been to make the story truly Lisey’s own instead of Scott’s, and abridge it into a tighter four-episode package. But King and Larrain make the mistake of fattening it up, and end up with what is essentially a darkly lit soap that overstays its welcome.
Despite Moore’s earnest performance, the show gets stuck in a twilight zone between hokey and horrifying. It ultimately comes to resemble a ponderous, misshapen beast, much like the one that haunts Boo’ya Moon.
Lisey’s Story premieres on Apple TV+ on 4 June, with new episodes to follow every Friday.