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Apple TV+'s Lisey's Story is proof that even Stephen King has trouble adapting Stephen King novels

  • "Stephen King’s works have been adapted for the screen an absurd number of times: at the time of this writing IMDB lists 322 entries that are in some way rooted in King’s oeuvre," says Jack Hamilton. "And yet one probably needs at most two hands to count the King adaptations that have actually stood the test of time. For every Stand By Me or The Shawshank Redemption there are more duds than a rabid Saint Bernard can slobber at. (The number of King books that have inspired multiple forgettable screen versions could fill a long shelf all on their own.) For one of the most popular and prolific writers in history, King’s work has proved strangely resistant to adaptation, even if it’s clearly not for lack of trying. The gigantic box office success of Andy Muschietti’s It seems to have opened the floodgates for a new generation of King adaptations, the latest of which, Lisey’s Story, comes in the form of an eight-part series on Apple TV+. Based on King’s 2006 novel, it’s an A-list affair, with a cast headlined by Julianne Moore and Clive Owen and supporting turns by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dane DeHaan, and Joan Allen. It’s also executive produced by J.J. Abrams and directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, whose much-anticipated Princess Diana movie, Spencer, is due later this year. Most notably, every episode of Lisey’s Story was written by King himself. While King has written for film and television on occasion in the past, Lisey’s Story marks the first time that the author has singlehandedly adapted one of his own works in this manner and format...This probably sounds weird as hell and more than a little goofy, and the Apple TV version of Lisey’s Story is some of the most out-there 'prestige' television that you will see this year. The show has a lot to recommend it: it’s visually arresting and full of terrific performances (particularly Joan Allen, as Lisey’s mentally distressed sister Amanda), and the series’ unapologetic embrace of the material’s sheer strangeness makes it a consistently interesting, and occasionally stunning, watch. Larraín’s direction is the show’s strongest component, simultaneously understated and dreamy, with no shortage of vividly creepy imagery. And yet in spite of all this, the series doesn’t really work. The novel’s structure doesn’t easily translate to episodic television, making the show’s 8 episodes feel awkwardly paced, rushing sometimes and dragging in others. King’s ear for dialogue is better tuned to the page than the screen, and some of the exchanges between characters feel leaden, like they’re reading out of a book to each other."


    • As Apple TV+ excels at comedies, Lisey's Story marks its latest high-profile drama series miss: "Apple TV+ has built a decent case, since launching in November 2019, for its existence," says Judy Berman. "What’s surprising is that it’s done so not with the splashy, spendy dramas it keeps rolling out, from The Morning Show to The Mosquito Coast, but on comedies: Ted Lasso, Dickinson, Mythic Quest, Central Park. Sadly, Lisey’s Story ... marks another high-profile miss for the platform. The list of talent involved rivals that of all-star TV projects like Big Little Lies. Stephen King adapted his own acclaimed novel into this psychological thriller, directed by Pablo Larraín (Jackie) and executive-produced by J.J. Abrams, which casts Julianne Moore as the eponymous widow of Scott Landon (Clive Owen), a famous author...While King’s narrative romanticizes the relationship between mental illness and creativity, Larraín’s histrionic direction often reduces these elements to camp. In one scene, a raving Amanda squeezes a pink teacup until it shatters, the shards bloodying her hands. Not even an actor of Allen’s caliber can elevate material this maudlin. Most frustrating of all is the show’s saintly cipher of a hero. Lisey exists solely as a relic of Scott, a mirror of his love. The suffering she endures on his behalf, which predates his death by decades, is depicted with sadistic glee. If this is commentary on the misogyny directed at the self-sacrificing wives of men revered as great artists, it might’ve helped to give the character a discernible personality."
    • Lisey's Story doesn't use Julianne Moore to full effect: "It’s strange to begin a review of a series toplined by Julianne Moore, one of the world’s leading performers, by discussing another character; she is usually the event," says Daniel D'Addario. "As Lisey, Scott’s widow, Moore is predictably excellent, a performer it feels tempting to reduce to 'reliable' even as there’s so much quickfire thought pulsing behind each line reading. But the story doesn’t take sufficient advantage: While it may be Lisey’s story, it’s Scott’s show. And in the wake of his death, which precedes the action of the series, Scott’s inner workings come in for close and often surreal examination — complete with an obsessed fan, played with wild zeal by an untrammelled Dane DeHaan, posing a threat. Lisey’s coming out of grief is, at times, practically a subplot. What’s happening here feels like a tug-of-war. Series director Pablo Larraín established with his 2016 film Jackie that he is an especially keen observer of images and personas. Jackie dealt specifically with a woman’s struggle to maintain dignity in the face of personal loss, making Larraín an intuitive choice for a series in which Moore’s character must grieve but also hold it together to support her sisters (Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh, both excellent). But King wrote each episode, and the novelist’s closeness to the source material — a book he has described as unusually personal and special to him — forces a chunky structure and uncinematic ideas on a story whose core is strong."
    • Lisey's Story puts viewers through a disorienting endurance test: "Lisey (Julianne Moore), still mourning the death of her late husband and world-renowned author Scott Landon (Clive Owen), is left to piece together the fractured timeline of their romance," says Steve Greene. "From the early days of his fledgling career to their beachside wedding to the day of an unexpected attack, Lisey (pronounced LEE-see, by the way) seems to be captive to those time-hopping thoughts, unsure what to do next. All the while, the show is meticulously hinting at a tranquil world beyond memory. It’s rendered in stark blues and oranges, complete with marbleized faces and onlookers both rapt and wrapped. What it all means isn’t abundantly clear, but the longer Lisey’s Story goes, the more it succeeds as a sensory experience than one governed by logic."
    • Lisey's Story lands in the shallow end of the Stephen King cinematic pool, with a convoluted story that mostly squanders its big-name cast: "At its core, King explores themes about the price of fame, extreme fandom and foremost the processes of love, loss and grief, with glimpses of Lisey and Scott's grand romance as the eight episodes -- directed entirely by Chilean director Pablo Larraín -- jump back and forth in time," says Brian Lowry. "King's involvement, however, hasn't fixed what has ailed some past adaptations. Instead, the author winds up muddling and muddying that defies simple genre classification -- 'macabre' would be the operative term -- in too-drawn-out fashion, as Lisey slowly discovers the terrible secrets from Scott's past."
    • What is frustrating is that Lisey’s Story is not is a story of Lisey herself, in so much as she lacks any identity that isn’t linked to Clive Owen's Scott: "She has no career and no real ties to the outside world," says Whitney Friedlander of Julianne Moore's Lisey. "Jim calls her 'Yoko,' and she’s repeatedly admonished for 'only' being a restaurant hostess when she and Scott got together as if she’s nothing but a gold-digger (never mind that he was a struggling author at the time or that any of these things aren’t just extremely sexist). Aside from her affinity for red tops and loose-fitting pants and her love-hate-love relationship with her sisters, it’s really hard to know anything about Lisey. Why was she a hostess? Did she want a career of her own? Did she want kids? Pets? Any sort of recognition for her own accomplishments? Why was she even called Lisey instead of her given name, Lisa? Why did Scott call her Babyluv? (Their wedding song was 'Too Late to Turn Back Now' by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, so don’t bring up The Supremes). Even though there is an actual Lisey’s Story in Lisey’s Story, it’s a story for Lisey from Scott; not one of her or by her."
    • Lisey's Story delivers on a technical level that keeps it compelling beyond its flaws: "It’s filled with dramatically eloquent performances that grapple with its horror and beauty and is told with lush style by Pablo Larraín, a standout filmmaker," says Nick Allen. "The largest problem seems to be, of all things, the world-famous writer, Stephen King. His adaptation of his 2006 novel makes the admittedly bold but polarizing decision to pile everything on as a declaration of its bleeding heart style. 'Don’t analyze, utilize … accept the gift,' says one of King’s mouthpieces here. But if stories are about creating memories for the recipient, a process this series so reveres, the greater ambitions of Lisey’s Story conjure its own frustrating problem: it leaves the audience more with memories of untangling King’s symbols than one of ultimately being moved."
    • Stephen King adapting his own work is great, yet troublesome: "The author might have been too close to his own work (one of his most personal stories) to trim the excess exposition off the bone," says Richard Roeper. "Lisey’s Story feels overstuffed at times and might have been even sharper and more terrifying if it had clocked in with five or six total episodes, but this is still an elegantly haunting journey with memorably raw and real performances from three of the best actresses in the world — Julianne Moore, Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh — as sisters whose bond has to stay strong enough to withstand the relentless onslaught of a crazed stalker, not to mention the dangers lurking in a world just outside the borders of reality. Clive Owen is also a standout as a Stephen King-esque author who has achieved enormous success, wealth and acclaim, but has never escaped a childhood so dark and so insane it’s a wonder he survived. Oh, and we often take detours into an in-between world that looks like Ingmar Bergman’s Waiting Room. Hey. It’s a Stephen King story. Crazy s--- happens."
    • Lisey's Story is an example of the difference between writing for readers and writing for the screen: "Much as it makes me cringe to say this about any actor, (Julianne) Moore is a master of incandescent suffering, and Lisey Stanton is little else but for most of the story," says Melanie McFarland. "The story romances her anguish, or maybe cinematographer it's the sentimental rosy golds and grays Darius Khondji surrounds her with, but it is transfixing. This cuts the other way too when King avails himself of streaming's lack of limitations when it comes to depicting torture. DeHaan has talent for waxing ghoulish, and the author and his director Pablo Larraín send him into a kind of violent overdrive – beatings, bone breaking, and worse. There's an early scene where he pulls out a pizza cutter and rakes a strip through a pie he has with him, and we're meant to see this as a warning instead of subtle foreshadowing. But performances can only do so much to mitigate King's exhaustive scripts and the stylized but spiritually chilled approach Larraín takes to directing pieces like this. Writing for readers has a cadence distinct from writing for the screen that eludes King here. What sings on the page doesn't necessarily translate smoothly or even well in direct, too-faithful adaptions, and here he chooses to tell us, and show us, and tell us some more instead of inviting our imagination to do some of the work."
    • Lisey's Story is little else besides peaks and valleys and agonies and ecstasies: "Though King has stated his dislike of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining, Lisey’s Story seems to take cues from its pacing, composition and camerawork, with a similar emphasis on scenes that put a few bodies in a big space," says Robert Lloyd. "In any case, it swings for something big and cinematic and artistic and deep, which you may take as a good plan or a bad one. It is the sort of work that some will find ineffably beautiful and others unbearably tiresome. Acknowledging its prettiness and production values, and some excellent performances, I found it better than unbearable but something less than beautiful. Directed throughout by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (Jackie is one of his American films), it establishes an atmosphere of mournful dread from the first frame and rarely takes its foot off that pedal; it is spooky nearly all the time, even when characters are briefly enjoying themselves, which has the effect of undercutting the spookiness. And where the story on the page is full of King’s stream-of-consciousness quotidian asides — like the cost of a plastic bucket and where it was bought — that suggest the characters sometimes do normal things normally, the miniseries is nearly all peaks and valleys, agonies and ecstasies, with a mournful score and muted palette. It gets very dark — literally dark — at times; anyone who had difficulty with the final season of Game of Thrones is forewarned. (There is a lot of whispering too, and a bit of howling, so adjust your volume accordingly.)"
    • Lisey’s Story is the most boldly cinematic take on a Stephen King book since The Shining: This eight-episode series might have been made for a streaming service, but it’s got a prestigious pedigree and a visual daring unseen in the author’s adaptations since his early Hollywood heyday, back when King novels served as source material for household name directors like Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter and Brian De Palma," says Sean Burns. "Sure, we’ve seen a bumper crop of King material these past few years — no doubt thanks to the runaway blockbuster success of 2017’s It. But for the most part, these projects have been flimsy, televisual affairs like the recent CBS All Access reworking of The Stand, with even big-screen efforts like Doctor Sleep feeling more like the chintzy, network miniseries that came to define King’s brand in the 1990s and beyond. Directed by Chilean bad boy auteur Pablo Larraín, Lisey’s Story has no shortage of movie star wattage and filmmaking brio to burn. Fronted by Julianne Moore and backed up by Oscar nominees Clive Owen, Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the series was also shot by legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji, who sets every scene within a sophisticated play of bottomless shadows and eerie, incandescent blasts of color. Lisey’s Story is as breathtaking to look at as anything you’ll see this year, and the opening episode drops the viewer into a jaggedly edited, dazzlingly expressionistic exploration of grief and its reverberations."
    • Sometimes Stephen King has to be protected from Stephen King: "Apple TV+ is enthusiastically touting its version of Stephen King’s 2006 book Lisey’s Story as having been written in its eight-episode entirety by the Master of Horror himself," says Daniel Fienberg. "That’s both a rarity and a mixed blessing. The limited series is surely one of the most novelistic and literary-feeling of King adaptations, capturing the mix of languor and propulsiveness that marks the author’s novels of that period, reveling in his myriad extended metaphors and featuring characters who speak in rhythms that could only have sprung from King’s brain. It feels like Stephen King. But as I choose to interpret the theme of The Dark Half, sometimes Stephen King has to be protected from Stephen King. Lisey’s Story is indeed overflowing with ideas — sometimes grandiose, sometimes goofy — that play better on the page than the screen. Director Pablo Larraín and a splendid cast led by Julianne Moore and Clive Owen are left with the task of making Lisey’s Story cinematic, resulting in a push-and-pull that’s all-too-visible, especially in the series’ clumsy back-half."
    • Not even Julianne Moore’s turn as a grieving wife can save this bloated bore: "The advice that a writer should 'kill all your darlings' has been variously attributed," says Lucy Mangan. "William Faulkner, Allan Ginsberg, Oscar Wilde, GK Chesterton and Arthur Quiller-Couch all get a look-in. Stephen King approved the accepted wisdom in his book On Writing. 'Kill your darlings, kill your darlings,' he said with the relish one would hope for from a master of horror. 'Even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.' It’s easier said than done, though, a point proved by this new adaptation by King himself of his 2006 bestseller Lisey’s Story, for Apple TV+. Not a single thing – no matter how confusing, untelevisual or minor – has been left out of the 528-page novel, the tale of a wildly successful novelist whose mysterious healing powers apparently cannot save him from an assassin’s bullet and whose archive is left under the control of his grieving widow. It grew out of King’s experience of coming home after a long hospital stay (he was hit by a truck and nearly killed in 1999) to find that his wife had redesigned his studio and put all his papers away in boxes, as if he were already dead. He has always said it is the book most personal and precious to him. Thus, we may infer, no darlings were killed in the making of this eight-hour adaptation."
    • Julianne Moore, one of our finest actors, is oddly lukewarm in Lisey's Story: "She nails the raw emotion, and her interactions with Leigh are fun in a bickering sibling way," says Chris Evangelista. "But there are also times when Moore seems like she can’t fully commit herself to this material – there’s a moment where she’s meant to scream in rage and pain, and it comes across as half-hearted. Perhaps a bad take mistakenly found its way into the final cut. Perhaps this entire adaptation was a mistake."
    • Why Jennifer Jason Leigh picked Lisey's Story as her second Stephen King adaptation: "I think his characters are always flawed and complicated and very interesting — you are really drawn in," she says. "And the worlds are so surreal and horrific or thrilling. And he's incredibly prolific; it just boggles the mind. I started reading his books when I was a young teen, and they had a big impact on me — as they did for so many people. It was really nice to be a part of this one because I know it's very personal for him. He loves his stories so much. That had a certain pressure to it."
    • Stephen King found inspiration to write Lisey's Story from FX's The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story: "I saw this thing on FX that was about the fashion designer Versace and about the man who killed him," says King. "And I had not really thought about getting involved with Lisey at that point or tackling it as a TV project, but I looked at that thing, and I said to myself, my goodness, this guy, Tom Rob Smith, wrote the whole thing. He wrote all eight or nine episodes, and I thought, well, if he could do that and bring it home and do such a great job, what about Lisey? And I sat down, and I started, and I showed the scripts to Ben Stephenson at Bad Robot one by one, and he was very encouraging. So the scripts got done, and everything else followed from that. I think that the fortunate thing for me is that now there are so many streaming platforms that the whole form of long-form TV is opened up in a way that it wasn't before. You have a chance to do more. You can be a little more graphic with language and with sexual situations and with length, just the chance to do something that has that kind of spread, texture, and a little more nuance. For guys like me, it's been great."

    TOPICS: Lisey's Story, Apple TV+, Julianne Moore, Stephen King