‘Lisey’s Story’ is beautiful, dark, and mostly incomprehensible

Julianne Moore as Lisey. She is submerged in a pond with only her head sticking out of the water. A purple flower floats about a foot away from her face. Long grass surrounds her.

Nearly fifty years after Brian De Palma’s Carrie hit theatres, there seems to be no shortage of Stephen King adaptations on our screens every year. In the years following the first adaptation of his works, the iconic writer has had a complicated relationship with the creatives who took on his work, although his complaints often fell on deaf ears. Even his efforts to make things “right” rarely amounted to anything, as nowadays, it is still Shelley Duvall’s screams and the blood-filled elevator of the Overlook Hotel that come to mind when talking about The Shining rather than the miniseries he later produced, trying to correct Kubrick’s interpretation of his work. King’s stories are well known by cinephiles all around the world, but not always in the ways he wanted them to be.

Lisey’s Story is a lesser-known novel by King, but it seems to hold a special place in his heart. Naming it as his favourite novel of his, he expressed interest in the possibility of a TV adaptation as early as August 2017. Four years later, Apple TV+ has produced the show with an all-star crew. ‘Jackie’ and ‘A Fantastic Woman’ director Pablo Larrain takes on directing duties, King himself on writing, J.J. Abrams producing, and notable cast members include Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Dane DeHaan. With this line-up, the series seems like a story destined for success.

Lisey stands in an opening at the woods. It's foggy, the sun is low and orange, and there is a police search in progress as flashlights are visible through the fog.
Apple TV+

The first episode shows potential as we are introduced to Lisey (Moore), still grieving her husband, the writer Scott Landon (Owen). The show alternates between past sequences of their seemingly happy married life and the grim reality of the present when she tries to deal with her complicated family while keeping nosy academics away from Landon’s unpublished works. As we pick up bits and pieces of what is happening, Lisey’s world slowly reveals itself to be more than what it looks, and full of dangers that she had never expected to encounter.

Although the biggest names of the cast will most certainly be what draws the audience to watch the series, the unsung hero here is Darius Khondji, who consistently offers breathtaking cinematography. In its happy moments and fantastical dream sequences, the show is a beautiful thing to look at; in its most gritty, violent parts, the camerawork is still subtle enough to keep it from being in bad taste.

While Lisey’s Story’s visuals may work in its favour, the same unfortunately can’t be said of the rest of the show. There is no denying that King’s imagination is one of the most prolific of the past century and that his impact on modern horror is unquantifiable, yet it would be dishonest to avoid mentioning his shortcomings as a screenwriter. The narrative constantly swings between past and present, dreams and reality, along the course of multiple plot lines, and while his ambition is clear, King more often than not do not have the skills to pull off his ideas in a palatable way.

Lisey and Lisey's husband (Clive Owen) laying the grace.

At times, it is difficult to say whether the subpar acting is to blame for making the writing seem so off, or if that is a consequence of the poor script–but the fact remains that not a single person in this usually talented cast gives a worthy performance. We barely know who Lisey is beyond a woman who loved her husband, giving Moore very little to work with and often leading her expressions of pain to become laughably caricatural. Lines are mumbled and often hard to hear due to poor sound design–those that can be understood are either too explanatory or nonsensical, which also puts a lot of editing choices into question. The worst of the worst may be Dane DeHaan, playing by all accounts a pale copy of Harry Treadaway’s Brady Hartfield in the much better King television adaptation Mr. Mercedes. Overall, it’s hard to get attached to anyone as the story progresses towards more and more confusing territories with little reason to keep trying to understand.

Larrain’s personality as a director may sometimes surface, but he is more often than not effaced under King’s overwhelming influence on the project. It seems harsh, but unfortunately true, to say that King did himself a disservice by insisting on taking care of so much in a show that seems beyond the scope of his abilities. This story may work under a novel format; but here, poor characterization and technical shortcomings mean that we are lacking any real reason to care. Pushing through the first episode’s wobbly dialogue and already obvious pacing issues leads to no reward as Lisey’s Story becomes progressively less about Lisey and more about a writer’s ego, both in and outside of the show’s universe.

Even as a King fan, its existence as it stands is hard to justify, and most people would be better off watching one of the many, much more qualitative adaptations of his work made over the course of the past few years. There was definitely an attempt at something interesting buried somewhere in there, but in the end, Lisey’s Story, unfortunately, becomes the definition of wasted potential.

Lisey’s Story airs weekly on Apple TV+ starting June 4.

by Callie Hardy

Callie (she/her) is a Belgian New Media student currently living in Dublin. She enjoys female-fronted horror, nostalgic adaptations of childhood classics and every outfit Blake Lively wears in A Simple Favor. She’s usually pretty honest, but if you catch her saying that her favourite film is anything other than Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, you should know that she’s lying. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd.

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