At first blush, author Stephen King and filmmaker Pablo Larraín seem like an unusual pairing, as creative collaborations go. King, of course, is the reigning champion of contemporary American horror fiction – in prolificacy and sales, if not in literary cachet – who is currently enjoying a renewed surge in big- and small-screen adaptations of his work. Larraín is a Chilean writer, director, and producer known for finding vivid, eccentric entry points into stories that might have otherwise been weighed down by generic formulae. In features such as No (2012), The Club (2015), and Neruda (2016), Larraín combines a refined yet intuitive cinematic technique with a provocateur’s affinity for the unexpected. What common ground could these two creators – one a living pop-culture institution, the other an international arthouse darling – possibly find with one another?
As with most odd couples, it’s a partnership that starts to make more sense when one gets past the initial incongruity and digs into the specifics. Larraín has directed all eight episodes of a new AppleTV+ limited series based on King’s 2006 book, Lisey’s Story – which the author has cited as his favorite among all the novels he has written. King has also penned the screen adaptation, which will doubtlessly make some fans of the novel wary, given previous King-scripted efforts such as Silver Bullet (1985), Pet Sematary (1989), and the 1997 television version of The Shining. However, if those same King devotees have also seen Larraín’s mesmerizing 2016 feature Jackie, the cunning inherent in this particular pairing of material and director will begin to become apparent.
Like Larraín’s Golden Lion-winning film, Lisey’s Story is about a widow who must reckon with the fraught entanglement of her personal grief and her husband’s monumental legacy. Also like Jackie, this latest King adaptation is a strikingly elegiac and elliptical work, one that burrows into its heroine’s past and present with a poet’s disregard for objective narrative. Although Lisey’s Story does present the kind of twisty, prestige-television plot one expects from a high-end King adaptation – this is, after all, a supernatural thriller of sorts – it does so in a remarkably unhurried and roundabout fashion. This is a series that doesn't so much methodically lay out its story as languidly circle it in ever-tightening spirals. Which is admittedly a curious way to approach a show in which Julianne Moore goes on astral jaunts to an alien dreamscape stalked by a body-horror monstrosity.
Moore portrays Lisey Landon, wife of late acclaimed fantasy-horror novelist Scott Landon (Clive Owen). Although Scott has been gone for two years, Lisey is still grappling with the loss, uncertain how to move forward after a decades-long partnership that often felt like she and Scott were back-to-back against the world. They were childless, and Lisey’s only living family are her two adult sisters, who have their own troubles. Tart-tongued younger sister Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is preoccupied with her own harried life and deteriorating marriage, and also a bit resentful of Lisey’s wealth. Older, divorced sister Amanda (Joan Allen), meanwhile, lives down the road from Lisey in their small Maine town, which is fortunate, given that Amanda suffers from periods of self-harm and semi-catatonic depression. In the series’ first episode, Amanda abruptly slips into just such an episode while talking with Lisey on the phone – compulsively grinding the shards from a shattered coffee mug into bloody grit with her bare hands.
This incident and Amanda’s subsequent unresponsive state prompt Lisey and Darla to admit their sister to a long-term-care facility, an arrangement enabled by financial preparations Scott made years ago. Like Amanda, Scott was a troubled personality with an unfortunate inclination for cutting, and he and Lisey’s older sister seemed to share a kind of anguished, old-soul bond. Unfortunately for Lisey, another crisis begins to unfold concurrently with her sister’s mental deterioration. An out-of-state literature professor named Roger Dashmiel (Ron Cephas Jones) turns up at her house to pester Lisey – for what is presumably the umpteenth time – about Scott’s personal papers and unpublished writings. Lisey is adamant that these materials not be made public, for reasons that are never explicitly stated but seemed to be rooted in a complex gestalt of devotion, jealousy, and unresolved grief. The defeated Dashmiel thus calls on Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan, chewing the scenery splendidly), an unhinged Scott Landon superfan who vows to persuade Lisey by any means necessary.
Larraín approaches this material in a pensive, unhurried manner that is both intoxicating and a little frustrating. Simply put, Lisey’s Story is an episode or two longer than it absolutely needed to be. King’s penchant for self-indulgence finds a willing conspirator in a director eager to luxuriate in the story’s looping reveries. Much of the series consists of flashbacks, and even flashbacks nested inside other flashbacks – a recipe that usually spells catastrophe, narratively speaking. However, few directors are better suited than Larraín to successfully wield such methods. (The only other contender is, arguably, Terrence Malick, whose melancholic 2012 romance To the Wonder has echoes in Lisey’s Story.) As he decisively demonstrated with Jackie, Larraín has a talent for intertwining the past and present to establish psychological and thematic contrasts, and thereby unearth a trembling emotional veracity.
In Lisey’s Story, the filmmaker employs a similar approach for more plot-centered ends, flicking through Lisey’s jumbled catalog of memories as a means of untangling the mysteries left behind by her late husband. A healthy chunk of the present-day action consists of Moore remembering things (often with some difficulty), which in a different kind of show might have resulted in a feeling of inertness. Granted, the show’s drowsy pacing sometimes seems as much about audience hand-holding as stylistic verve, with Larraín exhibiting an unfortunate proclivity for restatement, just in case the viewers in the balcony seats might have missed something. However, the series’ eagerness to dauntlessly plunge into the past at any given moment – suspending the action to visit and revisit key moments in Lisey and Scott’s relationship – conveys a truth that is fundamental to the series’ themes: Mourning is primarily an act of remembering.
As the designated King insert character, Scott comes off as a bit of an idealized husband: talented yet humble, devoted yet respectful, and effusive in his earnest declarations of love. His and Lisey’s marriage is defined by a pure, soft-focus sincerity that is almost corny. (As usual, King’s affection for silly private vocabularies becomes downright goofy when translated from page to screen. Moore and Owen seem to visibly cringe whenever they are obliged to utter their characters’ pet name for one another, “babyluv.”) To be sure, there is a hidden darkness in Scott, but it is one related to buried trauma and mystical secrets, not some malevolent Mr. Hyde persona. (In some ways, this story is the wholesome mirror image to King’s novella A Good Marriage.) Much like his father, Andrew (Michael Pitt), and older brother, Paul (Clark Furlong), Scott is blessed with an esoteric connection to a primordial wellspring of power, a place the young Landon brothers dubbed the Boo’ya Moon.
This netherworld, equal parts ravishingly beautiful and unspeakably terrifying, served as a refuge for Scott during his brutally abusive childhood and later became a source of creative inspiration for his writing. Lisey’s Story pulls back the curtain on Boo’ya Moon and Scott’s connection to it only gradually, mirroring the way that Scott slowly ushered Lisey into its mysteries over the years. As it happens, Lisey also has a talent for venturing into the Boo’ya Moon, and although it always felt like Scott’s domain in some sense, her understanding of it ultimately proves crucial to the series’ story. Scott, it turns out, has left behind a series of clues – a kids’ treasure game he and his brother once called a “bool hunt” – which will both directly and indirectly give Lisey the means to save herself and her sisters from the unseen threats that are circling them. (In a giallo-esque touch, Lisey already has all the knowledge she needs, she just needs to fit the puzzle pieces together.)
This is perhaps the most clever and intriguing thing about Lisey’s Story: It is a romance after-the-fact, a dark fairy tale about the importance of intimacy and vulnerability in a successful long-term relationship. Though Scott is something of a one-note character – his only defining features are his haunted circumspection and his unconditional love for Lisey – he is also a phantom, a man who now exists only in his wife’s remembrances. Lisey’s Story is not about its titular heroine discovering that she never really knew her late husband, but rather realizing that she was the only one who knew him. Lisey’s journey is one in which she affirms something she already understands on some level: This naturally guarded man expressed his love by trusting her with the terrible traumas and esoteric secrets that he shared with no one else.
If there’s a whiff of reactionary mawkishness to Lisey’s Story – the show is, at least in part, an ode to the nourishing sanctity of heteronormative long-term relationships – it’s offset rather ingeniously by a deliberate shift in focus from romantic to sisterly love around Episode 6. Lisey’s reveries eventually push her to rediscover the strength she and her sisters share, a strength that is clarified by threats more tangible than unresolved grief. Indeed, the “real” conflicts in Lisey’s Story concern the living rather than the dead. The sudden deterioration of Amanda’s mental health and the looming threat of the thoroughly deranged Jim Dooley are the crises that drive the show’s present-day story. The otherworldly mysteries of the Boo’ya Moon, while vivid, are simply the key that Lisey uses to confront those crises. That Larraín manages to successfully integrate the subplot about Dooley – the kind of psychopathic human monster that King relishes, complete with creepy tics and an off-putting affect – into a dreamy tale about grief is kind of a minor miracle.
Whether Larraín also navigates King’s more out-there world-building is debatable. The director's realization of the Boo’ya Moon leaves an undeniably potent impression: part Neverland, part Aboriginal Dreamtime, part prog-rock van mural. Still, there’s something faintly ludicrous about the sight of Julianne Moore standing toe-to-toe with the Boo’ya Moon’s dreaded Long Boy, a ravenous colossus straight out of Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmares. Certainly, it’s unlike anything else a horror series has attempted on screen before, a vision that evokes Clive Barker’s seminal short story, “In the Hills, the Cities.” However, given the show’s wistful focus on real-world concerns like love, loss, and family, the sheer Dungeons & Dragons uncanniness of such fantastical sights can break Lisey Story’s delicate, contemplative spell.
Further Viewing: Solaris (1972), The Changeling (1980), Possession (1981), Truly Madly Deeply (1990), Three Colors: Blue (1993), After Life (1998), Lantana (2001), Absentia (2011), Personal Shopper (2016), Doctor Sleep (2019)
Lisey's Story is now available to stream from AppleTV+.