(spoilers for Lisey’s Story ahead)
When I was twelve years old, my father’s new girlfriend, informed of my voracious reading habits, gifted me with a book. As it so happens, that book wound up being the very age-appropriate novel The Stand. Widely considered author Stephen King’s magnum opus, this was the book that pushed me down the rabbit hole of King’s immense collection. Although I grew into adulthood and my tastes naturally evolved, leaving behind numerous artists and creations, his work was one of the few loves that remained. Of course, there were books I was less than fond of (I’m looking at you, Cell) and some that left me breathless with grief (Book VII of The Dark Tower series). King’s work would likely be described by many as “uneven,” but what I’ve always loved about him is his willingness to swing for the fences and with it, a clear desire to breathe life into his creations.
King’s 2005 novel, Lisey’s Story, cited as being his personal favorite of his many works, is the most recent King adaptation in what has now been a years’ long resurgence of films and television series based on his work (It, The Stand, Gerald’s Game, Dr. Sleep). The general story is a rather compelling one: the titular Lisey (Julianne Moore) has been a widow for the last two years, still mourning the death of her husband, award-winning writer Scott Landon (Clive Owen). Like most marriages, theirs is full of secrets, though the most mind-bending one is the fact that Scott possessed the ability to transport himself to a secret world beyond our reality known as Boo’ya Moon, a name coined by him and his brother when they were children. In the wake of Scott’s death, an academic, Professor Roger Dashmiel (Ron Cephas Jones), tries to convince Lisey to gift him with Scott’s sizable collection of files and story drafts with little success. He takes drastic measures by enlisting unhinged superfan Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan) to acquire them. Soon, Lisey’s only recourse is to use Scott’s literal secret world, a beautiful but terrifying unearthly landscape occupied by monsters in order to save her from the real world monster that’s been set loose on her.
The storytelling possibilities and various angles this can go in is positively bursting with potential. The novel itself portrays the intimate, yet dark and dusty corners of marriage and is considered by many to be the most successful feature of the book. Novel aside, however, the show is clearly its own entity which should absolutely exist on its own merit. While the previous King adaptations have wavered in quality and success, Lisey’s Story stands out for me in a rather singular way: it nearly made me lose my damn mind. Each of the eight episodes in the series brought attention to more and more flawed elements that left me tearing my hair out, an affliction made worse by the fact that I was rooting for this show. Alas, there was just too much for me to overlook.
One of the major boasts of the series is that King himself came on to handle the writing for the show. It’s a common misconception that an author writing in another medium, especially an adaptation of their own work, is a natural fit. However, the needs of a novel are far different than the needs of film or television, and what works—- or, at the very least, can be glossed over — on the page can wind up becoming a fart in an elevator when acted out on screen. The most glaring example of this is King’s folksy word choices, one of the quirks he bestows on characters with a little too much liberty at times. The worst of it is sifted out here (we are blissfully spared the immature, even by childhood standards, noun “bad-gunky”), but there’s enough that makes it into the final mix, namely the use of “babyluv.” I can’t even say it out loud with a straight face. There’s few things I’m confident of in life, but I am almost certain that every time Owen had to refer to Moore as “babyluv,” it was through gritted teeth. Though it’s not unusual for couples to have pet names for one another, the inorganic sweetness of “babyluv” sticks in the craw, zapping a nerve running straight through the tooth. There’s other pieces of dialogue that also ring awkwardly in the ear. Dehaan repeatedly addressing Jones as “prof,” a piece of textual shorthand that I’ve yet to hear out in the wild, sounding about as natural as someone responding to the punchline of a joke by slapping their knee and shouting “LMFAO.”
But as awkward as some of the dialogue is, there are larger writing issues at hand. One of the big plot points of the series is that Lisey’s older sister Manda (Joan Allen) suffers from mental illness and occasionally self-injures. It works as an illustration of the challenges of juggling grief while the hardships of life continue on, especially as Manda suddenly requires around-the-clock medical care due to an onset of catatonia. The story goes a step further, however, as Manda’s problem isn’t solely a medical issue; she’s partially stuck (more on that later) on Boo’ya Moon and can’t “find” her way back. What’s the pay off for this plot point? Nothing, really. It impacts the story so little that it might as well not be there at all. At least then we wouldn’t have to cope with watching an actor of Allen’s caliber staring open-mouthed towards the camera whispering “Lisey” for literal hours. Allen’s presence feels senseless much of the time, which is a damn shame considering that when she’s conscious and interacting with her sisters, especially Darla (the fabulous Jennifer Jason Leigh), it’s great stuff. Aside from that, however, many of her scenes do next to nothing to advance the plot, yet they’re so plentiful that it seems as though director Pablo Larraín was overly concerned about giving her ample screen time. However, in his fear of wasting Allen’s presence, it wound up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, with her scenes consistently grinding proceedings to a halt.
Then there’s DeHaan as the big villain. Dooley is clearly commentary on dangerously obsessed fans, something I’m sure King has unfortunately had more than his share of experience with. He’s recruited by Dashmiel to acquire Scott’s papers and unpublished materials, which is all well and good except from the outset Dooley looks like he’s completely out of his gourd. I wouldn’t order a hamburger from the guy, much less entrust him to collect a world-renowned author’s archive in a diplomatic fashion. I can summon up enough suspension of disbelief to go along with watching one character spew a jet stream of magical water into another character’s mouth (I know, try to stay with me, folks), but what strains credulity is the notion that Dashmiel would ally himself with someone who makes no attempt whatsoever to mask his tenuous hold on reality. This is when the writing should come in to assist us with making it past this bridge that may be just a tad too far, OH WAIT, EXCEPT IT DOESN’T:
Dashmiel: She [Lisey] has stonewalled my best efforts.
Dooley: We could do something about that.
Dashmiel: If you have any ideas, Mr. Dooley, I’d be glad to hear ‘em.
Dooley: You got a wife?
Dashmiel: I do.
Dooley: Be careful.
Dehaan’s performance, which seems to be aiming for a languid menace somewhere on a scale between Private Pyle and Buffalo Bill, only underscores the off-putting writing choices. In addition, unlike the previously-mentioned iconic film villains, the immediacy with which Dooley exposes his dangerous tendencies foils any sort of scary buildup. Throw in the frivolous affectations (the constant eating, a goddamn yo-yo), and the final result is a character that I found more obnoxious than frightening.
Honestly, if these were the only problems in the show, I could tough it out. Sadly, I can’t, however, because this show is hellbent on driving me mad thanks to one of its biggest stumbling blocks: the absence of any sort of logic to this universe. Look, I don’t need every brick of a story’s structure held out in front of me with a detailed lecture on each of its corners. It’s pleasurable to infer things such as character relationships and quietly dramatic moments. Sometimes explanations aren’t necessary to comprehend story elements at all (the wonderful Luca is a recent example), but when you have as many fantastical elements as there are in Lisey’s Story, you gotta offer your audience something to hold on to. Unfortunately, the only thing that’s readily accessible is hair-pulling frustration over the lack of rules, logic, or anything that establishes this world at all, and the few things that are established wind up refuting itself. When you go to Boo’ya Moon, you’re really there, except when you’re not because there’s two versions of you (referred to as being a “double,” an issue that affects Scott and Manda at different turns). The magical pool has healing properties, that is until a random evening when Scott’s decade-old gunshot wound randomly reappears because the healing’s been nullified thanks to that one time he got scratched by his possessed brother when he was eight. Was that sentence confusing? Because I promise that watching it unfold on screen doesn’t bring an ounce more clarity.
My bitterness isn’t indicative of hatred but rather deep disappointment (okay, perhaps Lisey gifting a giant wailing corpse monster a commemorative shovel pushed me somewhat close to the edge). Here’s the thing: I wanted to ignore the mess. I wanted to ignore it because Owens and Moore are enthralling together. They sell the shit out of this love story; why the hell we weren’t given more of it is maybe the biggest question of them all. Therein lies the fatal flaw in Lisey’s Story: a series revolving around grief and loss can’t reach its full potential if we’re never given the chance to miss the one who’s gone. In the final episode—which consists almost entirely of the show’s denouement, which should give you an idea of how rough the pacing is—there’s a lovely montage of Scott and Lisey’s life together. It was a moving scene until my anger set in. Why in the world were we not given hours of this? For all of Moore’s excellent crying, the willingness to hold back on so much of the Landon’s joy robs the show of the immense power that heartache can provide. One night in bed, Scott confides to Lisey, “Stories were all I had. And now I have you.” It’s a shame that we didn’t actually get to witness this for ourselves. It almost certainly wouldn’t fix the show’s issues, but as anyone in a long-term commitment can attest, it would go a long way to rendering them forgivable.
Lisey’s Story is available to stream in its entirety on Apple TV+.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t looking up the definition of “piebald” (Merriam-Webster says “composed of incongruous parts” or “of different colors,” which sound way less freaky than it did in the book), she can be found on Twitter here.
Header Image Source: Apple TV+