Looking back over the many adaptations of Stephen King's novels and short stories, the author has only stepped in a couple of times to handle scripting himself and the results have always varied.
The first adaptation of 'Pet Sematary', for example, was grizzly and disturbing with a punkish edge to it. The mid-nineties adaptation of 'The Stand' couldn't match the book's wild, outlandish tone nor was it able to go to the extremes of it either. 'Maximum Overdrive', meanwhile, is best noted for how batshit and shit it was; King readily admitted that he was high as a kite on cocaine throughout the production.
With 'Lisey's Story', there are no impediments to speak of. Apple TV+ have forked out a generous budget and secured a star-heavy cast. There's no network censor to worry about, so it go wherever it chooses to, and with King writing the whole thing himself, it comes to the screen as close to the author's intention as has ever been. The problem is that when it's this close to the heart, it can often be a case of not being able to see the wood from the trees. For example, 'Misery' the novel is far more disturbing and unhinged than 'Misery' the movie. William Goldman's script and Rob Reiner's direction produced a vein of gallows humour that's absent in the source material. Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' rewrote whole chunks of the story, and if you believe the crackpot theories, covered them over with his own story.
'Lisey's Story' follows an immensely popular author's widow, played by Julianne Moore, who has refused numerous attempts to turn her dead husband's papers over to a university. Desperate to seek out what could be his greatest work, a well-meaning professor convinces a deranged fan - played by Dane DeHaan - to try and reach her. As Moore's character begins to examine her husband's papers, she discovers clues around their house that bring forth memories of their life together, as well as his violent upbringing and the darkness that drew out his imagination.
Because 'Lisey's Story' is so undiluted, and so free of any kind of restriction, the results are incredibly indulgent. Spread out over eight episodes that frequently run up to an hour long, the pace is deliberate and the story unfurls at a frustrating pace. It banks off into the past, comes up to the present, scurries off into a fantasy world, pulls back into deep family melodrama, spins out over grizzly horror, then lands back at a cliffhanger by the end of each episode. You can feel the weight of every episode, and it's gripping stuff, but it asks so much of the viewer. Some of the scenes really are disturbing, and from the very beginning, 'Lisey's Story' mines grief and trauma in truly uncomfortable moments.
The cast gives raw, powerful performances. Julianne Moore gives herself over to it all, channelling frustration, sadness, with deep and abiding love, at every moment. Dane DeHaan echoes Kathy Bates' character in 'Misery', but takes it to such extremes and without any hint of fear in his own performance. Jennifer Jason Leigh bounces off Moore's performance, acting as a perfect foil, while Joan Allen brings forth an aching vulnerability that's often hard to watch. Oddly enough, the weak link is in King's stand-in, Clive Owen, who is frequently acted off the screen by Moore.
Pablo Larraín, who directs all eight episodes, is no stranger to crafting stories that deal with grief, obsession, or family drama borne out of tragedy. You only need to look at something like 'Jackie', or further back to 'Tony Manero', to understand that he has a firm grasp of these and knows how they can yield some deeply unsettling moments. The visuals throughout 'Lisey's Story' are fascinating. The characters exist in these wide spaces and light barely breaks in through windows. When the story goes over into fantastical places, it commits fully and often loses its way.
This is a recurring problem in 'Lisey's Story', that it so frequently pauses the flow and instead zeroes in on something that - while it is affecting, and crafted beautifully - could probably have been left out, or at the very least, told with more alacrity and with some kind of economy to it. In a book, of course, there's no issue whatsoever with giving over a page, a chapter, an entire act, to a flight of fancy or noodling around with some half-cooked ideas. While streaming platforms like Apple TV+ has the time and space to give to all these things, it's still indulgent and can burn away the patience of even the most ardent viewers.
'Lisey's Story' begins streaming on Apple TV+ from June 4th with two episodes. The remaining six episodes will arrive weekly until July 16th.