“Lisey’s Story” may be one of Stephen King’s best novels — but that’s exactly why it may be better for fans to wait for a better adaptation than they’ll find on Apple TV+ starting June 4. The results of the adaptation are, like other King-helmed works, deeply uneven, making it yet another “could have been” for Apple, which is still seeking a breakout drama series.
The series is based on King’s 2006 prize-winning, critically acclaimed novel that the author himself called his favorite of all his works; he openly pushed to get it adapted for the screen despite somewhat diminishing interest in adaptations of his newer works. After “It: Part 1” was a surprise hit in 2017, a King revival train took off, and that combined with the literary and fantasy elements of the novel — which make it a more refined psychological thriller than “It” or “The Stand” — made this an attractive subject for the sort of highfalutin limited prestige series Apple sees itself the purveyor of.
The series “Lisey’s Story” — which stars Julianne Moore as Lisey, the widow of the story’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Scott Landon (Clive Owen) — also ended up an accidentally timely adaptation for 2021, by focusing on the internal experience of grief.
When pushed by a not-quite-hinged fan to make her late husband’s unpublished works available, grieving widow Lisey starts sifting through his writing, revealing the meticulously crafted fantasy world of his novel “Boo’ya Moon.” But the alternate reality Scott created there is not limited to his own mind; Lisey’s sister, Amanda (Joan Allen) — currently in a coma — also resides there. In the course of the series (and the book), Lisey must confront her own grief to find her way to “Boo’ya Moon” and bring her sister back from her coma.
There are some things to recommend about the adaptation.
King is a prolific writer of hit novels — a completely different format than screenwriting — and just because a person is a master of one does not necessarily mean they are a master of both.
As Lisey, Moore brings a grounded presence that’s desperately needed in the deeply fantastical series. As Scott, Owen is mostly relegated to Lisey’s mind, but the scenes are constructed in such a way that his co-star billing is warranted. And, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Lisey’s other sister, Darla (the one not caught up in this “Boo’ya Moon” business), is also a delightful counterpoint to some of the more irrationally outlandish proceedings.
Plus, with its deep pockets (and promise of a mass audience), Apple clearly went all out with this beyond its A-list cast. For one, it has sumptuous visuals under the direction of Pablo Larraín (best known for the Academy Award nominee “Jackie”). The series also artfully captures the sense of grief unmooring a person from the rest of society by putting Lisey adrift in time, with scenes from the past and present bleeding into each other. (One wishes every King adaptation felt this unsettling and disconnected from the banalities of the real world.)
Apple, of course, additionally decided to have the master of horror himself write the screenplays for all eight episodes. It’s not the first time King has adapted (or been directly involved in the adaption of) his own works. From 1989’s big-screen “Pet Sematary” to 1990s-era television miniseries like the original “The Stand” and the remake of "The Shining," King has a substantial number of screenplay credits to his name.
But therein also lies the series’ greatest weakness. King is a prolific writer of hit novels — a completely different format than screenwriting — and just because a person is a master of one does not necessarily mean they are a master of both. Though some of King’s adaptations have been hits (usually the ones based on novels already beloved by fans), many have been critical flops. And while “Lisey’s Story” was one of King’s best novels in part because of its complexity, he was unable — or perhaps unwilling — to edit down the endless subplots and subtext that float well in the novel’s undercurrents but become choking and unwieldy on screen.
That the series is eight episodes doesn’t help either: One gets the sense that, if King had been given the hard cutoff of a two-hour big-screen film, he might have been forced to curb himself. Instead, having been given so much space, the resulting limited series is somehow both utterly overstuffed and yet feels like it drags.
Apple TV+ tends to produce series of the chapter format but then does weekly releases — including with “Lisey’s Story” — which wind up a disservice to the show and the audience.
Larraín’s atmospherics of the show are almost enough to keep it going when the plot momentum falters — but Larraín also chooses, at least for the series’ first few episodes, to lean into the unexplained elements of the novelist Scott’s world, trusting that the audience will keep coming back week after week, even if things don’t totally seem to make sense in the interim.
That may be the second bridge too far for most viewers.
There are two types of streaming episodic television available. One is the type that works better when binged all at once, because the “episodes” are like chapters of a novel that require the one both before and after to sustain your attention; the other works when released episodically because they are built like novellas in a longer series and stand alone, week by week. Apple TV+ tends to produce series of the chapter format but then does weekly releases — including with “Lisey’s Story” — which wind up a disservice to the show and the audience.
Of the second wave of streaming services that began arriving in 2019, Apple TV+ is the only one that was not previously in the business of producing its own media, which has done the company both good and ill since. On the one hand, the “we’ll try anything once” attitude has created such unexpected delights as “Dickinson” and “Ted Lasso” but, on the other, it has landed it clunkers like “See” and allowed series like “The Morning Show” and “For All Mankind” to make rookie mistakes in pacing and marketing. “Lisey’s Story” is, unfortunately, yet another one of the latter.