The first two episodes of Lisey’s Story have all of Stephen King’s hallmarks and the benefit of his distinct authorial voice, but many of the usual problems in adapting his work remain.
This recap of Lisey’s Story season 1, episode 1, “Blood Hunt”, and Lisey’s Story season 1, episode 2, “Blood Bool”, contains spoilers.
Stephen King, for all his flaws, is one of the great contemporary American novelists, and certainly one of the most frequently adapted. And while he famously hates many of the most prominent treatments of his work, including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Apple TV+’s new limited series Lisey’s Story is unlikely to fall into that same category since King adapted it himself. That, then, makes the fact it’s not that good all the more awkward.
Admittedly, most of the show’s problems aren’t too apparent in the first two episodes, “Blood Hunt” and “Blood Bool”, which were released together today. These two and the remaining six episodes were directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín and star Julianne Moore as the titular Lisey and Clive Owen as her late novelist husband Scott Landon, who was killed in front of her and whose various unpublished works she’s reluctant to part with despite the repeated requests of university Professor Dashmiel (Ron Cephas Jones). The always creepy Dane DeHaan plays crazy fan Jim Dooley, rounding out some of King’s usual archetypes. This is apparently his favorite novel and bears all his hallmarks.
King’s voice is audible everywhere in Lisey’s Story episodes 1 and 2. His typically nasty dialogue, hodgepodge of familiar themes – nutcase fandom, grief, and so on – and gleeful deployment of the surreal and the outright supernatural are all present and correct. Lisey’s institutionalized sister (Joan Allen) adds to a dark melange of horror staples. It all feels very familiar.
Moore and Owen help to offset some of King’s impulses. Their performances – Owen, despite being dead, is granted life through romantic flashbacks – tether Lisey’s Story to reality, even as Lisey herself threatens to break from it. The first two chapters aren’t particularly pacey – you’ll note I’m being deliberately scant on detail, to preserve some of the effects – but they are precisely directed and evocative if nothing else. Those familiar with this book in particular or King’s work, in general, will likely be ensnared enough by the first two hours to keep watching.
There’s always a sense, though, even this early, that things may be heading towards rather self-indulgent and convoluted territory, a flaw that, ironically, might be laid at the feet of King’s involvement. Then again, after the mess of The Stand, there’s no wonder he wants to keep a close eye on things. With another King adaptation, Chapelwaite, slated for an August release on Epix, 2021 might be the year of slightly higher-minded King translations, though Lisey’s Story doesn’t engender much faith that they’ll be able to get out of their own way regardless. In its first two episodes, this gives off a much artier impression than other recent works, including The Outsider on HBO, but the big-name value might be the only kind of value it has long-term.