“Lisey’s Story” Review: Stephen King’s Adaptation for Apple TV+ Blends Horror and Magical Realism

Julianne Moore and Clive Owen in “Lisey’s Story.” Photo Courtesy: Apple TV+

Rating: 6/10

I’ve never been much of a Stephen King reader when it comes to his fiction work. I don’t tend to dig the horror or supernatural elements when it comes to psychological thrillers. But I approached Lisey’s Story — the eight-episode limited series that debuts on Apple TV+ on June 4 — feeling I should have read King’s original novel of the same name. Not for nothing, the author has stated it’s his favorite book of the ones he’s written.

And while adaptations to the screen of the prolific King are hardly news — just take a look at his IMDb page — the author not only executive produces this show, but he’s also written all eight episodes. He’s basically adapted himself from the page to the screen.

Lisey’s Story’s pedigree doesn’t precisely end there. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (Jackie) directs all the episodes of this horror thriller filled with dreamy flashbacks, eerie oniric sequences and a dusky alternate universe, Boo’ya Moon, in which characters seek refuge.

Then there’s the cast. Julianne Moore plays Lisey. She’s been widowed for two years and when she starts reorganizing her husband’s study, she’s confronted with a lot of memories from their past together. Clive Owen plays Scott Landon, Lisey’s husband and a famous and successful author. Jennifer Jason Leigh and an almost unrecognizable Joan Allen are Darla and Amanda, Lisey’s sisters.

A Very Personal Story

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Julianne Moore in “Lisey’s Story.” Photo Courtesy: Apple TV+

Even though I’m not a King fiction reader, I love his witty updates on Twitter — especially when it comes to news about his pup Molly, aka the Thing of Evil — and I devoured his memoir On Writing. I learned a lot about King’s process as an author, but also his addiction, his relationship with his wife — the author Tabitha King — and his coping mechanisms with fame.

Lisey’s Story establishes some parallels between Stephen King and his fictional author, Scott Landon. They both have had problems with addiction and are married to strong, resolute women. King has talked about coming up with the idea for this book after spending some time in the hospital and then going back home. His wife was redecorating his study and all his books were packed in boxes. It made him think that’d be what would happen when he was dead — and he started writing from there.

The Many Layers of “Lisey’s Story”

Julianne Moore in “Lisey’s Story.” Photo Courtesy: Apple TV+

There’s a lot to unpack in Lisey’s Story. First, you have Lisey and Scott’s romance. Not only is it not told linearly, but there can also be a flashback of Scott’s tormented childhood inside of yet another flashback from when Lisey and Scott were living together in a ratty apartment before he sold his first book. That’s combined with their wedding and many other moments of their youth and later years in which Moore and Owen appear in different degrees of digital de-aging.

The show is also a love letter to the profession of writing. “I have visions. I write them down and people pay to read them,” Landon explains about his work in the sort of almost-poetic idioms Landon uses and only an actor like Owen can pull off.

The limited series also contains a story about obsessive fandom in the form of a character played by an out-of-his-depth Dane DeHaan. He’s a misogynist who advises men against wives. He’s also the kind of person who takes selfies with a cutout of his adored author and who leaves a dead crow inside Lisey’s mailbox. He’s not the only one smitten by Landon, though. Ron Cephas Jones plays a professor with equal disdain for Lisey. “You were nothing but a restaurant hostess when you caught his eye,” he tells Lisey about her marriage to Landon. The professor can only think about getting his hands on Landon’s unpublished works.

Lisey’s Story is also a scavenger hunt of sorts. Landon leaves his wife with a series of clues or bools to guide her in her grief. He promises a prize at the end if she solves all the riddles.

On top of all that, there are also tales of mental health, self-harm and a little bit of family drama. There’s resentment against Lisey and the money she has because of Landon, and everyone seems to question the role she played in his life.

The supernatural elements come in the recreation of Boo’ya Moon and are always associated with water, be it a running faucet or a heated swimming pool. The show deftly uses some tasteful CGI to conjure this place of escape.

I understand why King was adamant about writing this show himself. It’s difficult to complain about an adaptation when the author decides to personally write the script. He was the one making some of the creative decisions. From its cinematography accented in warm tones to its pensive performances, you can see all the craft and care that were put into the making of Lisey’s Story. Nothing seems left to chance.

I just hoped it would have been a little bit less about threatening fans and dreamlike escapes and a little bit more about Moore’s story without those horror and supernatural elements. At the end of the day with this show, as with King’s literature, I guess I just wished I was more a fan of the genre to be able to appreciate it.

The series debuts on Apple TV+ with two episodes on June 4. After that, it follows a rollout pattern of one new episode every Friday.