'Lisey's Story' Spoiler Review: Maybe Stephen King is the Wrong Choice to Adapt Stephen King
“Everything the same?” This is how Scott Landon, one of many writer characters in the written works of Stephen King, greets his wife, Lisey, when coming home from a hard day of catatonic gazing by the dream pool. Like many creative people, he’s half in this world and half out. His favorite haunt is Boo’ya Moon, a mystical realm, like Never Never Land only scarier and potentially more lobotomizing. It’s the human imagination, literalized as a place of peril and wonder, and it’s only ever a blink away.
Like Scott, fans streaming Lisey’s Story, the eight-episode Apple TV+ miniseries, may be wondering: is everything the same? How does the TV adaptation of Lisey’s Story differ from the book? Is it any good? Now that the series has concluded, we can address those questions.
Of all the novels King has written, he’s cited Lisey’s Story as his favorite, with the understanding that favorites are subject to the whims of fluctuating taste. The story was close enough to his heart that he wrote the teleplays for the series adaptation on spec before shopping them around and eventually landing at Apple with J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot.
Lisey’s Story aired its final episode on Friday, and now we’re left to look over it and compare and contrast the final results to the book (or, in this reviewer’s case, the audiobook, narrated by Mare Winningham, who co-starred in another King adaptation last year on HBO).
As they say in the novel: SOWISA. Strap On Whenever It Seems Appropriate. And now is appropriate for turning on the water faucets and taking a book-to-screen ride to Boo’ya Moon. Grab Chekov’s shovel and sharpen it: you’ll need it for the constructive criticism that’s coming. Major spoilers are guaranteed from this point onward.
Lisey’s Story is Told in the Same Slow “Lisey-Time” as the Book
If it seems like I’m being hard on Lisey’s Story already, that criticism comes from the tough-love corner of a King fan who believes all things serve the Beam. Which is to say, the Stephen King multiverse is rich with innumerable pleasures, yet also rife with hit-or-miss ideas and occasional, nay, frequent “literary elephantiasis,” as King himself has called it.
Consider the following excerpt from Lisey’s Story, the book, which offers a meta-commentary on Lisey’s Story, the TV series:
The Title is Somewhat Misleading – This Isn’t Really Lisey’s Story
Reminder: it was King who created the Christ-like yet questionable character of John Coffey in The Green Mile. Coffey, in turn, helped inspire filmmaker Spike Lee to popularize the term “the super-duper magical Negro,” in reference to a Black screen character who is only there to aid the white character(s), sometimes with supernatural healing powers.
The two main human faces in Lisey’s Story are the aforementioned Moore and Owen, and they have a natural chemistry as actors that has not dimmed in the 15 years since Children of Men. Lisey’s Story also reunites Moore with Jennifer Jason Leigh, herself a recent audiobook narrator. Leigh helped sow identity confusion with Moore as Hitchcock-like blondes, this year, in Netflix’s middling The Woman in the Window.
The other sister — there are three here instead of five like in the novel — is Amanda, played by Joan Allen. Amanda is the institutionalized (shout-out to Shawshank) woman caught between two worlds. Allen is a long way from her Oscar-nominated work in ’90s and ’00s films like The Crucible and The Contender; but it’s good to see her again, even if she’s sometimes saddled with the thankless task of sitting on stone steps and staring off into the moonrise like a “deep-space cowgirl” (to paraphrase Scott’s own term for obsessive fans like Gerd Allen Cole, the Mark David Chapman-esque guy who shot him).
Dane Dehaan plays Jim Dooley, a Misery-lite stalker who microwaves and mailboxes a crow (instead of the book’s cat), thereby giving new meaning to the collective noun: “a murder of crows.” If it seems like we’re losing sight of Lisey amid the ensemble cast, maybe there’s a reason for that.
Dooley the Deep-Space Cowboy is Scott Landon’s #1 Fan
Lisey’s Story began life in 2004 as “Lisey and the Madman,” a short story/novel excerpt, published in McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. That anthology, edited by novelist and screenwriter Michael Chabon, remains a good contender for a desert-island book, assuming you’re the kind of constant reader who likes literary page-turners and believes that King delivers his best work sometimes in novella and short story form. In the anthology, “Lisey and the Madman” came right after Steve Erickson’s “Zeroville,” a conceptually brilliant short story that we’ve discussed here in the past.
In his quest to retrieve the dead Scott’s papers and share them with the world, Dooley wanders around like a “gorked-out goner” who fell off the back of the Dane Dehaan incel truck. Like Amanda and Scott — both of whom engage in self-harm in an effort to cut out “the bad gunky” — Dooley is rather zombified. He sports a yo-yo, as if Dehaan felt it necessary to give the character some identifiable quirk.
Lisey’s Story introduces him in a brand-new scene set in children’s library, and there’s a cloud of menace hanging over him right from the get-go. He’s more openly hostile and misogynistic than his book forebear, who comes across as less intelligent but superficially friendlier, more diplomatic, to the widow of his favorite author (at least at first).
If there were ever any doubt that Lisey’s Story is a horror drama, the fourth episode eliminates that when it suddenly turns into a violent home invasion thriller like Funny Games. Dooley brutalizes Lisey with his fists and a pizza cutter (instead of the book’s can opener). Thankfully, all Landons are fast healers and Lisey need only bathe in the waters of Boo’ya Moon to recover.
There’s no more justice for Han than there is in the Fast and the Furious film franchise. Sung Kang dies in his police car at Dooley’s hands. We eventually learn that Dooley roomed with Gerd Allen Cole, the university shooter, in a mental hospital. That’s why he’s so obsessed with Lisey’s husband.
“The Spouses of Well-Known Writers Are Almost Invisible”
Lisey’s Story uses the power of visualization to travel back and forth between Earth and Boo’ya Moon, and the series recognizes that it needs to give us a visual presentation of her thoughts. At one point, there is a bit of voiceover as Lisey reads a letter, but the series mostly tries to solve the show-don’t-tell predicament by having Moore’s character stand around or remain outright sedentary next to her swamp-like swimming pool.
There, she flashes back and entertains flashbacks within flashbacks. One episode literally ends with Lisey sitting poolside, staring off into space. The next episode begins with her…sitting poolside, staring off into space.
There is entirely too much toggling back and forth between the past and the present. All the cross-cutting in the world can’t save this grieving widow from the otherwise static state of her life outside her mind palace. Why keep showing Lisey in the present when there’s nothing happening there? Is it because the series thinks we need to have her as a visual anchor?
Unlike fiction, where the past tense is more common, screenplays are usually written in the present tense, the idea being that film lives in the eternal now. In Lisey’s Story, the past lives at the expense of the present. If you wrote a logline or recap for the events of the fifth episode, it might read:
We see more sickening violence against women, but the plan mostly works, and Lisey and Dooley soon shuttle off to Boo’ya Moon. Dooley headbutts Lisey, breaks her wrist, and bites her before finally biting the big one himself.
Lisey’s Story is a Jam-Packed Suitcase That Won’t Close
King has likened the process of book-to-screen adaptations as “sitting on a suitcase syndrome…where you try to pack in all the clothes at once and the suitcase won’t close.” Lisey’s Story shows that, with some tales, it’s better to travel light.
There’s enough story here to justify maybe four or six episodes, not eight. King could have compressed the novel but instead, he translates it and it doesn’t always translate well. The TV conversion just doesn’t play to his strengths as a writer. Most of Lisey’s all-consuming flashbacks are focused on her life with her late husband, and this is key: the title, “Lisey’s Story,” refers to a story that Scott wrote for Lisey. It’s his story, dedicated to her.
Speaking of Funny Games, the real highlight, acting-wise, in Lisey’s Story winds up being Michael Pitt, who is virtually unrecognizable at first as Scott’s alcoholic father (the Jack Torrance of this tale). His final resting place is a well, like the ill-fated spouses in Dolores Claiborne and 1922. It’s not until he looks up in the rain, like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, that we finally get a good look at his face. I was legitimately shocked when I realized it was Pitt whose shadowy eyes were hidden behind all that long hair.
The emotion of some scenes recalls Moore’s drugstore and lawyer’s office freakouts in Magnolia, where she’s hitting that hyper, hysterical register. “Don’t you call me lady!” She gives life to the character of Lisey, but too much of the time, Lisey’s narrative is centered on Scott and his own Frailty-esque backstory as a kid with an abusive father and a possessed brother.
Bool! The End.
The series is handsomely mounted and there are moments of true enchantment, such as when Lisey and Scott sit under the “yum-yum tree,” a snowy willow outside their ski resort. Lisey’s Story is not without levity, either, but it’s largely self-serious, overlaid with weeping violin strings that belie its childish logic and language. A Castle Rock lighthouse shines through the Landon barn but like Scott’s editor, the viewer might be inclined to feel: “It creaks a bit, old boy.”
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