On first reading Lisey’s Story was one of my favorite Stephen King novels, as it’s one of the author’s own favorites, and though an attempt to reread it a few years back didn’t go well I’m still fond of the book in theory. So I was looking forward to the Apple TV+ adaptation. That King was scripting it himself was a double-edged sword; it guaranteed a comprehension of and fidelity to the source material that you don’t always get with King adaptations, but King is not a distinguished screenwriter, and eight episodes for a 500-page novel is more than enough rope for a writer who loves a digression. The surprise, then, is not that the first two episodes of Lisey’s Story are an elegant-looking exercise in tedium, but that King feels less to blame than director Pablo Lorrain.
King can be faulted for the lack of narrative focus and the failure to structure the story into coherent episodes, but it’s Lorrain chilly cinematography, bland direction, and indifference to soundtrack that leave the series feeling like a long low-key dream sequence. The abrupt time jumps are surely in King’s script, but it’s Lorrain who fails to offer any visual or directorial cues as to when we’re flashing back or moving forward. And it can only be Lorrain who apparently told Julianne Moore and Clive Owen to emote as little as possible, though I can’t imagine what his reasoning was. Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh are given a little more leeway as Lisey’s sisters, but the only person actually allowed to act is Dane DeHaan, who makes full use of the opportunity to embody the psychotic folksiness of Jim Dooley.
The one upside of the blanket of indifference that Lorrain has thrown over the production is that the excessive quirkiness of most King characters is thoroughly smothered. (I also appreciate that only one performer so far has attempted a Maine accent; the one who does is predictably terrible.) But as the scenes rolled over me like waves of nothing, I started thinking that a few of those overwrought verbal tics might almost be preferable. I don’t know why anyone who hasn’t read the book would stick with this; I don’t even know how they’d follow the plot, though I thought the same thing about people understanding Game of Thrones without reading A Song of Ice and Fire, and they obviously did. I couldn’t swear that I’ll watch more, though it might make appropriate background noise while I’m playing a video game or doing housework. I’ve started rereading the book, and this time I’m enjoying it more than on my aborted reread of a few years ago. Certainly it deserved better than becoming the TV equivalent of elevator music.