In the last 5 years, there has been a Kingassiance. 2017’s IT opened the floodgates, and since then we’ve seen a myriad of King’s works adapted to both film and screen. While some have thrived, and others have died, it’s undeniable that he seems to be an infinite well to draw from. Because of this, we’re beginning to see more of Stephen King’s lesser-known works get a spotlight shined onto them; as we move beyond killer fear-consuming aliens and possessed automobiles, we find ourselves at the heart of a complex story of loss, belonging and memory – this is Lisey’s Story.
The double-bill opener introduces us to Julianne Moore’s Lisey Landon, grieving the loss of her world-acclaimed writer-husband Scott (Clive Owen); there’s a very cool Gothic title sequence with marionette dolls, as we watch puppet Lisey and Scott entwine one another in strings, the same strings Lisey must come to follow, her totemic shovel once a life-saving device now a tool of past excavation. Julianne Moore is an utter powerhouse in any role, so it’s no surprise she’s an encapsulating Lisey – her fragmented psyche slightly reserved, cracks showing ever-so-slightly as she wanders through her mausoleum of memories, Moore still shows off Lisey’s vicious bite against the likes of opportunistic salesmen or disturbing fanatical stalkers like Jim Dooley. Dooley seems to be our main threat to Lisey, and King sets the pair up for a devastating collision – they’re on opposite paths, seemingly destined to meet; Lisey is pushed into excavating her past while Jim navigates Lisey’s past to find her in the present, both connected by Scott.
Pablo Larraín’s taking the reins on the entire run of Lisey’s Story, and so far, I’m impressed. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, as we hide in dark, vacant domiciles, watching conversations from a distance – if these homes reflect Lisey’s family, then this family have some dark souls hidden away. These bleak, empty rooms with their heavy shadows cast over Lisey’s life that’re kept at bay by the vivid warm autumnal hues of the Maine landscape create a. By entwining cinematic motifs with the thematic resonance of the show, Larraín constructs this bold tapestry that weaves elements into one another, creating a bold and all-consuming portrait of an American Gothic world invaded by the colourful streams of this strange otherworldly dimension.
Fissures, cracks and liminal borders are strong throughout the two episodes, witnessing Lisey’s own fissures with her sisters, perhaps hinting at a cavernous rift that grew from a battle of Family vs. Success, the latter road taken. Memories are replayed yet contain new addendums, Scott seems to be both dead-yet-alive in Lisey’s dreams, and there’s this eerie underworld that seems indelibly linked to both Lisey and Amanda (Joan Allen) through Scott. Cinematically it has shades of Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, with a lurking dread that gradually begins to seep further and further in, obscuring the true clarity into this malevolent fugue state. One of the most exciting motifs of King’s work are the many plates he begins spinning as we dive into his worlds, with questions revolving around almost everyone we see – does Lisey know something of Scott we don’t? What is this strange other world that we get glimpses of? Little hints seem to lead to greater questions – whether King can maintain this many plates and keep them spinning to a fantastical conclusion remains to be seen, but for the time being, it grips you tightly like a vice and refuses to let you go, keeping your mind enslaved to solving the narrative puzzles King puts before you.
Although this seems like a more human-grounded drama initially, King’s penchant for horror dances in the shadows. There’s a slow, building dread from the onset of the first episode that bleeds into the second, gradually soaking you in a constant unease. As we transition from past-to-present, we feel as though both Lisey and us are transgressing every time we do – coupling this with some disturbing gruesome scenes, with their malevolent tone and brutal violence, Lisey’s Story gets under your skin fast. This isn’t your typical Stephen King horror, as different forms and types of unsettling beings, moments, and places all pop up to unsettle and perturb you – if Jim Dooley’s cold, dead eyes don’t make you flinch, then perhaps Amanda’s psychotic breaks will. While some of the tenser moments could do without the echoing soundtrack, the pulsating rhythms of discordant strings still work all the same. It’s just sometimes an impossible quiet can be the most terrifying thing.
This is easily Apple TV+’s strongest show yet, and it’s a powerful contender for the King of King adaptations – if they’re able to stick the landing of some of King’s more complex novels, then I think we could be seeing a lot more Stephen King/Apple team-ups in the future. For now, we’ll have to see where Lisey’s Story takes us, but right now, I’m savouring every word we’re told.
The first two episodes of Lisey’s Story will be available to stream on Apple TV+ from June 4th.