Lisey's Story - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
There can be no doubt that Stephen King would not have become the prolific author we know today if it wasn't for his wife Tabitha. A renowned writer and philanthropist in her own right, it was her encouragement of King's writing in the early days of his career that set him on the path to success. The most famous example of this was with his novel Carrie. Three pages into the story and King tossed it in the bin only for Tabitha to pick it out and see the potential in it. King persevered with the book while Tabitha offered tips on how he should approach writing the female characters. Despite being rejected by around thirty different publishers it eventually found a home with Doubleday Publishing and the rest is history. Throughout their life together Tabitha has been a rock to King personally and professionally. In his book On Writing King speaks about how she is the first person to read any of his material as he trusts her honest feedback and during his darker days from his bouts with addiction to his accident in 1999 King has spoken about her loving support during those difficult times. This love is reflected in his 2006 novel Lisey's Story which has been referred to as his most personal book to date.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Clive Owen, Dane DeHaan, Joan Allen
Written by: Stephen King
Produced by: Andrew Balek, Marty Bowen
Cinematography by: Darius Khondji
Original Score by: Clark
A widow becomes the object of a dangerous stalker, obsessed with her husband's work.
During his acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in November 2003, Stephen King spoke of his love for Tabitha at length saying he wouldn't be there if it wasn't for her. In fact he shouldn't have been there at all as he was suffering from issues with his lungs due to a recurring injury caused by his accident in 1999 and attended the event against doctors orders. It led to a two month stay at the hospital. During this time Tabitha redecorated his home studio. Upon returning home he speaks of seeing it for the first time in an interview with Jill Owens in 2006 saying, "When I came back she said, "I wouldn't go in there; it's disturbing." So of course I went in there, and it was disturbing... The furniture had been pulled out because my wife was getting it reupholstered, and the rugs had been rolled up. I thought, This is what this place is going to look like after I die... When I thought of my wife cleaning out my papers, a light went on. Lisey's Story bloomed from that."
He went to work on the novel right away despite still being physically sick. Initially he intended it to have a comedic tone but when the character of Dooley entered his head, the story took on a much more serious turn. Upon its release in October 2006 the novel was met with critical acclaim and went on to win the 2006 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, and it was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 2007. On many occasions King has called it one of his favourite novels.
In an interview with Jenelle Riley in 2017 King expressed his interest in seeing 'Lisey's Story' being adapted to television based on the changing nature of television and streaming saying, "There's more freedom to do stuff now and when you do a movie from a book, there's this thing that I call the sitting on a suitcase syndrome. That is where you try to pack in all the clothes at once and the suitcase won't close. So it's tough to take a book that is fully textured, and do it in two hours and 10 minutes. But as a TV show you have 10 hours." In April 2019 Apple Inc. acquired the rights to the book and immediately announced that it was to be an eight episode miniseries based on King's own scripts and executive produced by J. J. Abrams. In the behind the scenes documentary on the series director Pablo Larraín stated how he was drawn to the project based on King's ability to understand humanity in a very universal way. After signing up to direct the series he took a trip to King's home in Maine where he read the scripts to get an understanding of what King was going for with this version of the story and the get more from what was not on the page.
At its heart 'Lisey's Story' is all about accepting loss, cherishing memories of love and learning how to go on without your soulmate. The novel is a deeply personal book for King as it is his most romantic expression of love for his wife, so it is easy to see why he wanted to pen the entire series himself as it allowed him to fully explore the relationship between Lisey (Julianne Moore) and Scott (Clive Owen) on his own terms. King's work as a screenwriter can be hit and miss but with 'Lisey's Story' he hits a home run. Every character is so well realised and fleshed out and the honesty imbued into them through his dialogue adds a layer of authenticity to it. Some might complain that the use of terms such as "kiddo" or "baby love” by characters might sound trite (and by just reading these words you might find it cringeworthy) but in the context of the show these are "pet names" that in reality people use all the time (even if we don't like to admit it). It adds a level of sincerity to the show as the relationship between the leads just feels more real.
Whilst King does a marvellous job at the outward expressions of love between the characters, director Pablo Larraín does an equally great job at visualising their internal emotions which can be an unenviable task for any filmmaker. When it comes to characters in King's work he tends to use a lot of internal monologues and thought processes to communicate what a character is feeling. This can be a difficult thing to visualise but what Larraín does so well is that he lets the camera rest on the actors faces for just the right amount of time allowing the audience to hear what they are saying through their eyes making this kind of story all the more powerful. In the hands of a lesser director it could have been a disaster but Larraín is such a visually emotive director, his sensibilities aligned to this kind of a story are a match made in heaven.
At the start of the series Lisey is a very emotionally aimless and distraught character as she has not fully come to terms with her husband's death in the two years since his passing. Recently she discovers that Scott had left behind a "Bool Hunt" (a type of scavenger hunt) for her to solve in the event of his death. As a person not only does she bear the memory of loss but she also bears the memory of Scott's reputation which is brought up to her everytime she encounters someone. Even when their conversations are minor or incidental they always seem to bring up how big a fan they were of Scott. This puts her in a place where it is next to near impossible to move on with her life as she appears to be trapped under the shadow of Scott's reputation. In the role Julianne Moore is nothing short of excellent. She pours so much emotion into the character that either sits internally with Moore measuring the levels at which to release it to a tee.
Opposite her is the looming spectre of Scott Landon, a man whose troubled childhood did not prevent him from becoming the renowned author that he was. In the role, Clive Owen is great mostly in how his presence is felt when he is not on screen. The calming manner in which he speaks and the haunted look in his eyes tell you all you need to know about the character without having to delve into flashbacks of his abusive upbringing. That isn't to say that this aspect of the series should be cast aside as the flashbacks offer a glimpse into how horrifying Scott's father Andrew was, with Michael Pitt almost seamlessly being able to pull empathy from an otherwise despicable character. These scenes make Scott's undying devotion to Lisey all the more powerful as he is able to show her love in the wake of living with so much hate growing up. He will always be haunted by those memories but with Lisey they fade and they can share nothing but pure love for each other.
The main antagonist in the show comes in the form of Jim Dooley (played by Dane DeHaan) an obsessed and dangerous superfan of Scott Landon who is determined to get his hands on his unpublished works. He comes across like a cross between Annie Wilkes of 'Misery' and Morris Bellamy of 'Finders Keepers' as he slinks from scene to scene in an unsettling manner. Even though he is quite stoic throughout, he is a powder keg waiting to explode at any minute. What makes him such a threatening character is how unpredictable he is as there are no limits to what he will do to get what he wants. DeHann's portrayal is superb. He carries a menacing presence in every scene he appears in that adds so much tension to the series. In short he is the dictionary definition of a creep but one who wouldn't hesitate to hurt you or the ones you love in getting what they want.
The sisters of Lisey, Amanda (Joan Allen) and Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh) also play a significant role in the series. In the wake of her ex-husband remarrying a woman he was seeing while they were still married Amanda has a manic episode that leads her to self harm and reverts her to a semi-catatonic state. We soon discover that her mind is trapped in the fantasy world of Boo'ya Moon dying to be set free. Joan Allen does a wonderful job at portraying the helplessness of Amanda's situation in order to take back control of her life. Jennifer Jason Leigh is just as good as Darla who is the sister trying to hold everything together despite coming across as abrasive at times. What is clear from these actors and Julianne Moore is that they have great chemistry with each other and how well they work together is perfectly summed up in the scene when they scream from a cliff top together in the pouring rain, agreeing to purge Dooley from Lisey's life once and for all.
Initially Pablo Larraín wanted 'Lisey's Story' to be a grounded series but King's insistence allowed him to explore the fantastical side of the story with the realisation of the fantasy world of Boo'ya Moon on screen. It is a world Scott has explored as a child inspiring so much of his writing. A place of eternal twilight it comprises a forest with a nearby lake where veiled figures sit silently by the still water. Larraín presents this in an evocative and dreamlike manner. The impact of this imagery is only enhanced by the score of the composer Clark who creates a melancholic melody that is seeped throughout the show. It is not an entirely quiet place though as a creature known as The Long Boy roams the surrounding area. A terrifying giant, he is made up from the bodies of thousands of people that have fallen prey to it. It is horrific not only in appearance but in the sound from the screams of those that make up the monster which sends a chill down your spine.
Despite all of these fantastical elements and the tension behind the plot involving the obsessive fan Jim Dooley, the thing that makes 'Lisey's Story' click on the page and on the screen work so well is the relationship between Lisey and Scott. You can tell that King is pouring his heart out on the page with his love for his wife Tabitha clear as day through these characters making it a very moving experience. Larraín perfectly translates this love beautifully onto the screen through the excellent performances from Julianne Moore and Clive Owen. It is a work that carries so much range but always circles back to a place of beauty and humanity whose central message can be summed up in Scott's final letter to Lisey which tells her to "remember and move on".
- Joseph McElroy