Nearly all of the best adaptations of Stephen King’s novels and short stories were penned not by Stephen King, but by screenwriters who turned King’s often brilliant source material into something of equal or even greater artistic merit. Think of what Frank Darabont did with “The Shawshank Redemption,” how the great William Goldman turned out a near-perfect screenplay for “Misery,” the manner in which Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon expanded “Stand by Me” into a classic and of course the stunningly effective and chilling adaptation of “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson.
The astonishingly prolific King adapts his 2006 novel “Lisey’s Story” into an eight-part Apple TV+ series, and that’s great but also a little troublesome, as the author might have been too close to his own work (one of his most personal stories) to trim the excess exposition off the bone. “Lisey’s Story” feels overstuffed at times and might have been even sharper and more terrifying if it had clocked in with five or six total episodes, but this is still an elegantly haunting journey with memorably raw and real performances from three of the best actresses in the world – Julianne Moore, Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh – as sisters whose bond has to stay strong enough to withstand the relentless onslaught of a crazed stalker, not to mention the dangers lurking in a world just outside the borders of reality. Clive Owen is also a standout as a Stephen King-esque author who has achieved enormous success, wealth and acclaim but has never escaped a childhood so dark and so insane it’s a wonder he survived. Oh, and we often take detours into an in-between world that looks like Ingmar Bergman’s waiting room.
Hey. It’s a Stephen King story. Crazy s— happens.
“Lisey’s Story” is filled with flashbacks taking us back several years and then a few decades, but the central story follows Moore’s Lisey in present day, about two years after the death of her husband, Scott Landon (Owen), a globally celebrated author who has achieved a level of success and fame only a few real-world novelists, e.g., Stephen King, ever attain. Still grieving, Lisey has been reluctant to go through her late husband’s papers in their spacious and well-appointed rural manse – papers that may include some unpublished works. Lisey shuts down the persistent and condescending efforts of a local professor (Ron Cephas Jones) to obtain Scott’s writings, but has a much more difficult time fending off a deeply unstable superfan named Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan), who stalks Lisey, invades her home and beats her to within an inch of her life, all in the delusional belief he’s on some glorious mission to take possession of Scott’s works and get them published.
That’s the real-world stuff. In flashback sequences that are exceedingly violent and sometimes difficult to watch, we learn young Scott and his brother were systematically abused by their crazed father (Michael Pitt), and Scott would periodically escape into a fantasy realm known as Boo’ya Moon, where apparently undead humans, often in pairs, sit on rocks and silently stare out at The Pool, which seems to possess magical qualities. Lisey’s mentally troubled sister Amanda (Joan Allen), who has reverted to cutting herself and has fallen into a catatonic state, is also aware of the Boo’ya Moon, as is Lisey herself – but a third sister, Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh), thinks they’re all nuts and they’ve imagined this place as some sort of escape mechanism. (In effect, Darla speaks for the audience, asking the questions we’d ask and expressing healthy skepticism about whether Boo’ya Moon is an actual place.)
Director Pablo Larrain (“Jackie”), cinematographer Darius Khondji (“Se7en,” “Panic Room,” “Okja”) and the production design team infuse “Lisey’s Story” with an unforgettable look, from the shadowy earth tones in and around Lisey’s house to the dreamlike (and nightmarelike) shadings in the Boo’ya Moon to the steady presence of water as a transformative compound. Clive Owen gives an appropriately muted and melancholy performance as Scott, whose eyes betray the sadness in his soul even when he’s at his happiest. Joan Allen is such a powerful presence that even when Amanda is without speech, it can appear as if she’s screaming for help. Jennifer Jason Leigh provides much-needed comic relief with Darla cynically wisecracking her way through even the most precarious predicaments. A part of Darla believes both Lisey and Amanda have drifted off to never-never land, but they are her sisters, and she’ll do everything in her power to protect them.
Most of all, though, this truly is Lisey’s story, and few actors in the world can match Julianne Moore when it comes to playing a role that touches on the whole spectrum of emotions, from the giddiness of Lisey on her wedding day to the deep and abiding love she shares with Scott to the heart-ripping sense of loss she feels to her ferocious determination not to let that insane fan control her life, and not to let the Boo’ya Moon swallow up everything she cares about.