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‘Lisey’s Story’ Shifts the Prestige Miniseries to a New Frontier: Horror

Adapted by Stephen King from his own novel, the new Apple TV+ series gives Julianne Moore space to flex her Oscar-winning acting chops

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

At this point, the prestige miniseries led by an Oscar-winning actress is a category unto itself. But the format, having gone from statement to standard with astonishing speed, is also a vehicle for other genres. At its heart, Big Little Lies was a soap opera; most recently, Mare of Easttown took the small-town detective show on a trip to Wawa. To fuel its breakneck expansion, the limited series keeps acquiring new styles and tones. Lisey’s Story, the eight-episode drama that premiered last weekend on Apple TV+, brings the template to a new frontier: full-fledged horror.

Adapted by Stephen King from his 2006 novel, Lisey’s Story is, in many ways, familiar. The astonishing surplus of King movies and shows makes it easy to recognize the author’s touchstones, even if you’ve never read a word of his prose. (King IP is so ingrained into the culture that the short-lived Hulu anthology Castle Rock crafted a tribute not from any specific work, but by riffing on his collective catalog with original stories set in the broader King-verse.) Like many King works, not to mention his real-life residence, Lisey’s Story takes place in Maine. The premise centers on a disturbed fan of a successful author, á la Misery, and the characters make a visit to a creepy, snowbound hotel, à la The Shining. If Lisey’s Story weren’t written by King, he’d still be entitled to royalties.

Lisey’s Story has personal significance for King. The title character is the widow of a wildly popular fiction writer whose work “seamlessly blended the realistic and the fantastic.” The book was inspired by King’s return from a hospital stay, upon which he discovered his wife, Tabitha—also a writer—had rearranged his study in his absence. King used the incident as a springboard to explore what might happen in the wake of his own death. The result is that Lisey’s Story recalls not just King’s work, but the figure of King himself. On the one hand, the personal connection gives Lisey’s Story creativity, sacrifice, and other key themes based on firsthand knowledge; on the other, the hosannas for the fictional author can verge on excessive given how close they are to self-flattery.

To all these known quantities, the TV version of Lisey’s Story adds something new: Julianne Moore, the latest performer to revisit the small screen after making a name for themselves in film. (Moore had an extended run on 30 Rock as Jack’s childhood sweetheart Nancy Donovan; before that, her most recent TV role was 18 years prior.) Moore’s no stranger to scares—she succeeded Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, and played a more quiet kind of disturbed in unlikely quarantine classic Safe. But even after the blockbuster success of figures like Jordan Peele, horror remains an unlikely IMDb entry for an actor of Moore’s cachet. Anthologies like American Horror Story and The Haunting Of … have adapted horror to TV’s extended running time; The Outsider brought King to HBO just last year. Lisey’s Story marks another step in the gradual mainstreaming of a longtime niche.

Moore is clearly the star of the show, anchoring a story about grief and partnership. Still, she blends smoothly into a blindingly star-studded cast. Clive Owen plays Scott Landon, the writer who marries Lisey and leans on her for emotional support before passing away two years prior to the events of the show; when he was alive, Scott also felt a kinship with Amanda (Joan Allen), Lisey’s sister who struggles with chronic bouts of depression and self-harm. Dane DeHaan haunts the show’s margins as Jim Dooley, an obsessed acolyte who aims to separate Lisey from Scott’s unfinished manuscripts by any means necessary. Jennifer Jason Leigh—as Darla, a third sister to Amanda and Lisey who cares for the former and resents the latter—is only fourth on the call sheet: The cast is stacked even by the standards of 2021 TV.

Lisey’s Story was directed by Pablo Larraín, the Chilean filmmaker best known stateside for Jackie, another story about a grieving widow tending to the legacy of her famous husband. The longer Lisey’s Story goes on, the more the parallels come into focus. In his obsessive pursuit of his idol’s effects, Dooley is more than misguided; he’s an outright misogynist, branding Lisey a parasite who monopolizes what she has no right to. (He deems her “Yoko,” and not because she has a knack for conceptual art.) Through flashbacks, though, we come to understand how much Scott depended on Lisey to anchor him to reality and bring him back from the brink: Both Scott and Amanda, we learn, have a connection to an alternate dimension called Boo’ya Moon that’s implied to be the source of Scott’s creativity. If there’s no supernatural metaphor, then it isn’t a Stephen King story.

“Boo’ya Moon” is a silly, childish name, if for understandable reasons: Scott started traveling there with his older brother as a child to escape their abusive father. But Lisey’s Story makes it sillier by piling on jargon while failing to clarify the concepts that count. By the series’ end, we’re made to understand terms like “bool hunt” (a scavenger hunt), “Long Boy” (a Boo’ya Moon monster made up of human body parts), and “doubles” (people whose mind travels to Boo’ya Moon while their body stays on Earth). Yet we don’t understand, for example, how King wants to depict the link between artistic brilliance and mental illness, suggested by Scott’s bond with Amanda but never fully explored—let alone with the sensitivity and nuance the subject deserves. Depending on how it serves the story, Boo’ya Moon is part afterlife, part dreamscape, and part allegory for inspiration. Lisey’s Story gives plenty of specifics, except for the ones that matter most.

Pacing, too, is a problem. A 500-page book may require more than a movie’s worth of space, but eight hours prove far too many. Horror, in particular, suffers badly from stalled momentum. Draw out suspense for too long and the plot loses intrigue; lingering on violence and shock can cross the line into trauma porn, as Amazon’s Them was accused of earlier this spring. Lisey does both. Mysteries like Scott’s cause of death or Amanda’s lapse into catatonia are left unanswered for so long the viewer almost forgets about them by the time they’re resolved. Meanwhile, a scene when Dooley beats Lisey to a pulp is stomach-churning, as are multiple episodes dedicated to graphic child abuse. (In a deliberate directing choice, we never see Dooley land a punch—but we do hear it, and see Lisey’s response.) King has faithfully preserved the substance of the novel, unsurprising for an adaptation left up to the author. It just doesn’t suit the tempo of a TV show.

Moore is the spine of Lisey’s Story, and she proves essential to the parts that work in spite of the whole’s significant flaws. The blandly supportive wife to a genius is a frustrating cliché Lisey’s Story tries to subvert, arguing Lisey’s care for Scott made her a true collaborator in his bestsellers. On the page, though, the show threatens to succumb to the trope; Lisey can be a thin character, without passions or hobbies of her own. It’s Moore who gives life to her resilience, resentment, and pain. “My prize is learning how to be alone,” Lisey says of a posthumous bool hunt Scott left behind. Long flashbacks are broken up by reaction shots of Lisey’s troubled face. Often, the shots are more compelling than the memories they punctuate. (Credit where it’s due to the hair and makeup teams: Lisey sports a different haircut in each timeline, making Moore’s wigs essential to telling what’s happening when.)

Moore isn’t alone in propping up a rickety structure. We hear little of Scott’s work, which doesn’t exactly sell its mass appeal—a common problem in stories about superstar creatives. But DeHaan’s wild-eyed devotion certainly does. Along with Michael Pitt, unrecognizable as Scott’s dangerous, deluded father, DeHaan gives Lisey’s Story a needed jolt of terror. Dooley isn’t connected to the show’s supernatural elements, at least at first. But DeHaan’s twitchy intensity hints at something not quite of this world. Owen is fine enough as Moore’s former life partner, but it’s DeHaan who becomes her true foil as the characters go head-to-head over Scott’s work and who deserves a say in it.

The stronger half of Lisey’s Story is the one grounded in the real world, physically and emotionally. Larraín, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception), and cinematographer Darius Khondji (Uncut Gems) have their fun with Boo’ya Moon, a lush CGI landscape in permanent twilight. But it’s the Landons’ big, empty farmhouse—from Scott’s cavernous attic study to the overgrown pool Lisey still swims in—that feels truly transportive. If the straight horror parts of Lisey’s Story have an upside, it’s what they bring out in Moore’s performance: Lisey banging her head against a car window; Lisey screaming bloody murder when she finds a dead bird in her mailbox; Lisey sinking into the pool as the fog slowly surrounds her. The execution may be lacking, but the idea of Big Little Lies by way of The Shining is sound.