Television

Even Stephen King Has Trouble Making a Good Stephen King Adaptation

Lisey’s Story is one of King’s best novels, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to make it into a good TV show.

Julianne Moore, her head half submerged in a pond.
Julianne Moore in Lisey’s Story. Apple+

Stephen King’s works have been adapted for the screen an absurd number of times: at the time of this writing IMDB lists 322 entries that are in some way rooted in King’s oeuvre. And yet one probably needs at most two hands to count the King adaptations that have actually stood the test of time. For every Stand By Me or The Shawshank Redemption there are more duds than a rabid Saint Bernard can slobber at. (The number of King books that have inspired multiple forgettable screen versions could fill a long shelf all on their own.) For one of the most popular and prolific writers in history, King’s work has proved strangely resistant to adaptation, even if it’s clearly not for lack of trying.

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The gigantic box office success of Andy Muschietti’s It seems to have opened the floodgates for a new generation of King adaptations, the latest of which, Lisey’s Story, comes in the form of an eight-part series on Apple TV+. Based on King’s 2006 novel, it’s an A-list affair, with a cast headlined by Julianne Moore and Clive Owen and supporting turns by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dane DeHaan, and Joan Allen. It’s also executive produced by J.J. Abrams and directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, whose much-anticipated Princess Diana movie, Spencer, is due later this year. Most notably, every episode of Lisey’s Story was written by King himself. While King has written for film and television on occasion in the past, Lisey’s Story marks the first time that the author has singlehandedly adapted one of his own works in this manner and format.

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Lisey’s Story is one of King’s best 21st-century novels, beautifully crafted, unsettling, and deeply moving. The book’s premise is almost impossible to describe in a single paragraph, but here goes nothing: Lisey Landon is a widow who is still grieving the sudden death of her husband, the best-selling and award-winning novelist Scott Landon, two years earlier. As Lisey becomes the object of violent harassment from a deranged Landon superfan, Scott intervenes from beyond the grave to send her on a “bool hunt” so that Lisey can find her way to Boo’ya Moon, a magical land of wonder and terror that Scott discovered as a child and visited throughout his life, and which served as the basis for his creative inspirations. (Boo’ya Moon is also home to an enormous and terrifying creature called Long Boy, about whom I won’t say more here.) Through her late husband’s bool hunt and her trips to Boo’ya Moon, Lisey is finally able to come to terms with her own grief and repair her own fractured relationships with her sisters.

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This probably sounds weird as hell and more than a little goofy, and the Apple TV version of Lisey’s Story is some of the most out-there “prestige” television that you will see this year. The show has a lot to recommend it: it’s visually arresting and full of terrific performances (particularly Allen, as Lisey’s mentally distressed sister Amanda), and the series’ unapologetic embrace of the material’s sheer strangeness makes it a consistently interesting, and occasionally stunning, watch. Larraín’s direction is the show’s strongest component, simultaneously understated and dreamy, with no shortage of vividly creepy imagery.

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And yet in spite of all this, the series doesn’t really work. The novel’s structure doesn’t easily translate to episodic television, making the show’s 8 episodes feel awkwardly paced, rushing sometimes and dragging in others. King’s ear for dialogue is better tuned to the page than the screen, and some of the exchanges between characters feel leaden, like they’re reading out of a book to each other. Like a lot of King’s work, Lisey’s Story frequently jumps around in time, as Lisey’s almost hallucinatory memories of her husband become gateways into her husband’s own memories of his life before her. But in the series these interwoven memories are conveyed through standard flashbacks, which can sometimes feel sloppy and confusing—why is Lisey’s flashback suddenly transitioning to Scott’s? What we’re left with, once again, is yet another less than entirely successful screen version of a Stephen King novel. Even Stephen King, it seems, has trouble adapting Stephen King.

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The long, long list of unsatisfying King adaptations—of which Lisey’s Story is certainly among the better entries—may tell us something about King as a writer, and the shape of his remarkable career. Stephen King has been writing hugely popular and influential fiction for almost half a century, but for much of the early part of his career he was often dismissed as a mass-market genre writer. As this brief 1979 New York Times profile notes, King’s early books were paperback phenoms that barely registered on the hardcover bestseller lists. In the 1970s the popular genre fiction market was thoroughly entwined with the Hollywood development machine, and many of the biggest blockbusters of that decade—Love Story, The Exorcist, The Godfather—were based on what might today be called airport paperbacks. In 1974, the same year that King made his debut with Carrie, a first-time novelist named Peter Benchley published a salacious beach-read called Jaws, which was adapted into a movie the following summer. (The film did well.)

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From the start, King was seen as the kind of writer who writes books to get turned into movies, because that was the widespread conception of the publishing market to which he’d been consigned. King has always had a surfeit of ideas, and many of his horror novels have the sort of one-sentence synopses that seem like they’d make for killer movie material: a bullied teenaged outcast develops telekinetic powers; a writer battling alcoholism and writers’ block moves his family into a sinister old hotel; a malevolent force in the shape of a homicidal clown stalks a town from generation to generation. But unlike some of the writers he was lumped in with, King’s books never read like movie treatments, and many of the devices he frequently deployed—fragmentary narration and shifting perspectives, non-linear chronologies, a keen interest in his characters’ interiority—aren’t mainstays of conventional horror filmmaking.  

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The most successful adaptations of King’s horror work have found ways to get around this. To stay with the three examples above, in adapting Carrie in 1976, Brian De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen straightened out the narrative and dispensed with the novel’s patchwork form, a mix of conventional third-person narration interposed with excerpts from newspapers, academic volumes, and other fictional sources. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining jettisoned much of the book’s focus on Jack Torrance’s struggles with alcoholism and his gradual descent into madness in favor of a haunted hotel story. (King famously hates Kubrick’s version of The Shining, complaining—and not wrongly—that Kubrick made Torrance into a standard horror-movie psychopath.) The first “Chapter” of Muschietti’s It was remarkably well-done and truly scary, but it also relegated the book’s “adult” sections—which in the novel are intertwined with the childhood sections—to a sequel, It: Chapter Two, which was ham-fisted and bloated, stumbling into many of the pitfalls the first chapter managed to avoid.

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Most of the best King adaptations are drawn from material that is horror-adjacent, at most: The Dead Zone, “The Body,” “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” Dolores Claiborne. Lisey’s Story isn’t strictly horror, but it doesn’t neatly reduce to a logline; it’s a great idea, but hardly a straightforward one. It’s one of those books that when someone asks you what it’s about, all you can tell them is to go read it. It’s also a moving rumination on stories and inspiration, and the places fiction writers get their ideas, a subject that King—one of the most absurdly prolific popular artists in history—has probably been asked about more than almost anyone on earth. It’s not an easy book to make a television series about, which is to its writer’s credit. Lisey’s Story’s failings aren’t an indictment of King the screenwriter, they’re a tribute to King the novelist.

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