The series premiere of Apple TV+’s Lisey’s Story sets the stage effectively, introducing viewers to the six major characters of the Stephen King novel on which this production is based. With a dreamy, surreal tone, director Pablo Larraín navigates an introduction to a story about who owns intangible things like memory, passion, and creativity. Does art belong to the artist or the reader? The 2006 novel was one of King’s most personal, which is why he has chosen to adapt it himself, but it’s also one of his most unusual. There are no killer clowns in sewers or haunted old hotels in Lisey’s Story. It’s about connections, art, fandom, and mortality — not the easiest subjects for a prestige miniseries. However, the premiere is effectively moody and very impressive in its craft. Will it build more momentum and urgency to hold viewers more tightly? It doesn’t need to now, but it will soon.
First, a little history. Stephen King considers Lisey’s Story his best novel, and it’s clearly one that hit very close to home. The genesis of the novel dates to summer 1999, when King was hit by a van in Maine and almost killed. It forced the writer to not only question his mortality — his work became much more philosophical after the accident — but to consider what his passing and his art would have done to his wife, Tabitha. The book’s dedication reads “For Tabby.” Lisey’s Story emerged from those thoughts, particularly after returning home from the hospital to see that Tabitha had organized his studio. He made it back to his author’s workshop and saw a vision of what it would have looked like if he had never come home at all, his work in boxes.
And that’s essentially how Lisey’s Story opens, as the widow of a famous writer goes through his papers, manuscripts, and other work product in his studio. Scott Landon (Clive Owen) is dead. Scott Landon is also very much still around. Lisey Landon (Julianne Moore) is having the flashes of memory that come with cleaning out the belongings of lost loved ones. Scott tells her that she is every story and that while stories were once all he had, now he has her. It’s an interesting comparison. Is she like another one of his stories? Something that fits in his imaginary worlds? Or does she break him out of them? Is she a way to escape his violent visions?
The incredible cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Midnight in Paris, Uncut Gems, and so many more) shoots Lisey walking the grounds of the Landon home in a way that feels almost like Larraín’s film Jackie. After all, this is also a story of a woman finding her way out of her husband’s shadow after his passing. And there’s another luscious score (this one by Clark, who composed for National Treasure and the movie Daniel Isn’t Real) as Larraín and Khondji track Lisey through the natural world on her property, trying to capture her feelings using the imagery of a lonely woman.
The premiere doesn’t introduce the viewer to just Lisey and Scott Landon. We also meet Lisey’s sisters: Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Amanda (Joan Allen), who is going through a mental breakdown after learning of her ex-husband’s remarriage. There are also two invaders into this world: a professor named Dashmiel (Ron Cephas Jones) and a psychopath named Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan). Dashmiel comes to Lisey early in the episode looking for Scott’s papers and unpublished works, even blocking the path of her car. Does she have ownership over a brilliant writer’s work because she was his partner? Who owns art?
Meanwhile, Amanda is struggling, often falling into catatonic states after slicing her hands, and she has a vision of Scott in one of them. He comes to her and helps her play solitaire before saving her with something he “learned a long time ago when I was a kid.” A clear liquid comes from his mouth into hers and she returns to normal. He tells her that they have to talk about Lisey, and he later tells Lisey that she needs to protect Amanda. He’s trying to connect these sisters, even from the great beyond.
The episode flashes back to a key event in the life of the Landons, both literally and thematically. Scott Landon was asked to speak at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a school called Horlicks — a university also mentioned in early short stories by King “The Crate” and “The Raft,” both turned into chapters in separate Creepshow movies. During the ceremony, a crazed fan opened fire after saying, “You stole my mind.” Landon was shot twice — one dead center and one in the hand — but healed miraculously. Lisey comes to his hospital room to find him gone. He returns after she goes into the bathroom to turn off a faucet, leaving wet footprints to his bed, and he seems almost perfect. Where did he go? Is the water the same liquid he uses to “heal” Amanda? After all, the Landons have always been fast healers.
Scott comes to Lisey and tells her she’s on a Bool Hunt as they watch a vision of their wedding, hearing a rambling speech from dear old Dad. Scott tells her, “Right now, you need to take care of Amanda. Follow the clues. And get your prize.” And the memory/vision is connected to a clue that Lisey found in the attic earlier in the episode: “Bool. First Clue. I Said Doctor Mr. M.D.” At their wedding, the (pretty excellent) band sings “Good Lovin’” by the Rascals with that memorable line, “I said, ‘Doctor, Mr. M.D.’” Why was Scott guiding Lisey to that memory? And why does Amanda look so sad at her sister’s wedding?
Lisey’s memories start to blur. She has a vision of the shooter from Horlicks in her bathroom and awakens to find Amanda in the dry tub, looking lost again. While Jim Dooley, now instructed by Dashmiel to do what it takes to get Landon’s work, is creeping out a poor librarian, Lisey calls a doctor about her sister and discovers that Scott beat her to it. He knew that Amanda would have a break with reality and arranged for a facility to care for her. As Amanda is taken off to Greenlawn, Darla asks how Scott could have known to plan her future care.
Jim Dooley might know. Scott Landon’s No. 1 fan calls Lisey and tells her, “You have no right to Scott Landon.” He threatens her and tells her what she’s going to do. He’s going to come and “hurt you in places you didn’t allow the boys to touch you at junior high dances,” which is such a King line that even casual fans would know he wrote this script. She tells him to go fuck himself, which leads to Jim beating up a phone and stapling a photo of Lisey. He seems nice.
Awesome opening credits. I really miss the art of the tone-setting opening credits and these definitely do it with their ominous imagery of a puppet coming to life. Who is the puppet in this story? And who is the puppet master? And what of the fact that the Lisey puppet only breaks its strings after the Scott one turns to paper?
There are shots of books and clippings in Scott’s study, and one is of a fictional movie called Empty Devils that has a creepy clown face that looks so much like It that it’s almost silly. However, there’s another connection in that the second chapter of Doctor Sleep happens to be called “Empty Devils.”
Lisey goes into the bathroom in her dream in a shirt that looks a lot like a rug that could be at the Overlook. And we all know what happens in bathrooms in The Shining.
We’ll likely talk more about how this connects to other King and Larraín works in the future, but make sure to check out the filmmaker’s No, Jackie, The Club, and Neruda. He’s a major artist, and his long-delayed Ema will open this summer as well.