Stephen King on why he refused to let anyone adapt Lisey's Story — until now
The king of horror himself adapted all eight episodes of the Apple TV+ limited series, which premieres June 4.
Acclaimed author Stephen King has had a plethora of his works turned into films or TV series, but he held on to Lisey's Story, which was first published in 2006 because he wanted to keep it for himself.
The story is, after all, deeply personal for King. It follows Lisey Landon (played in the series by Julianne Moore), the widow of beloved novelist Scott Landon (Clive Owen), who is grappling with repressed memories that she must sift through in order to deal with a series of violent and unsettling events two years after his death. King was inspired to write the story after his own near-death experience when he came home to find that his wife Tabitha had cleaned out and reorganized his study, giving him an eerie glimpse into a world without him.
As the limited series — adapted entirely by King, and starring Moore, Owen, Joan Allen, Dane DeHaan, and Jennifer Jason Leigh — gears up to debut on Apple TV+ on Friday, EW caught up with King. Here, he tells us why he chose now to finally adapt his book, if his feelings on it have changed since it was first published, and what he hopes fans take from the series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You once said that Lisey's Story was your favorite of your books. Do you still feel that way, 15 years later?
STEPHEN KING: Yeah. I would never have gotten involved with this thing at my age if it wasn't. You know, they're all my favorites. I love them all. Some of them are difficult children to love, some of them a little bit easier. This is a little bit difficult to love, but I've always loved the story, and that's the reason I got involved. I held on to this one for myself because I thought at some point I would love to be involved with writing it and guiding it to completion, and to be able to do that is just a wonderful gift. Because at my age, you don't have a great deal of time — not to sound morbid or anything like that — it's just the actuarial tables. So I'm glad that I held on to it, and I'm glad that Bad Robot did it, and Pablo [Larrain, series director] was the right man for the job. So, everything turned out well.
Why was now the right time to adapt Lisey's Story?
Well, that's a long story, actually, but it's a good story. I saw this thing on FX that was about the fashion designer Versace and about the man who killed him. And I had not really thought about getting involved with Lisey at that point or tackling it as a TV project, but I looked at that thing [The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story], and I said to myself, my goodness, this guy, Tom Rob Smith, wrote the whole thing. He wrote all eight or nine episodes, and I thought, well, if he could do that and bring it home and do such a great job, what about Lisey? And I sat down, and I started, and I showed the scripts to Ben Stephenson at Bad Robot one by one, and he was very encouraging. So the scripts got done, and everything else followed from that. I think that the fortunate thing for me is that now there are so many streaming platforms that the whole form of long-form TV is opened up in a way that it wasn't before. You have a chance to do more. You can be a little more graphic with language and with sexual situations and with length, just the chance to do something that has that kind of spread, texture, and a little more nuance. For guys like me, it's been great.
Like the book, the show features fantasy elements in the form of the alternate world of Boo'ya Moon that Scott, and later Lisey, are able to visit. Do you feel like the on-screen version fully realized the world that you imagined?
Yeah, I would say that I'm 100 percent satisfied with the way things look. The great thing about this was Guy Dyas, who designed Boo'ya Moon and built it, created these huge, huge sets. They were at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. You talk about spooky, the coronavirus came along and shut us down, and for a while, those sets just sat there deserted. Boo'ya Moon was very creepy at that time. I saw it with everybody gone, and it just looked haunted to me. It was wonderful. He just filled it with these strange plants and designs. Yeah, I would have to say I'm pretty satisfied with the way it turned out.
With the book being so deeply personal for you, did you find it difficult to tap back into these characters to adapt it?
No, because I published the book, and I think I'd had like 15 years for it to — what do they say about wine? — to age. So I was able to go back to the book with an eye that was less of a lover's eye than a writer's eye, I'd say. And I looked at it, and I said, "I can do a number of different things to this." It was almost like a chance to rewrite a book that had been published and kind of done and dusted, so it was wonderful to go back to that. For instance, in the book, Lisey, she has four sisters, and I looked at it, and I said, "Well, two of these sisters really aren't doing that much. So that's a little something that can go out of it to streamline it a little bit." And there were things in the book that I hated to let go [of for this]. There's a long passage about Lisey and Scott in Germany when the marriage is under a lot of stress. And I think every marriage goes through that, you know, you go through a period when the sailing gets a little bit rough, the winds get a little bit high. That was a good piece of work in that particular book, or at least I liked it. But [for the show], you don't want to overload things, and you want to keep it pretty smooth. It was a chance to rework the book and say, "Well, this wasn't working too well, so this goes, and this is working really well, so let's add that."
I'd say the essence of their relationship, in that it's completely loving and overall happy but certainly not perfect, is definitely still there. And, of course, Scott and all of his baggage.
Yeah. He's a very fragile character, you know. You talk about, do you base things on your own life? And, yeah, you take certain things that are useful that you can build on a framework, but I'm not that kind of fragile guy because I didn't have that kind of horrible childhood. But I think that any writer, any creative person, is not perfectly balanced — we wouldn't be doing what we're doing if we were.
Right. And you mentioned things that you cut from the book, but what, if anything, did you add to the series that maybe wasn't in the novel?
I'd sit down and talk with Pablo, and he would call me up and say, "Stephen, I have a little idea." And I would think to myself, "Well, either this could be really good, or it could be really bad." He said he wanted to add a couple of scenes with Jim Dooley [played by DeHaan]. He talked about one in a library where he's reading a book and talking about Scott and how much he loved him, and then he said maybe Dooley could revisit Scott and Lisey's old apartment, so we added that too. It was kind of fun. It was nice to have some things to put in that weren't in the book.
I am glad we were given more of Jim Dooley in the show, because that means more of Dane being absolutely terrifying as this obsessed stalker of Scott's.
Well, Dane is a hugely talented actor. He brought his own concept of Jim Dooley to the show, and I just absolutely loved it. I love the fact that he's always comfort eating. There's always something going into his mouth. I loved that. Pablo said to me, "What do you think about if he had a yo-yo?" And actually, it turned out that Dane could use a yo-yo; he could do certain tricks with it. So we put that in, and actually, I wish there was more yo-yo! My grandkids watched a rough cut of the first episode. And they liked it, but they really came to life when they saw Dane DeHaan. So there you are, I guess he's got a certain electricity to him, and in this particular part, that's pretty scary.
Boo'ya Moon and its transformative water features heavily in the show, and there's a line in the book about it meaning something different to everyone. What does it mean for you?
To me, when I was in college, I had a professor that made a big impression on me because he talked about the myth pool, where we all go down to drink. And that became the pool for me in Boo'ya Moon, where you go to be healed, but it's also a place where you can be fascinated and be lost forever. So, in a way I was trying to talk — these things always sound a little bit pretentious when you bring them right out there, and it shouldn't be, it should just be something that is in the book as a kind of subtext — but I wanted to write about the wellspring of creativity for a guy like Scott, or I suppose, like me, like Philip Roth, like any novelists that you ever admired and loved. I guess I was under the influence a lot when I wrote Lisey of D. H. Lawrence, who's a writer that I admire terrifically. Émile Zola is another one. Those people have access to this place, this creative place, call it Boo'ya Moon, or call it Narnia, or call it whatever you want, but they have access to it. It's a great thing, and it's a great gift to them, and to the people who read their books or see their films, but it's also dangerous because you can get too fascinated by that. And in the real world, you can get involved with anything from drugs to dangerous, self-destructive behaviors, and you see some of that in Scott with the cutting, for instance.
What part are you most excited to see brought to life onscreen?
All of it. [Laughs] But I guess the part that I liked the best was Lisey and her sisters. I like that sister thing going on. My wife has sisters, and it's always interesting to see them interact with one another. The love is always there; it's a strong, strong bond. But at the same time, there's also some of that sibling rivalry from childhood, and sometimes, when they get together, the tongues get a little bit sharp. In the second episode, Lisey has a discussion with her sister Darla [Leigh] over the telephone about Scott selling this book. They get into this s---ty little argument about whether or not she sent a card to Amanda [Allen] or whether she can come up for a birthday and all this other stuff. I enjoyed that very much. Of course, later on, when Dooley actually shows up, it's the sisters who take him on. I like that a lot. This is a show where the men almost recede into the background. It's really about women and about sisters. Scott is there, Scott's a very important character, but he's dead.
What do you hope audiences get out of the show?
I guess that if you had to put it in a nutshell it would be that love is painful, but love is worth it. To me, that's the important part. That's what I take from my own life.