Dave Gardener was the first to get there, and although he arrived only forty-five seconds after the first scream, George Denbrough was already dead. Gardener grabbed him by the back of the slicker, pulled him into the street...and began to scream himself as George's body turned over in his hands. The left side of George's slicker was now bright red. Blood flowed into the stormdrain from the tattered hole where his left arm had been. A knob of bone, horribly bright, peeked through the torn cloth.
Stephen King established himself as a storyteller in the 1970s. His writing style was uneven, but he understood the place of horror in the broader culture and, if his characters were often stock, they spouted snappy dialogue and inhabited credible locales. Above all, he could spin stories with a rapidity most self-styled literary writers had to envy. The apotheosis of King's early work may be Different Seasons, which indicated his considerable talent for writing something other than horror.
Hollywood courted King, quickly adapting his first two novels. Carrie became an acclaimed motion picture and Salem's Lot, a mediocre but successful TV production. A lot of productions would follow. I suspect King could sell the film rights to the margin doodles in his middle school notebooks.
In the 1980s, the celebrity author drank heavily and used cocaine; he claims he has no memory of writing Cujo. He still had good ideas and a knack for narration, but his books became bloated, uneven, and in desperate need of a really good collaborative editor. King persevered, gave up his drugs, and demonstrated maturity and scope in his post-1990 writing. It, a product of his excessive 1980s period, has sold millions of copies, and been adapted twice to film. The first was a 1990 television miniseries; the second, a 2017 feature film with a built-in sequel.
The Novel (1983)
We're in a Stephen King horror novel, so our setting is a cursed small town in Maine. Something haunts Derry, Maine. An eldritch horror sleeps for approximately twenty-seven years and then awakens to feed, apparently needing to paralyze It's1 human prey with fear before killing. The creature shape-shifts or, perhaps, can create the illusion of shape-shifting. It tends to stalk children, though it will kill anyone, and also encourages others to kill. It can assume the shape of whatever It's victim fears, permitting King to depict both common fears and also decades' worth of pop-horror creations. Mostly, however, It wears the form of a clown named Pennywise (who occasionally calls himself Robert Gray, Esquire2).
We know none of this, initially. Only gradually do the main characters learn the truth, and try to stop something that shouldn't exist.
The 1000+ page novel moves about in time and space, but its main settings are 1958, when the protagonists are eleven, and 1984, when they return to their home town because they realize the danger still exists. We have seven children who (like the boys in Something Wicked This Way Comes, an obvious influence on King) realize the horrible truth that the adults refuse to see.
Our would-be demon-slayers are all outcasts. Bill Denbrough, the leader and a nascent writer, is the most adjusted and courageous. He has a stutter, for which he becomes a target of bullies, and he has lost a brother, Georgie, to It. Richie Tozier, group joker, wears thick glasses, has an impressive command of blue language, and occasionally gets targeted for violence because his insults are too good, and too apt. Mike Hanlon, one of the few African-American kids in town, finds himself on the receiving end of racist insults. An exceptional student, his research helps uncover the truth about Derry. Eddie Kaspbrak suffers from a domineering mother who gives him placebo medication for an illness he doesn't have. Beverly Marsh, the group's lone female member, is both tough and attractive, and draws attention from her male friends on both counts. She has an abusive father, but she's learning to fight back, a fact which could save everyone. Ben Hanscom is an overweight child whose father died in the Korean War; Beverly recognizes his sensitivity. Stanley Uris is Jewish; in 1958 Derry, his religion draws some negative attention. The most skeptical of the friends, Stan experiences the greatest difficulty accepting the presence of a supernatural force. They call themselves "the Losers' Club." Like many of King's characters, they come from central casting, but he develops them in plausible ways.
The adult Losers have forgotten, for years, what happened, and their town never accepts the presence of a monster in their midst. It, like nostalgia, has the ability to make us overlook the things about our individual childhoods and our culture's past that give the lie to our notions of the Good Old Days. We see the echoes between past and present, between It's supernatural evil and the banal, everyday kind, and between the protagonists' experiences and Derry's histories. Beverly had an abusive father. She now must escape an abusive husband. Henry Bowers, the psychopathic bully who terrorized the protagonists when they were young, has been imprisoned for years. It releases him, and uses him as a kind of soldier whom the losers must confront. Our fears return, if we do not address them. Meanwhile, the adults of Derry, in the past and present, see evil ascendant and ignore it, dismiss it. It's just life; how would one escape that? We're in a dark pop version of Buddhism and Hinduism, with cycles that must be escaped or they will be repeated, endlessly.
It reflects the best and worst of King's 80s oeuvre. It features a memorable villain and an incredible sense of fictional history. It also features many passages that could be trimmed, an absurdly over-the-top finale, and a few peculiar missteps. Children see themselves murdered in a photo that comes to life, confirm that they both saw this, and then casually head to a horror movie. An old man retells the tale of a massacre from his youth, and only then finds it odd that the mysterious clown who took part cast no shadow. I can accept the demonic killer clown, but the human psychology, responses, and perceptions need to make real-world sense. When they do, the novel really does work.
Speaking of human responses, every review of It must address King's inclusion of a kiddie sex scene, involving multiple consensual eleven-year-olds. While many people have proffered artistic and thematic reasons for why that scene appears in the novel, many more have shaken their heads, and cited King's 1980s cocaine abuse issues as a possible explanation. Although much of the novel's excesses might be blamed on a drug-addicted King and laissez-faire editing, the scene's role in the book, simultaneously crucial and completely unnecessary, will always present a problem for many readers.
Fortunately, no film adaptation has attempted to include the Pre-teen Sewer Orgy. The book's success meant, of course, that It would be dramatized, despite the difficulties presented by a fragmented structure, complex history, garish horror imagery, and twisted psychology.
Stephen King's It (1990)
It hit television in 1990, shifting the main time-periods to 1960 and 1990, toning down the violence and creepiness for period broadcast standards, and casting some familiar sitcom and family show actors-- and a few future stars.
Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace
Written by Tommy Lee Wallace and Lawrence D. Cohen, from the novel by Stephen King.
Tim Curry as Pennywise
Richard Thomas as Bill Denbrough
Jonathan Brandis as Bill Denbrough (age 12)
Harry Anderson as Richie Tozier
Seth Green as Richie Tozier (age 12)
John Ritter as Ben Hanscom
Brandon Crane Ben Hanscom (age 12)
Dennis Christopher as Eddie Kaspbrak
Adam Faraizl as Eddie Kaspbrak (age 12)
Annette O'Toole as Beverly Marsh
Emily Perkins as Beverly Marsh (age 12)
Tim Reid as Mike Hanlon
Marlon Taylor as Mike Hanlon (age 12)
Richard Masur as Stanley Uris
Ben Heller as Stanley Uris (age 12)
Michael Cole as Henry Bowers
Jarred Blancard as Henry Bowers (age 14)
Tony Dakota as Georgie Denbrough
Olivia Hussey as Audra Denbrough
Chelan Simmons as Laurie Anne Winterbarger
Gabe Khouth as Victor Criss
Sheila Moore as Mrs. Kaspbrak
Florence Paterson as Mrs. Kersh
Chris Eastman as Belch
Michael Ryan as Tom Rogan
Charles Siegel as Nat
Frank C. Turner as Al Marsh
Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown / It set a standard. Curry almost passes as an ordinary clown, before veering into full-fanged demonic. I am convinced that people who remember this film as classic horror base the memory principally on Curry's clown-- or they were ten years old when they watched It.
It's not just that the supernatural frights and small town scandal have been stifled for period television. Three larger issues present problems:
Firstly, the two-part adaptation dispenses with the fragmented time-structure. The first part establishes the adult characters, and then flashes back to the entire child plot. The second half returns to the story's present and presents the adult storyline. The change makes perfect sense for the medium, but sacrifices much of what made the book interesting.
Secondly, King's central casting tends towards stereotype. He relies on his considerable gifts as a storyteller to make the characters real in ways that don't translate into this screenplay. The TV versions feel too much like stock, and the depth created by seeing them in two eras (and many recollections of the life they led between those times) cannot exist in this abridged adaptation.
An uneven cast must try to make these simplified characters work. TV miniseries of the time tended to include well-known TV actors. This one features such small-screen luminaries as John Ritter, Harry Anderson, and Richard Thomas, all of whom had hit shows in the 70s and 80s. Ritter does the best at making us forget Three's Company3, and developing his character into someone entirely unlike Jack Tripper. Richard Thomas, alas, cannot live down the ghost of John-Boy Walton. In Battle Beyond the Stars, it felt like John-Boy had gone into space. Here, Mr. Walton has become a horror writer with a tortured past.
The kids put in credible performances. Brandon Crane is the strongest, though Emily Perkins, whose future credits would include a central character in the Ginger Snaps films, a handful of Supernatural episodes, and the demented receptionist in Juno, does very well as young Beverly. Future star Seth Green plays little Richie Tozier.
The third problem: King makes places into characters, and few of his novels succeed in this area like It. Derry has a plausible geography and a developed, creepy history, and these elements contribute significantly to the effect of the novel. They are almost entirely absent from the mini-series. Without them, we have a fairly conventional and occasionally cheesy horror-story.
The production itself is competent, though not outstanding, meeting expectations for a highly-advertised mini-series of the day.4 The quality of the effects varies quite a bit. The horror make-up is genuinely creepy. The skeletal figure works, especially for an era that never imagined The Walking Dead would one day shamble regularly across the small screen. The stop-motion, however, evokes chuckles rather than shudders. In the fortune cookie scene, the main cast appears to be under attack by a mail-order novelty company.
It remains, in the end, a mediocre adaptation, elevated by a few good moments and a memorable, disturbing performance by Tim Curry. His Pennywise remains iconic, unmatched even by Bill Skarsgård's monster-clown in the superior 2017 film.
It aka It: Chapter One aka It Chapter One: The Losers' Club (2017)
It made it to the big screen in 2017, with the story updated to 1989. We don't see the adult protagonists. The film focuses on the children, and ends with a prophetic dream and a vow to return if the creature they have either killed or, at least, stopped prematurely, awakens to threaten Derry again.
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, from the novel by Stephen King.
Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough
Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh
Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom
Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier
Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon
Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak
Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Uris
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise
Nicholas Hamilton as Henry Bowers
Jake Sim as Belch Huggins
Logan Thompson as Victor Criss
Owen Teague as Patrick Hockstetter
Jackson Robert Scott as Georgie Denbrough
Stephen Bogaert as Marsh
Stuart Hughes as Bowers
Geoffrey Pounsett as Zach Denbrough
Pip Dwyer as Sharon Denbrough
Molly Atkinson as Sonia Kasprak
Steven Williams as Leroy Hanlon
Elizabeth Saunders as Mrs. Starret
Megan Charpentier as Gretta
Once again, then, the adaptation shortchanges the novel's depth, though It manages a better sense of cursed town and troubled history than It's predecessor. Without that depth, we never entirely feel the fear we're supposed to, despite the film's best efforts.
The child actors, playing characters a couple of years older than their counterparts in the novel, give natural and credible performances. Jaeden Lieberher leads the pack as Bill. Sophia Lillis plays a very strong Beverly. Finn Wolfhard, best known for Stranger Things, gets frequent laughs as Richie, and the adolescent banter and jokes nicely counterpoint the horror. I could have watched an entire film about these characters doofing around.
Changes, both in time and script, shortchange some of the characters. Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Uris has too little to do. Mike Hanlon, self-appointed Derry historian and key player in the novel, loses most of that role to Ben. The racism he faces in the novel, meanwhile, almost entirely disappears. Part of the story's subtext disappears as a result. In its place, Mike has to deal with parents who died in a fire, a memory which permits some disturbing and frightening scenes.
The film features a handful of impressive horror-scenes, mostly drawn from the source. It begins with a faithful adaptation of the novel's introduction, milking the parallels between actual childhood fears and Derry's supernatural ones. Beverly's first encounter with It, in her washroom, illustrates nastily the fears associated with becoming an adult, physically and psychologically. We also get a haunted house sequence that proves entertainingly spooky, as the monster dips into pop-culture terrors. The house is excessive and deliberately clichéd, but strangely plausible.
The film's clever visual design alas, ultimately, undercuts the titular It.
Bill Skarsgård's performance, his creepy use of voice and movement, make for an effective and disturbing Pennywise. But whereas Curry's creation had some subtlety-- such that clowns, especially killer clowns, can be subtle-- the dramatic make-up turns Skarsgård into an obvious monster from first appearance. He's a great actor, but he's really got nowhere to develop from there.
The fun and frights must, of course, end, and that brings us to It's weakest point. The ending feels cheesy. It turns the otherwise strong Bev, briefly, into a damsel-in-distress, and it cheats us of any broader consequences. Collective amnesia aside, the town actively investigated the disappearance and death of multiple children. How did they explain these events? Bully Henry Bowers' critical role in the novel's epilogue, and his relevance to the town's perception of events, get ignored for no reason I can see. That could have been included easily, would have answered some questions, and helped set up the sequel.
That sequel will handle the adult plot. Viewers in 2017 are left with a curious, though frequently entertaining, film. At times, It feels like an old-school Disney family movie gone horrifically awry. R-rating notwithstanding, the kid-focus makes It more of a Halloween movie than a disturbing horror. It plays like a really good fairground haunted house, with some excellent performances, some good laughs, and a number of quickly forgotten scares.
Update: Review of It Chapter Two.
In a peculiar portion of the novel, college-age Bill gets upbraided by his creative writing professor for wanting to write popular, entertaining stories. The class applauds. Of course, Bill goes on to become a famous writer. I never really liked that portion. Bill's proff and classmates feel like Straw Creations designed to receive the brunt of King's feelings regarding people who say he's not, you know, literary. Read as a Mary Sue moment, it feels beneath the dignity of the often affable author.
The best revenge is living well. Stephen King will be able to buy himself yet another house, if he desires, on the profits of the new film and the sales It generates for the original novel. Or he can travel, give to charitable causes, buy cool stuff or do, really, anything he wants.5 I don't begrudge him his success. He may not be the most literary writer in history, and his film adaptations are uneven at best, but he has entertained the hell out of me more times than I care to count.
1. Shout out to Grammar Nazis: In this one instance, the correct form for the possessive is It's.
2. One of those bizarre King flourishes that I don't believe ever gets explained, or needs to be. King loves to craft uncertain, broader mythologies underlying his works. When Pennywise/Bob Gray drops the disguises, It looks like a giant spider-thing, but only because that's the closest we can perceive to It's true form. Also, Bob Gray, the Dancing Clown Spider-Thing battles eternally with the Turtle. It can be defeated by the Ritual of Chüd, a rite so badass it contains an umläut.
Look, just go with it.
3. Without question, a noble endeavor.
4. It takes place in small-town Maine, but both adaptations were filmed mainly in Canada. Shooting for the '90 version took place in British Columbia. In the scene where the adult Beverly leaves her dilapidated childhood home, a Canada Post box appears clearly in the background. The 2017 version does an excellent job of transforming Port Hope, Ontario and the Riverdale neighbourhood of Toronto into a small New England town from thirty years earlier. It is neither the first nor the last time Port Hope has capitalized on its iconic North American appearance.
5. He has done all of the above; in particular, King donates crazy amounts of cash to worthwhile causes.