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IT by Stephen King: the 1986 novel and the 1990 miniseries

April 8, 2017

In anticipation of the upcoming film adaption of Stephen King’s classic horror novel It, I decided to revisit both the book and the 1990 made-for-TV miniseries.

WARNING!! While I usually avoid SPOILERS in all my blog posts, I am going to discuss It freely since the novel was published over 30 years ago.

I read the novel in my early teens, which was one of my greatest reading accomplishments as a kid since the book clocks in at over 1100 pages – quite a task for a young teenager. My recall of the book was pretty limited – I remembered a werewolf, a spider, the house on Nieboldt Street, Stuttering Bill, and that the book was way scarier than the miniseries, which I had already seen prior to reading It for the first time. I also remember thinking that It was my favorite book for a very long time – probably up until I majored in English in college and read a number of expertly written pieces of fiction and my overall range of literature tastes drastically increased.

Amazingly, what I did not remember was that Beverly Marsh, the lone girl in the Loser’s Club, has sex with all the boys, one after the other, thinking that doing so will somehow enable them to escape the sewers below Derry, Maine. This happens when they are in elementary school. How a teenager reading this book forgets a scene like that, I have no idea. How does Stephen King even write a scene like that? How does his publisher let him?

Revisiting the novel as an adult was much like the experience the Loser’s Club have when they grow up and move away from Derry: they all forget the terrible things that happened to them when they were kids. Aside from the few things I mentioned above, reading this book again was like reading it for the first time. The characters all felt familiar as I was introduced to them, as did a number of sequences, but a lot of it I didn’t remember at all.

I guess I should summarize the plot for those that might not know. It is the story of a group of kids that come together to square off against an ancient evil that frequently takes the form of Pennywise the clown, but can shape shift into whatever it is Its target fears the most, all while systematically picking off the children (and sometimes the adults) of Derry, Maine. This is something that happens every 27 years or so in Derry, so after an epic battle with It in the summer of 1958, the Loser’s Club, as they call themselves, all vow to return if It ever comes back to Derry. And It does, in 1985, when the kids have all grown up and become exceptionally successful adults, aside from Mike Hanlon, who stayed behind in Derry to keep watch. So they all come back to face off with their childhood monster and vanquish It once and for all.

While I adored this novel as a kid, I really liked it as an adult, but some of the flaws are way more apparent. Stephen King’s work is often criticized for not trimming the fat off his stories and that’s evident while reading It. King will frequently introduce a character, dive into a long and deep backstory, and then immediately kill that character off, all in the same chapter. While the backstories can sometimes be fun and do help develop a feel for the characters, one has to wonder if including said character is even necessary at all when King’s only plans for these people are to die. It’s like watching a bad horror movie where all these random people are picked off by our favorite masked killer, but having to watch a half hour of exposition before each murder scene.

Also, Mike Hanlon does a lot of investigating into the history of It in Derry and while this stuff is interesting and does pertain to the main story (that, historically, It haunts Derry every 27 years), a mention of why he’s looking into things and what he discovers would have sufficed just fine, but instead King dedicates what feels like at least a hundred pages to both the actual investigating sequences and to tragic events that happened in Derry in the distant past. I listened to It on Audible and I frequently tuned out for lengthy periods of time during these sequences. I just didn’t care.

I also found most of the story that occurs when the Loser’s Club are adults to be kind of grating. While the kids are incredibly likable and their story is enthralling and feels authentic, things feel way more forced for the adult group. While loudmouth Richie Tozier comes across as endearingly annoying as a kid, carrying over that exact same persona to an adult version is just plain obnoxious. With the exception of Ben Hanscom, who sheds all his excess weight and seems to have confidence as an adult, it seems like the rest of The Loser’s Club experience almost no maturity or emotional growth in the 27 years since they left Derry. Likewise, the encounters with It as kids are way more scary and fun than the ones they have as adults, although Beverly Marsh’s first adult confrontation is pretty chilling.

Finally, I am not a fan of King’s handling of where It came from. I’m talking about The Turtle and all that weird stuff that happens at the end of the book. What has been a taut, terrifying tale about a monster that terrorizes kids in a small town suddenly zooms way out and becomes a story about multiple planes of existent and ancient overlords (Gods?). Say what? If King gave no explanation of what It is or where It came from, I think the novel would still be plenty enjoyable. Probably better.

Still, It is plenty fun and these problems don’t ruin the book, they just make it clear that it isn’t quite the masterpiece I made it out to be when I was thirteen years old. It’s easy for me to point out all the things that kind of rubbed me the wrong way, but I still think It is one of the best horror stories I’ve ever read and ranks up there with The Stand as my favorite King book.

Before I move on to the miniseries, I feel I should note that Steven Weber (from the early 90’s television show “Wings”) does an AMAZING job reading this book. I was blown away really, particularly with how he handled Stuttering Bill – it’s a great performance and it really enhanced my listening experience.

Okay, so the 1990 miniseries. I hated it. I still hate it. It’s TERRIBLE. I’ve seen it three times now: before I ever read the book and immediately after reading it as a teenager and listening to it as an adult. The first time I saw it, I didn’t realize how bad it sucked, but I did after reading the book and I still do now.

Tim Curry has earned a heap of praise for his portrayal of Pennywise, and while I enjoy his work here just fine, it reminds me of Jack Nicholson as The Joker in the 1989 version of Batman: it’s a bit over-the-top and grossly overrated. When I read or hear people say that no one will be able to Pennywise justice after Curry’s portrayal, I can’t help but smirk. Of course they can. It’s not difficult to imagine a capable actor doing a better job. Curry gives a very mischievous, somewhat hokey performance that isn’t particularly scary and I think Pennywise is supposed to be way more terrifying. I think a lot of people are simply afraid of clowns and that phobia makes Curry’s Pennywise seem scarier than It actually is.

Still, Curry was pretty good casting for Pennywise and gives what is probably the best and clearly the most memorable performance of the miniseries. Everyone else is far more questionable. While John Ritter, Seth Green and Annette O’Toole have had respectable careers and don’t embarrass themselves here, the rest of the cast is filled with mostly unknowns and none of them elevated their careers with their acting in this miniseries. Almost universally, everyone is giving a cheesy performance and thus, it’s hard to take anything that happens on screen too seriously and it definitely lowers the scare factor substantially. Jonathon Brandis looks good as Stuttering Bill, but the poor kid’s ability to produce a natural-sounding stutter is nonexistent. Young Ben Hanscom actually does a good job, but he’s far more trim and confident than he’s supposed to be. I couldn’t stand the adult version of Bill Denbrough and his ridiculous ponytail. I could go on, but there is very little to like about the look of the characters or the acting in this adaptation and it really took away from my enjoyment.

Also, it’s weird that a miniseries that runs at almost three hours can feel so rushed. While the writers and editors were wise to trim off a lot of King’s fat, there is very little weight to the story. It just jumps from one scene to the next with basically no development. The ongoing feud with Henry Bowers feels like more of an afterthought than the epic battle it is in the novel. Henry isn’t all that imposing. He looks and acts more like a posturing greaser than a kid that actually becomes capable of murder. And when he returns as an adult, it’s even worse – all I could think of was Martin Short as Jack Frost. Get out of here with that.

Most of the encounters with Pennywise are brief and not scary. The miniseries fails to highlight how personal the battle between the kids and the monster is. It’s young Bill Denbrough and his group of ragtag friends against the evil spirit that haunts Derry, Maine. In the miniseries, it’s a bunch of random kids played by average actors against Tim Curry in clown makeup. And, to me, that’s the gist of why the miniseries was an incredible fail – it just feels so unbearably empty and the overall cheese factor only makes it worse.

Because I really enjoyed the book and absolutely loathed the miniseries, It has long been at the top of my list of properties in desperate need of a remake – ever since that trend has become rampant in Hollywood. With modern technology and evidence that breaking a single story into multiple movies is a viable business plan, it’s pretty clear someone can finally do Stephen King’s epic novel justice – and if the first trailer is any indication it looks like they have.

As far as I know, the film being released this September focuses on the kids and their battle with Pennywise, taking place in the 1980s – and you know what, that should be the only movie they make. As I’ve noted above, the story doesn’t work nearly as well when they are all grown up and I can only imagine a second movie dedicated to the adults will pale in comparison. I imagine the filmmakers are going to leave the weird children’s sex scene on the cutting room floor and I HOPE they don’t include the turtle and all that multiple planes of existence stuff. The trailer looks great: the tone looks serious, scary, haunting… the kids look well cast… I have high hopes for Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. There’s nothing funny or “clownish” about that trailer…

…and because of that… It (2017) is my most anticipated movie of the year!

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