“You’ll float too.”
As a longtime Stephen King fan, I have to say that when I first read It I wasn’t all that impressed. I actually bought the first hardback release, way back in 1986 when I was a mere teenager, not much older than the protagonists at the story’s outset. It was, in fact, my first purchase with my wages from my very first job – as a clerk at a local video library where I wasn’t even old enough (technically) to watch some of the films we stocked.
Like all King novels (even the mediocre ones), It was never less than readable, and I rushed through the lengthy tome in a few days. Then I put it aside, shrugged, and judged it overlong, unnecessarily convoluted, and with an ending that was murky and cerebral rather than satisfying (though I doubt the 16 year old me expressed the sentiments in quite those terms).
I actually haven’t been back to the book from that day to this; unlike many of King’s novels, which I’ve read and reread numerous times, my lukewarm response to It put me off going back to it. That’s quite saying something, considering I’ve read Firestarter at least three times.
It’s taken me more than thirty years to concede that, actually, I might have been doing the novel a disservice. Yes, I watched and enjoyed the 1990 TV miniseries, though my admiration for that was primarily reserved for that barnstorming Tim Curry performance as Pennywise. But I’ve just caught up with the 2017 film adaptation (of the novel’s first half anyway), and it’s made me realise a few things.
The main one was just how much, even on that one reading the characters, setting and plot of It stuck in my mind. I think I may have seen the TV version a second time, though no more recently than twenty years ago I think.
And yet as the new film version brought the characters onscreen one by one, I realised I remembered them. Every one. Their names, their personalities, their backgrounds… even their futures, from the later half of the novel that hasn’t been filmed yet. Stuttering Bill Denbrough, Trashmouth Richie Tozier, Bev Marsh, Mike Taylor, Ben Hanscom, even psychotic bully Henry Bowers.
It’s a testament to how I underestimated King’s novel that I remember them so well, on the basis of one reading more than thirty years ago. And a testament to director Andy Muscietti’s casting that I could instantly tell which kid was which. The juvenile cast do well with some pretty dark, sophisticated material about fear, coming of age, and the confluence between the two.
As a movie, it was inescapably reminiscent of acclaimed Netflix show Stranger Things – particularly that nostalgic 80s setting. But actually, it’s really Stranger Things that owes It (and any number of other King novels) a debt. Stranger Things, a labour of love by the Duffer Brothers, is a tribute to all things 80s and geeky that my generation grew up with – Spielberg movies, John Carpenter, and in particular Stephen King, whose novels were going through a glut of Hollywood adaptations that decade.
The loveable group of misfit geeks that forms the heart of Stranger Things could easily have stepped out of the pages of a King novel; this one in particular, given the dynamic of several awkward boys and one confident girl. Almost as if repaying the debt, Muschietti has cast Stranger Things alumnus Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier, and it’s a demonstration of the young actor’s talents that smartass, smartmouth Richie, with his coke-bottle glasses, is worlds away from Stranger Things’ solemn, sensitive Mike Wheeler.
One thing that’s changed substantially from the novel in this new adaptation is the timeframe, updated so that the second half, as ever, will be contemporary. That means the first half, set thirty years ago when the characters were pre-teen, has been time-shifted from the late 50s to the late 80s – another reason it resembles Stranger Things so much. Cinema marquees in Derry tell of new movies like Tim Burton’s Batman and Lethal Weapon 2. Characters hang out in video game arcades playing the likes of Asteroids and Pac Man.
It’s a past recreated every bit as lovingly as in Stranger Things, and feels oddly appropriate for an adaptation of It – after all, the novel was published around about this time. But what the update also means is that the archetypal fears imitated in 1958 by “It” in King’s book – Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman and so on – have also been updated. Satisfyingly, Muschietti avoids the temptation to simply update the pop culture references (to, say, Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees), instead portraying the kids’ deepest fears as more primal, more psychological.
So, Stan Uris is haunted by an apparition of a twisted woman from a genuinely creepy painting in his father’s office (based in part on the work of 1920s artist Amedeo Modigliano), while chronic hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak is menaced by a hideously malformed, diseased leper. For Bev Marsh, of course, nothing is scarier than her (physically, sexually and psychologically) abusive father, so that’s how “It” appears to her at one point.
The scariest manifestation of “It”, though, is undoubtedly the form in which we first meet the entity, to which it returns time and again throughout the narrative – Pennywise the Dancing Clown. While I don’t have an actual phobia of clowns (there is one, and it’s called coulrophobia), even I find them a little bit creepy rather than funny. It’s that ‘uncanny valley’ effect. A clown is real, tangible, and looks almost – but not quite – like a real human being. Brrr.
King, who has a knack of ‘getting’ common fears, pulled off a stroke of genius by making this “It”s default form. The panoply of evil clowns in horror, music and even in real life of late almost certainly owe their existence to Pennywise, if not from King’s novel then from Tim Curry’s unforgettably creepy performance in the 1990 TV adaptation.
Subject to the restrictions of broadcast television, that adaptation waters down the gore and horror enough that it would have been fairly forgettable – if not for Curry. Fortunately, it seems the network censors didn’t twig that an evil clown could be scarier than any amount of gore, and Curry’s Pennywise – one moment genial, the next terrifying – was an unforgettable creation. If Tim Curry didn’t already have Frank N Furter to boast about, I’m betting this is the role that would define his career.
That’s some very big clown shoes for incoming baddie Bill Skarsgard to fill. Fortunately, he does very well, in a performance that’s more mannered (and more immediately sinister) than Curry’s. So definitive was Curry’s performance that this film really had to do something a bit different with Pennywise; it tries, with a spooky Renaissance-style outfit, but it’s Skarsgard’s weird, twitchy performance that properly brings it off. He’s kind of a weird-looking (though by no means unattractive) dude in real life, not to mention being very, very tall. All this gives us a Pennywise that’s different enough from Curry’s to make the movie seem worthwhile.
Also, being a movie rather than a network TV show, It can be as gory as It likes. So that iconic opening scene, as Bill Denbrough’s little brother Georgie is dragged down a drain into the sewer by the toothy Pennywise, is much nastier than before. As nasty, in fact, as the novel it’s based on, with the screaming boy, his arm torn off and socket spewing blood, trying desperately to crawl away down the rain-soaked tarmac away from the extendable-armed horror in the drain. Even I winced seeing that.
All the way through, in fact, the movie uses its licence to be darker than the TV adaptation, with oodles of blood (especially in Bev’s bathroom), Henry genuinely carving letters on Ben’s stomach with a knife – oh, and a much, much more obvious (and disturbing) sexual overtone to everything Bev’s father says to her.
This darker tone is not without limits though. Thankfully omitted was the frankly baffling scene from the original novel where the kids get lost in the sewers and the only remedy for some utterly bonkers reason is for all the boys to have sex with Bev, the only girl. That’s one bit of the book my opinion has not changed on; these are 12 year old kids, for Chud’s sake, and it doesn’t make any sense in any case. It’s the one bit of the book everybody remembers with no fondness whatsoever. Including, I hope, Stephen King, who’s often the first to acknowledge flaws in his writing.
Still, this is a huge improvement on the mostly anodyne TV adaptation (Tim Curry excepted). The updated period setting works well, and it’s strewn with little easter eggs for fans of the book – I particularly liked the recurring Turtle motif, which will obviously be more explained in the sequel. The Lego one was a nice touch, though I don’t recall basic Lego bricks being available in green in 1989. We also got to see Bill’s beloved bicycle Silver (named after the Lone Ranger’s horse, which seems less likely in 1989), which will play a crucial role in the next part.
I’m looking forward to the sequel, which will bring us bang up to date with the characters reuniting to face It one final time in the present day. So much, in fact, that I may well go back and read the book again. In a funny sort of way, seeing this movie, in this year, has taken me back to a past thirty years ago that I too thought I’d forgotten. I wonder what 16 year old me would make of that.