This may become a trend.
One of my first Book 2 Screen Reviews was an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie. This novel was adapted, not once, not twice, but three times – twice as a feature film and once as a made for t.v movie. Over the course of his long career, Stephen King has penned many bestselling novels which have gone on to spawn notable films and t.v mini-series including, but not limited to, The Shining, Cujo, Children of the Corn, Pet Cemetery, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Misery, and recently The Dark Tower. It makes sense then, that these Book 2 Screen reviews would have more than one of his properties. With a new adaptation being released this month, it seemed the perfect opportunity to do another Stephen King Book 2 Screen Review. The subject this time: IT.
I was first introduced to the story of IT when I was a young kid. I saw the mini-series with a group of other children while away at summer camp. It terrified me. Tim Currie’s Pennywise the clown, became pure nightmare fuel for me for the next few years and, I’m sure, gave many people a serious case of coulrophobia. This week, IT returned after 27 years (Coincidence? I think not!) and with any luck, this new adaptation will capture a little of the nostalgia and terror of the original novel and subsequent mini-series. But how will it differ? Will this new movie favor the mini-series or the novel? In what ways will it pay homage to it’s source material? How will it direct itself in this new medium? For sure, there will have to be many things left out, as a feature film is shorter than a television miniseries and cannot capture as much as a 1000 page novel. How will the director choose to tell this story, this time?
Like with Carrie, I am more familiar with the visual medium than I am with the novel. So for this Book 2 Screen Review, I will start by examining the 1990 miniseries, then the new movie, and will end it with a review of the novel and examine how each story is told.
But first, I must prepare my heart.
IT (1990 Miniseries)
The 1990 adaptation of IT is a four hour, two part miniseries that aired on ABC, on November 18th and November 20th. The story centers around a group of seven friends that combat a monster that terrorizes their hometown of Derry, Main every 27 years or so. After defeating It as children, the group of friends must come to face It again, when children begin dying or going missing 27 years later. This time, they plan to put an end to It for good.
The two part event was a success for the network, garnering nearly 30 million viewersand, despite mixed reviews, gained a cult following for no other reason than the performance of Tim Currie. If you remember nothing else from that series, you remember Currie’s portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Without a doubt, the memory of that character has caused me to pause when I’ve considered re-watching the series. However, my curiosity peaked after I realized that the man who penned the screenplay also adapted Carrie for the big screen. How does this mini-series go about retelling a story that was originally over one thousand pages long? How do you do that in four hours with commercial breaks?
In interviews with the director, Tommy Lee Wallace explains that the script for the mini-series, IT, implements a basic seven act structure. In the first act, we are introduced to the world of Derry and the monster, Pennywise the clown. It is a very short act, but a complete one nonetheless, as the girls death is the inciting incident which brings our stories narrator into action.
The second act focuses on the audiences introduction to our adult characters. Local librarian Mike Hanlon has been tracking the deaths and disappearances of Derry’s children and decides that the time has come to call upon his fellow “Losers”. He first calls Bill Denbrough, older brother of one of Pennywise’s first victims, and the leader of the ‘Loser Club’. He has since become a horror novelist and married a famous actress named Audra Phillips. As Bill remembers Mike, we flash back to the day Georgie died and his memory of seeing Georgie’s picture wink at him and start bleeding. With the memories coming back, Bill leaves, despite his wife’s protests, to return to Derry.
This formula continues throughout this second act, as one by one, each member of the Loser’s Club receives their own phone call from Mike Hanlon. This includes Ben Hanscom – the former “fat boy” who is now an accomplished architect, Beverly Marsh – the poor girl with the abusive father, who is now a successful fashion designer, Eddie Kaspbrak – the asthmatic boy with the overbearing mother, now the owner of a high end chauffeur company, and Richie Tozier – the bespectacled loud mouth, now a famous t.v personality. This act follows a fairly straight forward structure – where we show who they are in the present day and, upon hearing that ‘IT’ has returned, flash back to the traumatic experience they had with Pennywise as children.
Our narrator recalls his own childhood experience in Derry. On his first day of class, a young Mike Hanlon introduces himself to his classmates. The scene serves to provide exposition to the audience that strange and deadly experiences have plagued Derry for generations and that the monster these kids face, may be part of a larger problem with the town itself. With the ‘Loser’s Club’ assembled, Part 1 of this story is finally able to come to a close when the kids prepare for their fight against Pennywise in the sewers of Derry. Upon defeating him, the friends promise to return should ‘IT’ ever come back. Yet, back in the present day Stanley Uris has commits suicide, rather than return.
Part 2 of the mini-series follows a slightly different formula than Part 1, in that it no longer needs flashbacks to progress the story. Rather, in the Acts that follow, flashbacks are almost exclusively used to aid the giving of exposition. Sure, they will quickly flash to an image of them as kids (including a new scene of Stanley Uris confronting Pennywise for the first time) but there are no more reasons to develop their childhood selves. For this reason, Part 2 follows a far more linear path.
The fourth act consists of the adults of the “Loser’s Club” returning to Derry where they are immediately confronted by Pennywise with warnings to get out of town. Yet despite the warnings, the friends gather together for a dinner and catch up. However, the dinner ends in horror, as Pennywise sends his final warning.
In Act five, the stakes grow higher as the “Losers Club” adults learn about Stanley’s suicide and must decide if it is worth pursuing the matter any further. They are shaken and scared, and Pennywise’s assault is going in to overdrive, as he recruits their old childhood nemesis Henry Bowers to kill them. This act utilizes many of the flashbacks shown in Part 1, providing more context. For example, there is a recurring scene of Bill and Stanley riding on a bike together, seemingly fleeing something. This gets further explored after the group learns about Stanley’s suicide, as Bill tells the group about him and Stanley running from Pennywise as kids. They also explain that Stanley is the only one who saw Pennywise’s true form and told them about the ‘dead lights’. With thi new knowledge, Eddie and Rich are ready to call it quits, but Beverly, Ben and Bill want to stay and fight. With the fates of the adults in the air, Henry makes his move, attacking Mike and stabbing him, before being stabbed himself.
Spurred in to action by Mike’s life threatening encounter with Henry Bowers, the adults take off to the sewers to face off against Pennywise for the final time. Bill learns that his wife has been taken by Pennywise and fights his fears to go after and save her. The adults come face to face with Pennywise’s true monsterous form and are paralyzed by his ‘dead lights’ until Eddie faces him, much like he did as a kid. This creates an opening for Beverly to hit him with the silver, but Eddie is killed all the same. Wounded the monster retreats, but the adults chase after it and kill it.
The series reaches it’s resolution in it’s seventh act with Pennywise finally defeated. The remaining friends go their separate ways. Richie returns to showbiz, Ben and Beverly leave together and get married, and Bill takes his comatose wife on a ride on his bike, which snaps her out of her entranced state. The threat is over, the curse is gone, and the ending is a happy one.
Upon this viewing, IT really isn’t a very scary movie anymore. I can see the restraints put upon it as a made-for-tv mini-series. There is implied death, but no visible wounds or even violence. The series did a reasonably good job of dealing with the restrictions associated with adapting a novel to mini-series, but also of curbing some of the novels more harsh and violent images. In a novel, the author has few constraints in how they decide to tell the story. IT, on the other hand, must have had many additional constraints put upon it by the network.
The series finds ways to work around these constraints. In more than a few instances, the camera pushes in to the face of a murder victim, in order to get across the point that this person is being horribly attacked, without actually showing them being attacked. This lessens the need to use more violent imagery and saves the production money on effects. This is something else that a novel will have an advantage on over an adaptation – budget. An author does not need to spend any money to create an image in a person’s mind. The filmmaker, however, must use whatever tools are available to them given the confines of their budget and the skill of their cinematography.
Many of the effects used in this mini-series are limited by the budget allowed in a 90’s television series. And it shows. Scenes that should be scary are almost humorous now. Yet, I don’t hold that against the series. I applaud it for the lasting impact it was able to make in spite of all of that. However, what I did find distracting was how flashbacks and exposition was utilized in the second half of the series.
In the first half, the flashbacks served a purpose. We had to know who all these characters were, how they got to know each other, how they bonded, and how Pennywise had affected each of them. In the second half, the flashbacks became repetitive – especially since many of the scenes that were flashed back to, were scenes the audience would have seen before in one way or another.
I was also taken out of the moment oftentimes by how the series was blocked. Pennywise became less and less frightening when I realized that he rarely got physical with any of the kids or the adults. He taunted them and bared his teeth, but he didn’t actually move or directly interact with them often. There were many scenes where the actors were just kind of standing there, looking terrified, but it didn’t seem like Pennywise would actually do anything to them.
I’m glad I got the chance to watch this series over again and really evaluate it. I saw the things that frightened me as a kid and those things were still pretty eerie now. But it’s not the terrifying story I thought it was. In the end, the IT mini-series is a story about facing your fears and the strength that comes from supporting your friends. Despite the horrors they were facing, this group never turned on each other and always found a way to appreciate each other. The circle of friendship could not be broken – not by tragedy, not by fear, and not by growing up and moving on.
I believe this is the story that IT was trying to tell. At least the mini-series.
Will the other two versions be the same?
Find out in Part 2, where I brave the new 2017 feature film.