It always amazes me what ends up being left of the cutting room floor when it comes to these adaptations. I have done a few Book 2 Screen Reviews on this blog and seen examples of how filmmakers will change the basic nature of a story by changing things like the setting, the ages of it’s characters, or by focusing more on some plot points than others. I’ve seen filmmakers take the basic concept of a novel and run in a completely different direction – choose to tell a completely different story (Z for Zacharia). I’ve also seen filmmakers team up with the original author and pen an extremely faithful adaptation – choose to tell an exact replica of the story (A Monster Calls).
Then there are stories like IT, which retains some of the basic elements but decidedly trims off much of the overall theme of the story.
Going in to this review, I believed that I had a fairly good grasp of the themes presented in the novel, IT. I had been terrified by the 1990 mini-series, and enjoyed the 2017 feature film. However, upon finishing the novel, I realized that both had only barely scratched the surface.
IT, the novel by Stephen King is a spiraling anthology about the small town of Derry Main, the monster that dwells within it, and the cosmic spiritual journey 7 young people make within it. IT is a fascinating, horrifying, profound, trippy, repetitive, long winded, satisfying, disturbing, and sometimes just plain confusing coming of age story that undulates relentlessly between childhood and adulthood. And although I was sometimes fatigued by the detours it took, I was ultimately appreciative of what I’d gained – a new understanding of the story.
IT is not a horror story about a killer clown named Pennywise – who is actually some weird spider monster. IT is about IT and all that IT entails. IT is about growing up and facing the unknown IT’s in life; the town you grew up in and all it’s dark secrets, the things in the dark that torment you from the deepest recesses of your imagination, the very true horrors that children must deal with in their own families and homes, the childhood bullies who’s influence follows you well into adulthood, the power and uncertainty of love, desire and sexuality, and the unknown future – that is what IT is. And in this novel, the members of the “Losers Club” must battle and face all of these.
IT (The Novel)
Like many of King’s other works, IT bounces between a first person and third person narrative. Between chapters, it will shift focus between “Interludes”, narrated by Mike Hanlon, and the main story, narrated by an all seeing, all knowing narrator (King) who tells the story of the “Losers Club”, Henry Bowers, various residents of Derry, and IT. This switch often happens seamlessly. For instance, one chapter will start as a an entry in Mike Hanlon’s diary, within which he compiles his own thoughts on what is happening in the town. This will then be followed up with interviews he records of some of Derry’s residents and end on his own thoughts again. In the following chapter, the story transfers to a 3rd person narrative that bounces back and forth in time – often blending in to each other. A sentence that starts in the present will cut off and pick up again in the past – and vice versa – blurring the lines between past and present. This connection between the past and present (childhood and adulthood) lies at the core of King’s novel and is only touched upon lightly in both adaptations.
The 1990 miniseries follows a similar style to the novel in it’s continuous flashbacks between the kids and the adults. However, do to structural necessity, the first half of the mini-series ends with the kids defeating IT the first time and ends before the group gathers together as adults. In the novel, the fight between IT and the “Loser’s Club” happens simultaneously in the past and present versions. Suspense is kept up in that, the adult’s memories are still foggy and they do not fully recall how they defeated IT up until they come face to face with IT again. As they, as adults, discover ITs monstrous spider form, the fact that IT is female, and that IT has laid eggs, we see them discovering the same thing as children, facing it for the first time.
The feature film takes a decidedly different approach in order to tell a tighter story. It does not utilize flashbacks and does not show the “Loser’s Club” as adults at all. Because of this, the movie succeeds at tightening and focusing the story but does not create a connection between childhood and adulthood. In fact, adults are rarely shown within the feature film at all unless they are somehow despicable (Beverly’s father, Henry’s father, Eddie’s mother, the Pharmacist, etc.). This gives the film much more of a kid focused story as opposed to what the novel is about.
The novel uses symbols like the glass bridge between the children’s library and the adult library to illustrate this theme. In the novel, King repeatedly references the library. It was the refuge of young Ben Hascom and as an adult, King takes time to detail Ben’s desire to simply be granted an adult library card. He feels out of place in the adult library but can no longer be in the children’s library without drawing attention. He does not belong there anymore and his presence there draws suspicion. The library, with it’s long glass tube leading from the children’s section to the adult section, also serves as the lighthouse from which Mike Hanlon keeps watch. He uses it’s resources to delve in Derry’s history and gather’s new information there. As the “keeper of the lighthouse”, Mike becomes fully immersed with the history and the “adult” section of the library, and gains valuable knowledge from it.
I think this fact is important, because often ‘kid focused’ narrative’s have a tendency to paint adults and growing up as the enemy – something that inhibits and needs to be overcome. When we see the adults of Derry doing nothing to help these kids, it feeds into this idea. However, King goes far in his novel to dispel this. The behavior of the adults is unbelievably hands off and often cruel, but this can be attributed to IT’s influence over the town. Also, adults, adulthood, and growing up has it’s disadvantages. The fact that they did not defeat IT when they were children makes the fight harder, but adulthood gives you the ability to learn from the past – just like Mike does in the adult section of the library. And all of that “knowing” has aged Mike considerably more than it has the others.
The main characters in this novel are going through life stuck in the glass tunnel – caught somewhere between adulthood and childhood. As the reader, we are there as well, getting ping-ponged back and forth between these two periods of time. At the end of the novel, however, Derry is nearly destroyed upon IT’s death. In the resulting chaos, the tunnel between the adult and children’s library is shattered and is never repaired. Similarly, our characters are no longer floating between childhood and adulthood. Their connection to their childhood is destroyed and upon leaving Derry again, their memories of childhood and of each other quickly fade away.
It should also be noted that a major difference between the story that the novel tells, and the stories that it’s adaptations tell is who the focus is on.
The mini-series is about a group of adults who must band together again to face a menace from their childhoods.
The feature film is about a group of kids who must band together to face their fears.
And yet, while the novel prominently tells both of those stories, it is truly a story about the town of Derry. Towards the end of the novel, the adult “Loser’s Club” members come to the grand realization: IT is Derry. IT existed in that area long before Derry existed and upon it’s death, the town is destroyed. Even the air smells different when they walk outside. The novel stresses over and over that the IT that the “Losers Club” must face, is the actual town of Derry – not just the monster that lives in the sewers. And the way to defeat it is not with brute force (as they do in both adaptations) but with the power of will and of love.
I had no idea what I was getting myself in to when I decided to tackle this book. I was hesitant to do it because the old mini-series scared me so much as a kid. But looking back on it, it’s not that scary. The feature film didn’t scare me either. I found it at times, disturbing and creepy, but not frightening. I know that the film has gotten some flack for that, people complaining that it is not a “true horror” film, but I now find this criticism unwarranted. IT is not a very scary book. It is creepy, and often disturbing but not scary. IT touches upon aspects of life that are truly frightening.
The brutal beating of a homosexual man, Adrian Mellon and the town’s blasé attitude about it, is frightening. The racist burning down of The Black Spot and the general overlooking of it, is frightening. Men being chopped to pieces in a bar full of onlookers who do nothing to help, is frightening. Beverly Marsh’s father is frightening. Eddie Kaspbrack’s mother is frightening, a boy like Patrick Hockstetter, who is a true sociopath, is frightening. But these things are not scary in the way that a werewolf or a man-eating clown is scares a child … or someone watching in the audience.
The novel tells a story where IT is something much, much bigger. IT is ancient and cosmic and as big as the town. Shooting it with silver and punching it, won’t do the trick.
That said, this novel does tend to be a bit… out there… and everything doesn’t always stack up neatly the way that they should. For this reason, I can see why many people would prefer a version of the story that is neater, more compact, and less “other-worldly” (smoke house spirit trips or cosmic turtles). Others may prefer the detail the novel places on these bigger, less easily defined fears.
In the end, it all boils down to what affects you more. I did begin to get fatigued during points of the novel, but I appreciated the end result. It’s definitely a story I will have to come back to, in all it’s forms.