Stephen King published his 22nd novel ‘IT’ back in 1986 to a mixed reception from critics. The novels coming of age themes sitting alongside a supernatural presence who fed on fear, captivated some and bemused others. Its 1300+ pages demanded attention and commitment from the reader. While its core themes dug deep into childhood and adult fears, providing an uncomfortable experience for many readers. ‘IT’ also suffered from a media backlash in its exploration of first sex within the losers club. Many claiming this short section of the book was excessive in demonstrating adolescent sexuality and the journey to adult life. King’s book did however, also receive much praise, winning several literary awards. Many pointing to its highly nuanced and dark exploration of childhood fear and the creation of the adult individual from childhood experience.
IT took the themes King had already explored in his short story ‘The Body’ (Stand By Me), mixing them with the horror of Salams Lot and Carrie. Creating a coming of age horror that was less about Pennywise the Clown and more about the real horror of childhood experience being taken into adult life. The adult a mere reflection of all the experiences, fears and joys that the child endures.
You don’t have to look back to see those children; part of your mind will see them forever. They are not necessarily the best part of you, but they were once the repository of all you could become.Stephen King – IT
It didn’t take long for the rights to IT to be snapped up by American TV network ABC. The network consequently planning to create a four part, 8 hour TV series based on King’s novel. However due to the length of the book and worries over some it’s content translating to TV. The four part series became a two part, 3 hour proposal. Many of the sub-plots and Derry wide themes of the novel dropped, focusing on the core narrative of the losers club as children and adults. Casting for the TV series was inspired, taking some of the hottest TV and film talent of the time in creating the Losers Club and IT’s deadly clown. With John Ritter, Annette O’Toole and Tim Curry all starring opposite the rising young stars, Jonathan Brandis and Seth Green.
Reception to the TV series was largely positive. And for young fans, like me, of Stephen’s King’s work, the TV series reflected the imagination and horror of Kings writing; despite leaving out large chunks of the novel. Tim Curry’s sinister interpretation of Pennywise the Clown entering the horror hall of fame, cementing the legacy of the TV mini-series for many generations to come.
Remarkably film studios ignored King’s novel. Its length and complexity too much of a hurdle in achieving a cost effective theatrical version. In many ways this aversion to taking IT on served the source material well. Ensuring it never became a low budget horror flick, while catapulting the TV adaptation into cult status.
By 2009 with a resurgence of horror on the cinema screen, the scene was set for ‘IT’ to make its big screen debut. Warner Brothers actively looking for directors to bring King’s vision to the silver screen. While also exploring ways to condense the large and sprawling novel into a single picture film.
During this time, ‘IT’ managed to defeat two directors scheduled to work on the film. Both David Kajganich and Cary Fukunaga dropping out due to problems in adapting the book for the screen. However, by 2015 the film had found its director in the largely unheard of Andrés Muschietti (Mama). His vision for the film leading to screenplay re-writes and recasting on key roles including Pennywise.
Muschietti envissioned two unique film chapters, the first focussing on the childhood experiences of the book. With the second focussing on the adult lives of the losers club on their return to Derry. This idea split Kings book in two. Taking a combined story where adult experiences mixed with childhood flashbacks, into two separate entities. But also offered the opportunity to explore both childhood and adulthood in two dedicated films. Removing some of the books complexity and allowing for a longer running time over two features.
Muschietti, a life long fan of Stephen King, was also determined to keep the books core themes of childhood fear, innocence and adult experience in the translation to film.
“We grew up reading Stephen King. We were fans of horror at very early age; we were exposed to horror movies very early in life so there was this addiction we carried very early, and then came Stephen King. We’re very big fans of his. He’s my literary hero. It all started with Pet Sematary but then It came along and for me, it was a mind-blowing experience. My first reaction, when offered the opportunity to direct this movie, was basically to go back to my emotional experience reading the book when I was a child, and translating that into a movie that would blow my mind as an adult. Those were the big ideas when approaching the making of this movie”Mike Fleming Jr – Encore: How The Muschietti Siblings Turned Stephen King’s Killer Clown Into The ‘It’ Movie Of Fall – Q&A
This love of kings source material shows on screen; Muschietti understanding the core themes of the book. Translating King’s material with reverence to the characters and places of the authors creation. The casting of IT Chapter One equally demonstrates an understanding and love of earlier King adaptations like Stand By Me. Muschietti bringing together some of the finest young talent in Hollywood, in creating a Losers Club you could believe in. Bringing out the natural performances and talent of his young cast, while also allowing them to shine on screen.
Each member of the losers club is haunted by their own unique fears, while being tormented by older teenagers and ignored by their families. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Martell) reflects King’s earlier creation of Gordie Lachance (The Body/StandBy Me). A young man at the centre of family loss, his own grieving needs replaced by his parents mourning. While Mike (Chosen Jacobs) suffers flashbacks of his parents horrid death; Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) suffers the high demands of his religious parents; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is controlled by his mother’s hypochondria and Richie (Finn Wolfhard) hides his real fears under humour. Each of them captivated by the confident yet damaged Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who’s strength in the group, hides her own abusive experiences.
What happens when another Georgie goes missing? Or another Betty? Or one of us? Are you just going to pretend it didn’t happen, like everyone else in this town?Bill Debrough (Jaeden Martell) IT (2017)
Muschietti allows his young cast to own their characters. Both cast and crew understanding the need to surround the young people with the isolation and adult indifference of the fictional town. With childhood fears, experiences and understanding, brushed aside by adults who know best. While those very adults ignore the real horror of their own lives and the town they call home.
The darkness of the town, and its indifference to the horror surrounding it centres on one of the finest on screen monsters ever created. Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise the Clown, taking the sinister presence of Tim Curry’s portrayal while and adding layers of Victorian gothic horror. His clown never appearing too human, embracing the ‘IT’ behind the mask.
Combined with a running time that never seeks to rush the end result. IT Chapter One delivers one of the finest film adaptations of King’s work since 1999s The Green Mile. Taking the strong and universal underlying themes of King’s book and translating them for a modern cinema audience. Demonstrating that childhood fear and its effect on our adult experience still makes our skin crawl. The inner child in each of us still haunted by the things that gave us nightmares in our youth. Each of us carrying those experiences, fears and ideas into our adult selves both consciously and unconsciously.
However, the journey is not yet complete, the adult versions of the losers club are yet to find their voices on our cinema screens. The adult fears of King’s book even more scary than the childhood nightmares of the younger characters. With IT chapter two coming to cinemas in a few weeks time, Muschietti may achieve something truly unique in cinema. A two part horror film that truly honours its literary roots, while providing a modern classic of the genre. A homage to a horror genius, who understood the true depths of childhood fear, and their effects on our adult actions.
Director: Andy Muschietti