In 1986, Stephen King’s 22nd novel ‘IT‘ launched to a mixed reception. IT’s release followed The Talisman, Thinner and the limited edition Eye’s of the Dragon during 1984. A year where King would stretch out from horror into both fantasy and crime. However, the roots of IT stretched back much further, 1978 to be precise. His initial inspiration came from the Norweigan fairytale Three Billy Goats Gruff and the concept of a troll sitting in wait under a bridge for unsuspecting travellers to cross. However, by the time IT hit the shelves, his initial idea had been fleshed out into something far more epic in its scale and complexity, with 1138 pages to match.
Many critics pointed to the novel’s length and its fantasy/sci-fi horror conclusion as a potential weakness on its release. At the same time, others stoked a fire around one chapter in which The Losers Club kids engaged in sexual experimentation with each other. However, despite this, King’s work would also achieve considerable praise, winning several literary awards. Many early readers would point to IT’s nuanced and dark exploration of childhood fear and adult individuality as a foundation of its brilliance – themes that would ultimately enthral, excite and challenge readers as IT transported them back to their childhood terrors.
“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)
With IT, coming of age themes stretched throughout King’s back catalogue found a new voice. Here, King introduced a darker, more nuanced view of the childhood experiences that create the adult – the image, personality and freedom of the adult hiding the insecurities and fears of the inner child. With IT, the terrifying creation of Pennywise was a reminder that past fears could never be extinguished through suppression. The childhood experiences that make the adult always re-surfacing even when pushed to our memory’s darkest corners.
By the time Mary Lambert’s film adaptation of Pet Sematary had hit cinemas in 1989, American TV network ABC had already been sitting on the rights to IT for some time. The networks original proposal centred on a possible eight to ten-hour adaptation of King’s novel for TV. However, studio executives remained concerned at the length, cost and audience traction a complete adaptation would bring, instead opting for a slimmed-down 3-hour TV movie split into two parts.
Of course, this meant King’s novel would also need to slim down, with many of its subplots and historical offshoots dropped. Opting instead to focus on The Losers Club while weaving King’s epic story together into a tight TV format. Following this decision, George A. Romero, who had been linked with the project early on, left; the scale of his initial involvement remains unclear to this day. His replacement was Tommy Lee Wallace, fresh from Fright Night Part II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Meanwhile, Lawrence D. Cohen, famous for his adaptation of Carrie, led the tricky screenplay development of King’s work.
“He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts” – Bill Denbrough (IT)
The talent sitting behind the camera was complemented by a series of solid casting decisions for the TV horror—the adaptation attracting some of the hottest TV and film talent of the time. The final role call brought together John Ritter, Annette O’Toole and Richard Thomas alongside the emerging young stars of Jonathan Brandis and Seth Green. However, it was the casting of Pennywise that would prove to be instrumental in the success of the TV movie. Here Tim Curry brought the deadly clown to life with a performance that would ultimately scare a whole generation of adults and kids.
On IT’s premiere in November 1990, ABC achieved its most considerable success of the year. And for young fans of Stephen King, like me, the TV movie managed to capture the complexity and horror of King’s writing, despite leaving out large chunks of the novel, with each of King’s characters miraculously fully formed over a limited run-time.
However, IT was never far from a Hollywood remake, and in 2009 Warner Brothers announced that IT was to make its big-screen debut; the studio, actively seeking a director to bring King’s vision to the silver screen. But, the question of what form IT should take in cinemas haunted its early development. Warner Brothers initially favoured a condensed version that would play to the renewed interest in horror while enabling new generations to jump on board. However, IT managed to defeat two directors, David Kajganich and Cary Fukunaga, during this time, both leaving due to problems in adapting the book. However, by 2015 the film had found its director in Andrés Muschietti, his vision leading to screenplay re-writes and recasting on crucial roles, including Pennywise.
“Swear to me, Swear to me that if it isn’t dead, we’ll all come back.” – Bill Denbrough (IT)
Muschietti envisioned two unique chapters: the young Loser’s Club, before moving on to the older group returning to Derry. Controversially, this split Stephen King’s narrative in two, altering the course of the book. However, Muschietti’s decision also enabled a broader exploration of the themes held in King’s work, providing a two movie template of scope and space. In making this decision, Muschietti ultimately allowed IT to transcend the boundaries and restrictions of the TV movie.
Muschietti was allowed the freedom to truly capture both the horror, fantasy and coming of age themes inherent in King’s novel while translating the original material with reverence to the characters and places of the author’s creation. His casting choices for Chapter One and Two equally demonstrated an understanding and love of earlier King adaptations from Stand By Me to Carrie. With Muschietti bringing together some of Hollywood’s finest talent in creating a Losers Club, you could genuinely believe in.
Here, The Losers Club was allowed space to develop unrestrained, a weakness that had haunted the otherwise brilliant TV movie due to time pressures. Simultaneously, updating King’s novel’s time frame from the 1950s to the 1980s while never losing the essence of King’s writing. The complexity of King’s young characters and their adult selves, sitting at the heart of two outstanding feature films. Here both chapters would dovetail together with ease as one unique on-screen novel. Meanwhile, Pennywise was allowed to transform into the alien creature held within IT’s pages. Bill Skarsgård’s interpretation is both horrific, engaging and other-worldly in construct. And while Tim Curry’s clown may have given entire generations nightmares, It’s Skarsgård’s that will ultimately enter the horror hall of fame.
“Want your boat, Georgie?’ Pennywise asked. ‘I only repeat myself because you really do not seem that eager.’ He held it up, smiling. He was wearing a baggy silk suit with great big orange buttons. A bright tie, electric-blue, flopped down his front, and on his hands were big white gloves, like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore. – Stephen King (IT)
The critical and financial success of Mushietti’s faithful, modern adaptation proved the source material’s power. But why is IT a masterpiece of modern horror? After all, many will argue it is not King’s strongest work, and yet its enduring cultural impact remains larger than many of King’s novels.
In many ways, IT marks the final chapter in the first era of King’s writing, bringing together many of the themes found in his earlier work. For example, Bill Denbrough’s character takes inspiration from Gordie LeChance in ‘The Body‘. His life, a whirlwind of family breakdown due to a sibling’s death. With his misplaced guilt wrapped in a belief that he could have prevented the tragedy that split his family. Equally, we find The Losers Club taking a steer from the same novella, where Geordie is joined by Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp and Vern Tessio. Each boy, a misfit in the broader world of popularity, judgement and family reputation. Even Henry Bowers and his sadistic gang reflect John “Ace” Merrill’s troupe in ‘The Body‘.
Meanwhile, Carrie’s themes of coming of age horror also find a voice in IT. For example, Beverly Marsh comes from a family of abuse and volatility. Her place and sense of belonging, haunted by rumour and ostracisation. The anger she holds, only tamed by the power of friendship, something King denied young Carrie White. And just as Carrie also explores the true horror of puberty and high school, IT reflects the secret fears surrounding our early teenage life, including the devastating effects of bullying, perceived difference and racism in the transition from teenager to adult. Mushietti’s adaptation restores many of these attributes, including the horror of homophobia and domestic violence. Meanwhile, Dick Hallorann (The Shining) connects directly to Derry, not only through his time as an army cook but also his role in saving Mike Hanlon’s father from death before IT’s events unfold.
“They’ll float,” it growled, “they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too-” – Pennywise (IT)
And what of Pennywise the Clown, I hear you ask? Well, it could be argued Pennywise as a figure takes many cues from Salem’s Lot, the evil laying concealed from view in a town where ignorance is bliss, just as in Salem. Of course, at this point, it is also worth mentioning that Pennywise also appears in many of King’s novels following IT’s publication. IT acts as a convergence of ideas, thoughts, and themes, a culmination of King’s early writing and the power of his grasp on childhood and adult horror. Stephen King’s IT reminds us of our childhood nightmares, IT reflects the influence of adult denial, and IT delves into our human need to face our monsters, wherever they may reside.
IT is a story of friendship, recovery from trauma and a need to own our past. It is the story of our transition from childhood to adulthood and the memories we try to bury along the way. Here the horror of Pennywise is a mere metaphor of the buried hopes, beliefs, imagination we discard. This creates a socially reflective psychological horror that continues to speak to new generations with every new reader or viewer – the genius of King’s ability to reawaken the fears we keep buried in our mind oozing from every page and frame. IT reminds us all of the children we once were and the fact that many of the terrors that kept us awake at night were not mere fantasy – many were born from the adult world around us.
READ MORE: THE SHINING