Stephen King’s IT (1990 – 2019)

The childhood fears that dwell in the darkest corners of our adult minds

In 1986, Stephen King’s 22nd novel ‘IT‘ launched with 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 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 found 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. With IT, the terrifying creation of Pennywise was a reminder that past fears can never be extinguished – the childhood experiences that build our adult selves resurfacing through time even when pushed to our memory’s darkest corners.

By the time Mary Lambert’s film adaptation of Pet Sematary hit cinemas in 1989, American TV network ABC had already been sitting on the rights to IT for some time. The network’s 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 need shaving, with many of its subplots and historical offshoots dropped, opting 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 unclear. 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 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 highest audience figures 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 runtime.

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 cinematic chapters; the first would focus on the young Loser’s Club and the second the group’s adult return to Derry. Controversially, this would split Stephen King’s narrative in two, separating the entwined story of past and present. However, Muschietti’s decision would also enable a broader exploration of the themes held in King’s work in a welcome two chapter template with scope and space. In making this decision, Muschietti ultimately allowed IT to transcend the boundaries and restrictions of the TV movie.

It’s a credit to Warner Bros that Muschietti was allowed the freedom needed to truly capture both the horror, fantasy and coming of age themes inherent in King’s novel. Central to this were the casting choices for Chapters One and Two. Here Muschietti would bring together some of Hollywood’s finest talent in creating a Losers Club we could genuinely believe in while adapting the book’s timeframe for a modern audience.

In Chapter One, The Losers Club was allowed space to develop, a weakness that had haunted the otherwise brilliant TV movie due to time pressures. Every casting choice among the young Loser’s Club is perfect in vision and delivery. While at the same time, Pennywise was allowed to embrace the alien creature held within IT’s pages. Here Bill Skarsgård’s exquisite interpretation is horrific, engaging and other-worldly. 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 yet, modern adaptation of IT Chapters One and Two only proved the enduring power of King’s source material. But why is IT a masterpiece of modern horror? After all, many argue it is not King’s strongest work, and yet, its enduring cultural impact remains more prominent than that of many of King’s other novels.

IT marks the final chapter of King’s first wave, bringing together many of the prominent themes found in his earlier work. For example, Bill Denbrough’s character takes clear inspiration from Gordie LeChance in The Body. Here Bill’s young life is a whirlwind of past trauma due to his brother’s tragic death, just like LeChance. His misplaced yet understandable guilt is wrapped in a belief that he could have prevented his brother’s murder. 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. In The Body, each boy is a misfit in a world of popularity, instant judgement and reputation, a Loser’s Club in all but name; even IT’s Henry Bowers and his sadistic gang reflect John “Ace” Merrill’s troupe in King’s earlier work.

Meanwhile, Carrie’s coming of age horror also finds a voice in IT. For example, Beverly Marsh comes from a family of abuse and volatility. Here Beverly’s sense of security and belonging is haunted by rumour and social ostracisation. The anger she holds, only tamed by the power of friendship, an escape King would deny poor Carrie White. Meanwhile, like Carrie, IT explores the true horror of puberty and high school and the secret fears we carry in our teens, from bullying to perceived difference, racism and social anxiety. Meanwhile, there is also a direct link to Dick Hallorann (The Shining), as Derry was his home as an army cook.

“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? Pennywise as a figure takes many cues from Salem’s Lot, as an evil that lies concealed from view in a town where ignorance is bliss. Of course, at this point, it is also worth mentioning that Pennywise also appears in many of King’s novels following IT’s first publication. IT combines ideas, thoughts, and themes generated from King’s earlier work. At the same time, Derry is the centre of King’s horror universe. Here 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 and a need to own our past. It is the story of our transition from child to adult and the memories we try to bury along the way. Here Pennywise is a mere symbol of the hopes, beliefs, dreams and fears we discard along the way. IT is a psychological horror that continues to speak to new generations due to the universal and eternal coming of age themes it reflects as King unlocks the childhood fears we keep buried. Here IT reminds us all of the children we once were and the terrors that kept us awake at night. But IT also reminds us that many of those terrors were not mere fantasy; they were born from the adult world around us.