Pennywise: The Story of IT will be available on Digital Download from 3rd October and Blu-ray & DVD from 24th October
John Campopiano and Chris Griffiths’ new documentary Pennywise: The Story of IT is a welcome and long overdue celebration of the 1990 mini-series and its lasting impact on horror. But it is also a heartfelt and loving exploration of the writers, artists and actors who brought The Loser’s Club and Pennywise into our living rooms despite the hurdles of adapting King’s sweeping novel.
ABC TV’s adaptation of Stephen King’s IT remains a defining moment for horror on the small screen and one of the best adaptations of King’s work. I was thirteen in 1990 and already a massive film fan; just a couple of years before, my introduction to the power of horror movies had come from watching a TV showing of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. I was captivated by Kubrick’s adaptation, with The Overlook Hotel leading me to my local library and each Stephen King book they held. There I would read Carrie first, followed by Christine and Pet Sematary. However, IT evaded me, the daunting 1138-page monster too much for my young brain.
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I never saw the original broadcast of IT; instead, I was forced to wait for its arrival on video rental, but when I finally brought home that long-awaited VHS, it blew me away. IT was near perfect and incredibly cinematic for a TV series, despite its over-lit scenes and 4:3 ratio. But like the later 2017 and 2019 Muschietti adaptations, the genius casting made IT a monster hit and proved, just like Salem’s Lot in 1979, that TV could rival the big screen in horror.
PENNYWISE: THE STORY OF IT
Campopiano and Griffiths’ documentary starts in 1986, as Stephen King’s IT arrived on bookshop shelves. However, the roots of IT stretched back much further, 1978 to be precise. King’s initial inspiration came from the Norweigan fairytale Three Billy Goats Gruff and the concept of a hungry troll sitting in wait under a bridge for unsuspecting travellers. This inspiration had come from a nighttime walk where King had been alone on an old wooden bridge, the only noise the clip-clop of his shoes on the decaying wood underfoot. But IT would morph and develop during the writing process into an exploration of childhood fear and adult denial, merging fantasy, sci-fi and horror while further exploring themes found in The Body, Carrie and Salem’s Lot.
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IT’s nuanced and dark exploration of childhood fear and adult denial enthralled, excited and challenged readers. Here, King would explore the childhood experiences that helped create the adult, with the terrifying Pennywise, a reminder that our past fears can never be fully extinguished or forgotten. However, how do you bring 1138 pages to the small screen while maintaining the core story? Through interviews, Campopiano and Griffiths explore this conundrum with those charged with making the ABC production a success.
Lawrence D. Cohen would lead the initial screenwriting process. In Pennywise: The Story of IT, he explains the challenge of creating a manageable screenplay while retaining the soul of King’s work. Early in the documentary, Cohen, who had brought us the screenplay for Carrie in 1976, explains the challenge of thinning down the script and gaining approval for the number of episodes needed to make IT work. Here we are given fresh insight into the initial involvement of George A. Romero in the project and the subsequent arrival of director Tommy Lee Wallace (Fright Night Part II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch). Wallace provides us with a fascinating insight into the constraints of the filming schedule, the challenges of working with such a large cast of adults and kids and the physical effects work needed to bring IT to life.
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But it’s the interviews with the cast that provide a genuinely fascinating insight into this TV gem. Here Richard Thomas, Seth Green, Ben Heller, Tim Curry, Richard Masur and Emily Perkins, to name just a few, talk about the production and creative licence Wallace offered while filming in Vancouver. Campopiano and Griffiths allow the cast to lead the conversation from the challenges of filming IT’s final act (the giant Spider that never quite worked on screen due to time pressures) to the jovial atmosphere on set and IT’s lasting legacy. Equally, there is a loving and welcome tribute to Jonathan Brandis and John Ritter. However, as the title suggests, Pennywise takes centre stage as Tim Curry discusses his utterly terrifying performance, one that would give a whole generation of adults and kids nightmares.
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 series managed to capture the complexity, soul and childhood horror of King’s writing. IT proved that TV could compete with the big screen, and despite being constrained by its limited runtime, it honoured King’s writing. Pennywise: The Story of IT is a loving, thoughtful and fascinating making-of documentary that is long overdue, and for fans of the 1990 TV mini-series, it is a must-see exploration of IT’s continuing cultural impact and legacy.
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Pennywise: The Story of IT is a loving, thoughtful and fascinating making-of documentary that is long overdue, and for fans of the 1990 TV mini-series, it is a must-see exploration of IT’s continuing cultural impact and legacy.