The synoptic platitude of King’s work is that he finds “horror in the commonplace,” as has been reported ad nauseum. Stephen King’s It, features Pennywise, likely the horror genre’s most well-known clown, but it’s so much more than just that. Stephen King’s leviathan of a novel is a best to tackle in terms of adaptation. Even with as many devoted fans as the book has there is some controversy among Constant Readers about how necessary the first 200 pages or so are, this is where we get to learn of the last rash of killings in Derry and most importantly about the Lucky Seven, or The Losers’ Club. It being a book I’ve personally read twice tells you what I feel of its construction as a novel.
When dealing with a novel that has disagreements amongst fans about a large section you’re dealing with an unenviable adaptation task. One small example is the lack of time to establish minor characters. An example, one of the secondary villains , Henry Bowers, an acolyte of Pennywise, ends up in an asylum. The fact that he is now fearfully obedient of not just to Pennywise, but also an abusive orderly, is delicious irony, which due to lack of adequate screen time and inspiration is intimated in a ham-fisted way. Add to that the fact that it’s a network mini-series and the fact that Tommy Lee Wallace was perhaps hamstrung by the negative initial reaction to Halloween III and was creating a mini-series for Network TV that had to go for implication and expectation over exhibition and exposition.
However, one thing that was incredibly well done was the casting of Pennywise (Tim Curry) and the pacing of his interjection into the narrative of this screen version.
It starts off quickly with a stinger wherein Pennywise’s return to the modern day is confirmed. The handling of the first kill is not unlike a scene from Fritz Lang’s M with a scream, cutaway, the involvement of a balloon, and no blood even in aftermath. It’s the furtherance into near-graphic violence with a “Standards and Practices” approach that makes this handling questionable, not to mention all the sublimated and/or omitted sexual tension of the story.
The one-two punch of Pennywise appearances in the first 13 minutes of this 180-minute film whets the appetite and allows the audience to settle in to learning about who these people are, what they went through together, how they are reuniting, and why. This separates it from the book inasmuch as it starts in the present and then goes back to the Georgie Denbrough murder which gets it started in the book. With Curry’s first extended appearance there is an unease in where and how he appears (out of nowhere and in a storm drain), not so much what he says, and then at the last second he bears his teeth and makes his approach and delivers the scare.
There’s then a layoff and it’s not until 43 minutes in until Pennywise is heard from again, but not seen; as dead kids talk to Beverly through the pipes leading to her bathroom sink. Pennywise only speaks after her dad doesn’t notice the blood she sees all about the bathroom and is terrified by. Her father is just another blind adult. Making Pennywise a horror only kids can see and feel opens the door for a lot of the wondrous implication this story has in store.
Fifty minutes in comes the It version of the shower scene, which plays on a more common trauma for adolescent males, the post-gym class shower. Young Eddie (Adam Faraizl), who is domineered by his mother, tries to avoid it entirely. His coach at least makes him return and shower on his own. This opens the door for Pennywise to find him alone and frighten him. It also establishes a pattern of Pennywise using scare tactics specific to the kids. Here he refers to Eddie as “Wheezy” mocking his psychosomatic asthma and also “Girly-boy” referring to the homophobic bullying he’s prone to due to his size, lack of athleticism, and subservient nature.
The lack of memory most the characters have of this summer in their childhood, now that they are adults is in many ways tied to place, and also dependent on the act of forgetting a perilous preternatural world as kids growing up tend to do. Only Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), who stays in Derry, remembers well, and becomes the custodian of the history of Pennywise’s generationally spaced appearances (i.e. disappearance of settlers, standpipe disaster, Easter Egg Hunt, etc.). Each of these characters walks out of important moments in their respective lives on the power of a promise and a nebulous memory, which speaks to the resonance of the trauma and bond they felt.
The specificity of Pennywise’s tailored horror reveals itself when he first appears to young Richie Tozier (Seth Green). He is a werewolf at first and then shows the clown version of himself once he has Richie terrified. Pennywise is a polymorphic horror whose most ubiquitous version plays on coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, a fear I don’t share (save for in this tale) but is universally effective because it is a façade innocence that masks malevolence. While at first he may seem to be other things, a werewolf, a black dog, the Man in the Moon, Mrs. Kersh, Mr. Keene, a disembodied voice, a sign on a marquee, a logo on the back of playing cards, grotesqueries in fortune cookies, It’s true form, and many more. The heart of the fear of clowns is the fracture of a benign reality that reveals the true tenebrous nature of reality, which is at the core of this story. The reason for Pennywise’s cyclical repetitious feedings succeeding is that no one who ever peeked behind the veil is strong enough to hold the memory or bound to readdress the monster by a promise to dear friends. The selection of a clown here combines adult and childhood fears in a cipher both can relate to.
As a child Bill says he’s not sure he ever wants to grow up, not only is that a moment of a natural adolescent struggle against Peter Pan Syndrome, but it’s a subconscious realization being verbalized. He knows growing up and old means forgetting and unwillingness to engage in a fight he might not even believe in. Getting out of sight of Derry allows six of the seven to escape the thoughts for the most part, but one never does and it’s the only reason they ever line up for a rematch.
The last person we see receive their phone call from Mike Hanlon as an adult is Stan Uris (Richard Masur). Stan, as a kid, by his very nature was the hardest to convince of Pennywise’s reality. When he hears the news from Mike it opens up the floodgates and he is overwhelmed. The mention of It fractures his cognitive dissonance. He commits suicide, leaving his one-word note written in blood: “It.” Perhaps the key to Pennywise’s effectiveness is that he can get in their heads when he’s not there; he’s psychological parasite.
Horror in beauty and innocence also recurs as a theme in the film, perhaps more simply joyful than a clown to any child would be a balloon. Yet this is one motif used to terrify the Lucky Seven on many occasions in both the past and present. Even with the characters well into adulthood and jaded, the same triggers that worked before work now and King’s choices are just as spot-on there like Beethoven’s Für Elise evocative of beauty and melancholy being a funeral march by proxy.
The near-defeat comes in their almost abandoning the cause. And if one never felt unease or fear looking at a clown seeing its tainting might take you to that place, but having it be whatever can scare you, is perhaps the most clever device King has even used in attacking the hierarchy of fear.
Some of the keys to this adaptation are not what it managed to shoehorn in from the book but what it, through an audiovisual medium, was able to bring to life like never before. Pennywise’s voice and mannerisms, and the variable nature of them; the use of sound edit to blend personas, are among them. Ending the film with a Pennywise laugh and a circus theme on calliope may not have been the proper note to a rushed attempt at an emotional ending but it was a decision that could only occur on film and for that it’s appreciated. The ability to crosscut through time and use L-cuts gave aid to characters attempting to reconcile their past and present, and added emotional impact where needed. Rarely were they needed as reminders of valuable information. Likewise an artist’s rendering of Pennywise’s first appearance in town in the 1700s, that image coming to life and talking to the characters may be more vivid in a reader’s imagination but it takes on a life and accuracy of time period, as well as a crudeness of art, probably not inferred by most readers.
Stephen King has tackled many horror tropes both common and uncommon alike throughout his prolific career, few resonate like his treatment of the clown. Even considering some of the limitations this film version had to contend with it’s highly memorable.