Stephen King’s It

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This blog entry is not really going to be about cartoons, but rather about something that will always be linked to cartoons: childhood. Comparing and contrasting childhood and maturity has always interested me; in fact, it’s one reason I started this blog in the first place, to look at childish entertainment and see how it stacked up against more mature forms of media. The theme of childhood and adulthood has also inspired a great number of novelists as well: To Kill A Mockingbird is told from the point of view of an adult looking back on her life and revolves around the life lessons given to her by her father, Alice in Wonderland is about, among other things, how confusing the world of adults is to a young child.

And then we have Stephen King’s It, a novel about a “Loser’s Club” of seven children – Bill the stutterer, Ben the “fat boy”, Beverly the sole girl, Eddie the mother’s boy, Mike the sole black member, Richie the goofball and Stan the logical – who defeat a shapeshifting monster known as “It ” – who mostly appears as a clown called Pennywise – in their childhood and must defeat it again in their adulthood. From this conflict springs the themes of childishness and maturity and power of the close bond between friends.

I’m not saying It is in the league of the aforementioned Mockingbird and Alice – it does end with a giant alien spider, after all – but it is one of King’s more interesting works (and one of his longest too, damn thing’s near 1000 pages). Despite the fact there are some elements of it that are a bit iffy (those who have read it know what I’m talking about), it still remains a truly atmospheric and well-written story, incorporating elements of a stream-of-consciousness memory, personal anecdotes and even bedtime stories (with its constant Billy Goats Gruff imagery). The connection to the past and the present is well-portrayed and the titular being’s presence is always felt.

It was also made into a TV miniseries in 1990, famous for starring Tim Curry as It in its Pennywise form. The series was entertaining, but sadly suffered from how it tried to cram such a large story into something under three hours. In fact, it seemed to treat the book as a buffet; it took bits and pieces from it but made those bits lose some of their significance and context. While it tried to keep some of the themes of the original book, those themes didn’t come off as strongly.

Still, the series had its pluses: the child actors were much better than most others of their ilk, there actually was a small sense of dread throughout – at least until the ridiculous ending – and, of course, Curry was wonderful as Pennywise. It has been one of the more intriguing villains of horror literature and Curry did a good job bringing It to life, despite some hiccups.

Pennywise – Book vs. TV

It is a novel about childhood, so what better form for its antagonist to take than a clown? Clowns seem to unify the worlds of children and adults – while their presence can be used to signify whimsy, they are still strangely-dressed, eccentric creatures. Not only that, but as hard as it is to believe, behind the wild makeup and mismatched clothes is normally a regular human adult with bills to pay and a life to live. With characters like Krusty the Klown and Psychoville’s Mr. Jelly, we have characters who entertain children (or at think they are), but live more sordid lifestyles when not around the little brats, exposing the ugly, rusty gears of adulthood inside the machines of benign kiddie entertainment. The fact that clowns can be simultaneously spritely and sinister also means that they can be symbols for villains who wish to corrupt the innocent – see the Joker.

Then we have Pennywise. Like Krusty and Jelly, the clown mask he uses to attract children hides something more sinister, but unlike those two characters, what he hides isn’t human and using children to put food on the table means something different to him. Like the Joker, he corrupts the image of the clown, but unlike the Joker, has many corrupt forms other than the clown. It takes on the shape of a werewolf, a leper and a fairytale witch, among other things, throughout the book, even if Pennywise is its most favoured form.

What both the book and the TV series understood was that while a clown with claws and fangs could be scary, a normal-looking clown where it shouldn’t be is even more so. In the book, Pennywise is described as having ‘big white gloves, like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore’, making him seem somewhat cuddly, and is even compared to Ronald McDonald, a mascot that is cute and silly but still has a slightly unsettling air about him (considering the stuff he helps sell). The screen version of Pennywise follows suit – when he doesn’t have the fangs, he could pass for a typical kids’ TV show host. This design choice is effective as it makes his actions more terrible in contrast, and solidifies the story’s theme of childhood.

The book mixes innocence and menace much more effectively than the series, and this is apparent in the iconic scene where Bill’s little brother George has his fateful encounter with Pennywise in the storm drain:

In both versions, George meets a grisly end by falling for Pennywise’s innocent act, but the act is hardly convincing in the series. Pennywise may be offering balloons, but his raspy voice and wicked smile – as well as his delivery of ‘They float’ – make it obvious even to a child that he’s up to no good. The scene in the book is a bit longer and allows Pennywise more time to exercise his techniques in deceit. He even gives a faux-explanation as to why a clown would be down in the sewer:  ‘Storm just bleeeew me away…it blew the whole circus away’, a scenario you can imagine happening in a picture book, which makes him seem all the more enticing to a young child. Pennywise’s dialogue also comes off as warmer and friendlier: ‘Want your boat, Georgie?…I only repeat myself because you do not seem that eager.’ Though I suppose his act is helped by the fact that with books, you can give the characters any voice you want. I imagine Pennywise in this scene speaking with this voice:

Wow, between this and some of the stuff that’s in It, I think Yanks have issues when it comes to clowns.

Then again, in the TV series, there were moments where Pennywise came off as too innocent. Take the scene where Pennywise appears in the library (in the book, it’s an adult Ben who’s visiting the library, but it’s Richie in the series). In both the book and the TV series, Pennywise is mocking the Loser visiting the library, but in the series, Pennywise seems to be having a bit of silly fun rather than doing anything sinister. The book had Pennywise recite crank calls to emphasise that he had ‘almost fooled’ Ben and his laughter afterwards is described as ‘shrieking’. In the series, Pennywise recites the calls for seemingly no reason and gives a stupid-sounding Mortimer Snerd chuckle. In the book, Pennywise taunts Ben about Stan’s death, taking the form of a warped Dracula while doing so. In the series, Pennywise simply makes a bunch of balloons come down. While balloons are used in the book as well, there is more significance attached to them: they represent those Pennywise has killed. That meaning is absent in the series.

It’s Pennywise form is a little more frequent in the series than it is in the book. Of course, there’s nothing funny about a clown at midnight and there’s nothing funny about a clown in your school, but having less forms means It loses some of its omnipotence. Clowns can be scary, sure, but It in the book was able to take on the form of someone’s personal fears. It appears to Eddie as a leper demanding blowjobs for Eddie was attacked by a hobo. In both the series and the book, Pennywise taunts the Losers’ Club through an animated photo, but in the book, he cycles through his different forms while doing so, giving his taunts more weight. In fact, his use of different forms is a plot point: the Losers try to kill It by making It turn into a werewolf so they can shoot it with silver slugs.

Another thing to note about the TV series is how dated it is in its effects, worth noting because it also hurts the way the story is told. The final battle with It in the movie feels like a bunch of people going through a theme park ride rather than a life-or-death situation; Pennywise appears for one last time as a projection, and this makes way for a fake-looking spider. All praise to the filmmakers for trying to adapt a complex work with the level of technology they had, but It’s spider form doesn’t look real, so the threat doesn’t feel real.

While the It of the book is more godlike than the It of the movie, it also feels more substantial. One thing about It the movie overlooks is that, despite the fact it masquerades as a male clown, It is actually female. This not only makes it seem more ethereal and powerful if it can change genders at the tip of a hat, but gives it more of an identity. Calling a fly a ‘him’ makes it an indistinct nuisance. Calling a ship a ‘she’ anthropomorphosises it (Bill actually tells George that). There are even some moments from the book told from It’s POV. In the book, the Losers are battling something that can think and outwit. In the series, they are fighting a lifeless robot.

Losers – Book vs. TV

The It TV miniseries seems to borrow not only from the King novel, but also a bit from the slashers of the 80’s. Their Pennywise was like Freddy from A Nightmare on Elm Street – wisecracking, loads of off-screen laughter and was more or less made to be the real star of the show as opposed to the good guys. But It is supposed to be the story of the Losers, how they and their friendship grow due to their encounters with the monster and their personal journeys.

I personally thought that in the series, the members of the Losers’ Club were portrayed well, even if Curry overshadowed them somewhat. As I said before, the child actors playing the Losers as children were actually pretty good; it was the adults that left a little to be desired. There were even some changes made that I quite liked; for example, in the book, Eddie is married to a carbon copy of his mother, while the series just had adult Eddie still living with his mother. That change, I think, solidifies what the themes of childhood in It’s narrative and the idea that the adult Losers had not changed much in their adulthood. While Bill may stutter less and Ben is no longer fat, Beverly suffers abuse from her spouse like she did with her father and Richie still did his silly voices. This “the more things change” element strengthened the idea that It was still out there, as the climate when it first encountered the Losers hums in the air.

The advantage the book has over the series is, once again, that it has more time to tell its story. In order to tell the story under three hours, the series had to excise a good amount of the book’s elements and thus quite a few things in the series go unexplained or are not given as much attention as they should. For example, in the series, Mike finds a bird foetus in his fortune cookie, but it comes off as random as his fear of birds and Rodan from the book was never brought up in the series. Speaking of Mike, one of the more interesting elements of the novel is his “Derry Interludes”, notes for a book that he never published. These are a good example of the freedom novels can offer when telling their stories; the interludes help flesh out the setting, making it a character in itself, give It even more of a presence, as It seems to have the town in its grasp, and of course, makes Mike feel more of a real character.

Another advantage the book has over the movie is indeed that the characters feel more real in the book. Going back to the opening scene with George’s death, said death is more tragic in the book because the reader feels that George in his brief appearance is more of a real kid than the George of the series. What is present in the book but not in the series is Bill and George having a small argument about each other being ‘a-holes’. It’s a small scene , but does give weight to George and Bill’s characters; it makes it clear they have a good relationship with each other, and of course, real kids swear. George also gets the mental image of ‘a kid who was nothing but a big a-hole on legs’, implying he has a wild imagination and making it more plausible that he would believe Pennywise’s lie. The George of the series, in contrast, comes off as too cutesy and innocent, which is a shame because the rest of the kids in the series do a pretty good job.

And there’s another problem with the series: the Losers are interesting as kids but not as adults. Even the director of the series agrees.

The book does make you care about the Losers through their childhood and their adulthood, because, as said before, it has more time to do so and fleshes out their problems and lives more. The past and the present is also spread out more through the book, as opposed to the series where part one was mostly about childhood and part two was mostly about adulthood. The series’ handling of the two timelines made it feel like it was telling a story then telling it again, whereas the book felt like it was telling a story and then explaining what was behind the story.

The first half of the series is still quite interesting- the Losers’ predicaments are not as detailed as they were in the book, but they’re still there in some capacity. Mike is bullied for being a ‘nigger’ (the actor playing young bully Henry Bowers even felt guilty for doing so), Beverly is abused by her father. There is even another addition to the movie which I found effective – a slight expansion to Ben’s past is given through a father that was killed in the war. Pennywise taking on the form of said father, I thought, was a bit more effective than the book’s original mummy.

Those predicaments though, are supposed to be still felt in the Losers’ adulthood. True, TV Beverly is abused by Tom Rogan like she was abused by her father, but Rogan is not as frequent in the series as he is in the novel; in the book he goes after Beverly, viciously assaulting a woman to find her whereabouts. The acting of the adult Losers in the series is too dull, too interchangeable, and lacks that innocence. The Losers’ childlike nature is not the annoying manchild behaviour glorified in comedies, but a more wistful, nostalgic type, the childishness Jesus promoted in the book of Matthew.

This attitude is reflected in a character that is absent from the TV adaptation: the Turtle. Granted, a magical turtle seems a silly element to put into a horror story, but his interactions with the Losers and It says a lot about those characters and their roles in the story. The Turtle acts like a kindly grandfather to the Losers, telling them about how crucial they are to It’s defeat and the importance of what they have:  ‘What can be done when you’re eleven can often never be done again,’ he says, emphasising both the fleeting nature of childhood and the attitude one should have towards It. The way It talks about the Turtle also reveals that It may be immature too, but a more irritating type of immature. Both the Turtle and It were apparently created by the same ‘Final Other’, so when It calls the Turtle a ‘stupid old fuck’, we get the impression of a bratty big sister given monstrous form. The series may have spared itself the embarrassment of having a talking animal, but at the cost of not only making It less distinct, but making the Losers and their union feel less special. There is no real indication that they are the only ones who can defeat It, nor does losing any of their members seem to hold any real hindrance.

The book also stresses the end of childhood more with It’s defeat: when It dies, the town linked to both It and the Losers’ youth dies too.  The tunnel that connected the Children’s Library with the Adult’s Library is destroyed, like the adult Losers’ connection with their past, and the final chapter is Bill ruminating on what he almost remembers. Indeed, while childhood is powerful in the way it shapes who we are, we are so likely to forget it or even not care about it. Adulthood offers so much meatier things than being a kid does, after all.

Stephen King’s It in its televised form is not a bad miniseries. Even if it drags at times, it does have many fun and entertaining elements to it, Curry in particular. Sadly, it pales in comparison to the novel as it underdevelops things from the book or plops them in without proper context. Thus it becomes one of those adaptations that one can’t really understand without having read the source material. The Shining was not an entirely faithful to the source, but was accessible and understandable to those who haven’t read the book, and made the ghosts and madness feel more real than the It series made its title character feel.

The series was okay, but the novel is better by a long shot. It’s intriguing and scary, and makes you feel like a kid again.

Quotes from It by Stephen King (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1986)

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About jabberw

A writer of short stories and reviews, who likes to dabble in other creative media as well.
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2 Responses to Stephen King’s It

  1. le0pard13 says:

    A fine write-up and comparison, jabberw. My assessment of the miniseries fell along similar lines — let’s agree that director Tommy Lee Wallace attempted to pass off as the grand evil of the piece, that giant spider, should die an ugly death, though ;-). I remember, slowly, reading this the year it came out, 1986. BTW, ‘The Stand’, the complete and uncut version, still beats this in total page length. Great timing that I came upon this (thank you, Fogs) as I plan on revisiting the novel in 2013 year (I did The Stand last year, shameless plug ;-)) in audiobook. I enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Not Going Out – Series 6 | The Terror of Tiny Toon

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