Like many readers, Stephen King occupies a special place in my pop culture education. For many years I wasn’t interested in reading at all: in fact, I actively avoided it throughout my childhood in favour of TV shows, film, and football. Unsurprisingly it was the Harry Potter series that sparked my interest in the written word. I was 12, the movie adaptation was coming out in a few months, and I decided to see what all the fuss is about. Don’t worry, this article has very little Potter in it: the internet doesn’t need me to keep that obsession alive. What JK Rowling’s novels did do, especially with Prisoner of Azkaban onwards, was gradually delve into darker themes and settings, making it the perfect platform for my introduction to books with more bite. So I asked my mother about this guy called Stephen King. His books could be seen in every bookcase of every adult I knew who read. It screamed “adult”. My mother decided, using the official criteria when making a choice like this, to get me the King novel that had scared her the most: IT. Long story short: after reading nearly fifty of King’s published works, IT remains, for better or for worse, my favourite novel.
When I heard that the novel would be adapted into a film I was less than pleased. Despite my love for the book the previous adaptation, the miniseries starring Tim Curry (insert mandatory “Tim Curry was great” here) left me furious at what I saw as a complete hack-job. Could the movie turn out to be a different story? Not likely, considering that crap King adaptations seemingly outnumber the goods ones at least fifteen The Stands to one Carrie.
Except the IT movie was great – so great, in fact, I’ve seen it twice, spending the combined four hours and change with a Pennywise-esque grin on my face. So, let’s take a closer look at why the movie worked so well. There will be spoilers for the movie, the book, and possible spoilers for the sequel (movie). You have been warned.
Unlike the miniseries, the film adaptation wisely focused on half of the novel’s overall story. Instead of an unwieldy mishmash of flashbacks to the kids and flashforwards to the adults, director Andy Muschietti’s film chose the, arguably better, kids story as the first chapter of this two-film series. This choice allowed the director to make the film a leaner and more easily self-contained beast; even if there is no second film, though there absolutely will be, IT, unlike other franchise films, doesn’t rely on teases and clunky foreshadowing for the next film to keep the audience entertained. It stands alone as it’s own piece.
Another shrewd choice comes in the form of the film’s time period. Instead of setting the story in the 50s, as in the novel, the film is set in the 80s. The reasons behind this are obvious: on the one hand, it’s a time period that a major portion of the audience grew up in and can engage in, and the other reason is, of course, because of Stranger Things and it’s enormous success telling an IT-style story in that time period. And that’s thanks to the nature of cyclical influence. No clue what I’m wittering on about? Let’s take a look at one of pop culture’s most famous examples of the cyclical nature of influence and influencers: Joss Whedon.
Whedon’s influence on pop culture is everywhere: any show in which it’s characters are pop culture literate (The Flash, The OC, Gilmore Girls, Riverdale etc). For this example we have to look at the creator’s influences as well as their own influence on other- Whedon’s greatest achievement was Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Buffy, while being a unique and original show, was filled with references from Whedon’s love of comics, especially Marvel. Some examples include the Initiative, which is Buffy’s demon-fighting version of Shield, Glory the God, being defeated by a Thor-like hammer, Dark Willow a reference to X-Men’s Dark Phoenix, along with many more that you’re probably already listing off in your head right now – Buffy is steeped in pop culture, can’t exist without it. Whedon took these influences and implemented them into the The Avengers, which, and let’s face it, is because it made over a billion dollars, led MCU movies to embrace the Whedonesque. This is the same with IT and Stranger Things. Stranger Things creators The Duffer Brothers are obsessive Stephen King fans, and King’s influence is all over the show, and that in turn feeds into this adaptation of IT because those pieces have been proved to fit together so successfully. Influence – influenced – influence. Stranger Things exists thanks to IT, and this IT movie exists thanks to Stranger Things.
The Stranger Things connection is equal parts cynical Hollywood opportunism, fantastic timing, and proof of the power and cyclical nature of influence. The opportunism and timing comes from the film benefitting from the obvious similarities to the Netflix series, especially the casting of Finn Wolfhard (who put in an acclaimed performance in the Netflix show) as Richie.
But adaptations, no matter their pop culture currency, are tricky and maybe even impossible to get right. As we have seen so far, the choice of how much of King’s novel to adapt and the superficial changes made to IT’s story work in the films favour. But what stays the same is just as crucial – in spite of the superficial changes of time, the characters and story (by far the strongest parts of the novel) remain the same. The film still has a group of kids, nicknamed The Losers Club, take on and defeat an entity that feeds on their fear and eventually them. But despite these fundamental similarities, Muschietti’s film also changes the specifics of the Loser’s Clubs individual encounters with Pennywise, except for few notable exceptions.
The first of these is the film’s opening scene. Georgie Denbourgh is one of Stephen King’s most tragic characters, and the nature of his death is instantly recognisable to people that haven’t even read the book, thanks mainly to Tim Curry. It’s Georgie’s death that makes us afraid of Pennywise in the first place, so changing that would have been instantly jarring. There are differences though, from the book, and Tim Curry’s interpretation: both of those frame Georgie’s discovery of Pennywise in the storm drain as a moment of wonder turned into danger for George. The film does this differently.
As soon as the audience and Georgie meet Pennywise, Georgie is understandably afraid. Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise isn’t the funny, inviting, slightly goofy clown of Tim Curry’s days, and Georgie is much more afraid of this clown than in previous versions. So why doesn’t he run away? The boat that his brother made him? Not quite. The power that Pennywise has here is not that he is a clown, and not because of the boat – not even some mystical power that he posseses to convince or hypnotize. It’s because he looks like an adult. That’s the power dynamic at work in this scene: Georgie is still young enough to trust what an adult tells him, even an adult dressed as a clown who growls at him in a storm drain, and that’s something that taps into notions almost all of us shared at some point. The other instance in which the film directly adapts the book is Eddie’s first meeting with Pennywise, where he appears as a leper. The reason this scene hasn’t been changed is that, in terms of what Eddie fears, Muschietti couldn’t beat it, and it’s one of the more seriously unsettling moments to make the jump on to the big screen.
The 80s setting also meant that the film changed some of the forms in which Pennywise takes to scare and chow down on the children of Derry. Stephen king grew up in 50s America, a time when the Universal monsters of the 1930s found a new home on TV. Pennywise’s forms in the 50s sections come from that sense of old-school classic horror. In the film, Pennywise takes on more insidious appearances. For Bill, like the novel, it’s always Georgie, but the scene in the basement, a common room denoting fear to small children as seen in the beginning of the film, doesn’t occur in the book. It’s a clever callback to the beginning of the film; Georgie felt fear of the unknown in a space, his street, where he has always been safe. By turning into Georgie, and bringing Bill to the basement, Pennywise is putting Bill into Georgie’s shoes. Bill’s fears are mixed up in the trauma of the loss of his little brother, something that (in a plot changed from the novel) Mike also shares after the death of his parents in a fire. These fiery deaths are also something that Pennywise recreates, tapping into the profound pain at the centre of so many of these children.
Eddie’s fear, personified by Pennywise as the leper, ties into his mother’s abuse through Munchausens-by-proxy. Ben, the new kid, fears something more recognisable – in the novel, Pennywise chases Ben as a Mummy, but in the film Ben has the waking nightmare of his parent’s burning hands clawing for him once more, while ghoulish painting in his father’s study haunts Stan.
Beverly is a special case within the film. She rivals Bill as the strongest and bravest in the group. She’s the first of the group to stop fearing Pennywise, something that actually relegates her to damsel for some reason: with the frequent blood imagery, Beverley’s fears are, as is King’s way, tied up in her first getting her period. Her abusive relationship with her father, which is certainly coded as sexual abuse, shows that she has been pushed into the adult world against her will. What’s a clown compared to that? Beverley, despite this obvious and yes, sexist characterisation, is actually a better character than in the book. The boy’s romantic obsession with her is framed as comedically innocent in the film, but the book, through Kings own third-person narration and the insights into each male character’s minds, whittles her down to how hot she is. And it’s really creepy.
Thankfully, the famous sewer child gangbang has been left out (I first read that part in an English free period and people kept asking me why my face looked like the entire room farted), as giving the only girl in the group a special power of being able to have sex is lazy and really gross, doubly so when she is a young girl recovering from sexual abuse. The film largely sidestepped this obvious sexism, but ended up in the process making Beverley too strong.
It’s a strange criticism, I know, but in terms of the film, the fact that Pennywise couldn’t scare Beverley led to her being a damsel for the final act of the movie, as the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with her after she reached the point of overcoming her fear of IT. Getting rid of her (by having her stuck in a trance-like state during much of the final confrontation) was the only way that the movie could allow Bill the big powerful climactic moment instead of her, and it felt lazy.
Lastly, let’s take a quick look at what the film left out. I’m sure you were aware of Richie’s absence when talking about the fears of each child – well, Richie doesn’t have a scene with Pennywise like everyone else. Why would he? That kid isn’t afraid of anyone. He does have a scene in the book where the lumberjack statue attacks him, but that would have looked completely ridiculous on the big screen and the film neatly sidesteps it (with a brief, pleasing visual nod for the fans), and the way they characterise Ricky allows them to duck a deeper look at his character. The main omissions had to do with the origins of Pennywise. These scenes, that feature a sweat lodge journey named the Ritual of Chud (it’s a weird, weird book) where Bill and Richie see the apparent alien origins of the thing that calls itself Pennywise, will probably appear in flashback in the sequel. Frankly, what was left out of the film was left out because it didn’t need to be there. The ritual scenes would have been tonally jarring in a film that is basically a coming-of-age monster movie.
IT may be the perfect Stephen King adaptation because of this balance of what was included, changed slightly, and left out altogether. Where something like The Shining is an amazing film on it’s own merits, it’s a bad adaptation of the novel (same goes for the Salem’s Lot miniseries, and The Stand TV show which could have been so good if done right) but IT perfectly captures the wonder and the horror of growing up, friendship, love, and especially – crucially – the power of fear.
By Kevin Boyle
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon!