IT - The Horror (and Film) We Are Eagerly Anticipating
Leave it to Stephen King to take such sacred things as clowns, red balloons, and birds and turn them against us as harbingers of blood-curdling horror. That's what he certainly did with his 1985 masterpiece IT, the story of seven kids who rally against a disturbing evil that visits their Maine town every thirty years or so, leaving behind a body count with each tarriance. King revels in the adolescent mind and the horrors that lurk there courtesy of the active imagination and innocence. Is it any surprise that King finds the personification of evil residing behind the white makeup of a circus performer whose job is to make kids smile? Pennywise the Clown manipulates our innocence by being OF our innocence. Who hasn't been enticed by a shiny red balloon but never stopped to see the face behind the person who is handing it to us? So much metaphor and symbolism are wrapped up in this, the visages we create for our own evil ends.
The novel IT follows a group of kids who refer to themselves as “The Losers Club”. They are children of the 1950s, riding their bikes around town, making forts, playing make-believe while spending their pocket change on bottles of coke and ice cream sodas. Their fears often draw from the monsters of classic movie lore: the Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein. Their fears also draw from their self-doubt and their self-prescribed weaknesses, the things that make them the “losers” they think they are. Bill stutters and is neglected by his parents after the horrific death of his little brother. Eddie is hypochondriac whose mother is only happy when he is sick. Stan is a Jewish Boy Scout (in a town short on Jews) who can only deal the logical. Ben in overweight, his padding masking the heart of a poet. Beverly is the girl from the wrong side of the tracks with an abusive father. Richie is a class clown, bespectacled and goofy, incapable of filtering his smartass comments. Finally, there is Mike, the town’s only black boy (remember, this is the 1950s) who attends religious school. Separately, these individuals can barely function, but in the summer of 1958, they are drawn together, each having had a horrific experience that has nearly paralyzed their adolescent minds. They find strength and comfort in each other, and as they compare notes, they begin to understand they have been herded together for a reason: to connect in their power of seven and take down an evil that is killing kids in their town; an evil that is manifesting as their greatest fears, and most-often as Pennywise the Clown.
After a horrifying battle in the sewers, the kids hope that they have destroyed IT, but make a pact that, if IT ever returns, they will come back and fight it again. Approximately 30-years later, they find out that the monster has indeed resurfaced in their little town of Derry, Maine, and they are summoned to vanquish the beast. They find that, with age, their ability to deal with such a force is harder, that the imagination and innocence of childhood were perhaps their best weapons. I won’t spoil the end which reveals the origins of IT, sees the deaths of some beloved characters, and results in a climactic ending unlike any other Stephen King novel. It is a novel about coming-of-age, but it is also a poignant metaphor about how we evolve from (and sometimes embrace and make friends with) our fear. King writes adolescents from the heart. He gets what it is to be among the losers and outcasts. He also sees that they are the only ones gifted enough, galvanized by their treatment, to enact any change in the world. This book should be read by anyone who has been bullied and abused, anyone who knows what real fear is, that nagging suspicion that the world doesn’t play nice with us and that there ARE monsters in the closet and under the bed.
So, this September, we who love the book cautiously await a feature film version of IT that will focus on the children’s portion of story, with an expected sequel to tell the adult side of things to follow. A made-for-TV movie of IT was made in 1990, and although it got many things right, it generally disappointed champions of the book. On the upside was a completely unforgettable performance by Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, the personification of nightmares and mind-blowing terror. The kids were also well-cast, particularly the late Jonathan Brandis as the leader of the Loser’s Club, Bill Denbrough. He gives a heartfelt, heartbreaking performance. On the downside, the adults are a bit cartoonish, never really capturing the spirit of the children and spunk of the actors who played the younger versions of themselves. The real disappointment, however, is the amount of the book (many intrinsic moments) that has been excised for reasons of time, not to mention the amount of gore, terror, and tenderness that go by the wayside in this milquetoast adaptation.
Keeping in mind the lessons learned from the TV movie, and taking into consideration the specter of Curry’s indelible performance, we have our fingers crossed (perhaps a little too tightly) waiting for the feature film of IT that is about to hit cinemas in September. There was a lot of sturm und drang over the making of this movie when its original director Cary Fukunaga pulled out over creative differences with the studio New Line Cinema. Many poo-pooed his choice to cast actor Will Poulter as Pennywise the Clown, an odd choice for a role that really demands a bit more age (or agelessness). The new director, Andrés Muschietti, chose Bill Skarsgard for the killer the clown, a decision that was/is as controversial as Poulter. I would have liked to see someone more along the lines of John C. Reilly or John Lithgow in the role, but I am choosing the remain open-minded enough to give Skarsgard a chance.
Where our real judgments will lie will be in how the book has been adapted for the screen. We’ve already been told that the setting has been moved from the 50s and the 80s, to the 80s and the present, a change that was neither necessary or in keeping with the spirit of the book. There was a real evolution in America between the 1950s and the 1980s that perfectly framed the loss-of-innocence themes of the book. The 1950s was the post-WWII, Eisenhower America where The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver gave us the standard to which we should aspire. By the 1980s, the country had been through Vietnam, Watergate, the Sexual Revolution, the beginning of the AIDS Epidemic, and plenty more. This would have been the journey the Loser’s Club would have taken, and it somehow seems unfitting to remove them from the time-period that the book spans. Perhaps it won’t hurt the story, but I remain skeptical on this point. Where they might win me back is if they can manage to capture both the urgency and poignancy of the book, bringing to life these beloved characters in a way that does their heart and their fortitude service. I cautiously, but anxiously, look to September and hope my doubts are put to rest.