If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, Pennywise the Dancing Clown probably haunted your dreams…. And your ears probably perked up a few days ago when producer Roy Lee teased the return of Stephen King’s iconic monster. Lee said he is developing a feature film adaptation of King’s novel IT that will be “very close to the source material in one way but very different if you look at it as a literary piece of work.” He added that his team is preparing to make two films—one told from the point of view of the kids and one from the point of view of the adults—which could “potentially then be cut together.”
The big question, of course, is whether or not the new film(s) can recapture the strengths of the source novel and the 1990 miniseries that haunted a generation. Here’s what the filmmakers will have to keep in mind:
In the mid-80s, Stephen King called IT his “final exam,” insisting that he had put everything he knew about monsters into the book. The monster in IT was a shape-shifter that could take the form of literally any creature that strikes fear into the hearts of children—from the classic Universal monsters to a sexually-predatory leprous hobo named Bob Gray.
What makes the novel so effective is that the adult characters are equally afraid of It—for different reasons. When King’s seven main characters reunite as adults to confront their collective childhood nightmare, they realize that they can no longer cope with the reality of a creature like It. King explains:
“When you grew up […] you no longer lay awake in your bed, sure something was crouching in the closet or scratching at the window… but when something did happen, something beyond rational explanation, the circuits overloaded. […] You just couldn’t incorporate what had happened into your life experience. It didn’t digest. Your mind kept coming back to it, pawing it lightly like a kitten with a ball of string… until eventually, of course, you either went crazy or got to a place where it was impossible for you to function.”
The fact that It really exists scares one of the adults so much that he commits suicide. He simply can’t believe in monsters the way he did as a child, which leaves him with no way to face his fear.
And that’s why King’s novel is so effective: IT prompts us to remember what it is really like to be a child, feeling overwhelmingly vulnerable to forces we can’t comprehend. We grow up and convince ourselves that we live in an ordered universe, but the power of IT lies in the suggestion that most adults are lying to themselves..
Not long after King’s novel was published, ABC announced that it would air a miniseries adaptation in the fall of 1987. Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (CARRIE) and director George Romero worked for several years on the script for an epic 10-hour adaptation, which was eventually trimmed it down to eight hours, then six hours, then four. Romero eventually jumped ship in order to remake NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and Cohen re-conceptualized the screen story, dividing the material into two feature-length movies—one evolving entirely around the kids and one revolving entirely around the adults. Incoming director Tommy Lee Wallace then rewrote the second movie to include childhood flashbacks, which generated the impression that the adult story couldn’t stand on its own.
In the end, that’s how most viewers saw STEPHEN KING’S IT. The first half of the miniseries, which unites a group of misfits against Pennywise, inspired genuine nightmares thanks to Tim Curry’s gleefully maniacal performance as the killer clown. The second half, which matched a group of rather humorless adults against a giant mechanical spider (King later described it as looking like a “Tonka toy” or a “Delco battery”), elicited groans. Why? Because the adult filmmakers didn’t believe in IT. They didn’t understand what it would be like to confront Pennywise as adults. They didn’t court madness.
Some say that the miniseries was bound to seem tame, due to the limitations of the medium. ABC’s Standards & Practices dictated that the show could not depict “children in mortal jeopardy,” which is what the book is all about. The horror of IT is that innocent children can be killed—physically and psychologically—because monsters are real. That message could have been conveyed, even with the limitations of network TV.
When I was a kid, the miniseries that scared me the most was a 1989 NBC production called I KNOW MY FIRST NAME IS STEVEN. It told the true story of a boy who was kidnapped by a pedophile and held captive for years. No horror movie imagery necessary. The boy managed to survive his ordeal physically, and maybe even psychologically, but the miniseries ended with onscreen text saying that he was subsequently killed by a drunk driver. Now that’s a horror story that could drive anyone mad.
When I re-read the novel IT a few years ago, the first scene that really jumped out at me was the one where Ben Hanscomb visits a bar after receiving a call to return to his hometown and confront Pennywise. Remembering the horrors of his childhood, Ben proceeds to drink two full steins of Wild Turkey—which does nothing to calm his nerves. I read that passage thinking: Jesus, he’s going to kill himself. And then: What could possibly scare a grown man that much?
Even though I knew more or less what was coming, that scene made me dread everything to come. That’s why the novel, unlike the miniseries, hinges on the story of the adults. The adults are not remembering childhood horrors; they are re-living childhood horrors—and it’s the storyteller’s job to put us (the readers and viewers) into their minds, to make us believe again that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our understanding or control.
With that in mind, the new filmmakers will probably need to be very selective about visualizing the monster. It will be hard for anyone to top Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise (insert “big shoes to fill” joke here), but clowns are always kind of terrifying. These days it’s hard to imagine anyone being scared by Frankenstein, Dracula or the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but I’m secretly hoping that we’ll get to see King’s version of the Mummy, lumbering after Ben Hanscomb across a frozen pond in a blinding snowstorm. I’d also like see the filmmakers pull off the attack of the giant Paul Bunyan statue. (Sure, it sounds ridiculous on paper, but just take one look at Stephen King’s real-life inspiration….)
As for that giant spider at the end of the novel and the miniseries… Well… I’m more terrified of the humans in the story: Eddie’s domineering mother and wife, Bev’s abusive father and husband, the leprous hobo Bob Gray, and of course Henry Bowers. Henry is the teenage bully who grows up to be a guy like John Hinckley or a Ted Bundy. He’s a human being without empathy, a complete blank who somehow lacks the better angels of human nature. In short, he’s a product of a not-quite-sane universe, and there’s only one way to respond to a threat like that. Sounding like the narrator of King’s story “The Body” (adapted to the screen as STAND BY ME), Eddie reminds us of the light that at the corner of Stephen King’s swirling darkness:
“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good or bad friends—maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for, too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”
That’s why King’s novels are so effective. He builds houses in our hearts… then shows us what’s in the basement.