Stephen King's "It" and "Stephen King's It"
So I recently finished reading Stephen King’s opus, It. I’ve been a King fan for years, since Mr. Hough occasionally read us stories from Graveyard Shift in the 6th grade. He would always skip over the swears by kind of nodding his head to their rhythm and producing a kind of garble-talk. A fan, yes, but a light reader; just a handful of King. It is a book that begs to be read by kids just a little bit older than the kids in the book. Some of my friends did just that, it seems, but I would have been too scared at 12 to do the same.
I was convinced by a friend recently that I absolutely had to read It, and so convincing was he that I tried to buy a copy at a local bookstore that same day, a few weeks ago. It was not to be had, though, new or used, so I ordered from Amazon and waited impatiently for it to arrive. It was only after I had started in on this fresh copy that I realized I still had the copy someone gave me in the 8th grade (that I never read) buried in the den on the paperback shelf.
In short, I tore through this 1000 plus page book like an addict. It took over my life. I loved It. The book is so much more than I could have imagined. It isn’t just a horror story. It’s a story about childhood, love, memory, loss, tragedy, friendship, sexual awakening, power, evil, and the history of America. It’s funny and terrifying and awe-inspiring. It hooked my from the first pages and possessed me for 12 days or so.
For me, then, it was fun to follow it up, a day or two later, with a viewing of the TV movie from 1990. Watching bad movies can be very instructive; watching a bad adaptation with the book so fresh is especially interesting. I did the same with Cloud Atlas last year.
Stephen King’s It, the book, presents huge problems to the would-be filmmaker. It’s a giant book, full of characters and flashbacks upon flashbacks stretching back into the history of Derry, Maine, the town at the center of the story, many locations from which are richly described. There are seven central characters, depicted fully as children and as adults. There is a transdimensional evil entity that takes on whatever form most scares the beejeezus out of its victims. There are gruesome murders of children. There are apocalyptic storms, floods, fires and earthquakes. The ending of the book contains not just a kind of 2001-type transdimensional freakout but a sexual encounter that might not even be legally possible to depict in a film in the United States. Then there is the question of tone: just how do you replicate the ungodly suspense of the book while reproducing its endless terror and bountiful humor? Finally, the real thing of the book isn’t even the horror aspect at all, but what that horror represents; that is, the philosophical aspects that make the book a resonant, universal, classic work.
It’s a hopeless task, so I had tremendous sympathy for the producers of Stephen King’s It, the movie. Their adaptation is, all of the above considered plus the limitations of TV in 1990—in terms of budget, content and timeframe—a good effort. It fails in most ways, but clearly not for lack of a writer having seriously wrangled with what was possible. The one coup is Tim Curry’s Pennywise the clown who, though he differs from the book’s Pennywise in some respects, is a deliciously frightening presence.
The rest of the cast, however, apart from a few of the kids in a few moments (Seth Green as a young Richie!), is just gawd-awful. The adult main characters, especially in the second part of the film, are pathetically bad, just drowning. The writers also seem to have given up by this point, but thinking about how this ill-cast gang would have butchered better dialogue is possibly more frightening than the film itself.
This was before the new-golden-age of TV that began perhaps a decade later, with the rise of the pay cable channels and the cable networks, all of the movie stars flocking to the small screen, the budgets and ambitions, and no doubt a far better version of It could now be made by an HBO, for example, or even an AMC. But it’s worth noting that, just half a year before It premiered, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks debuted, basically demolishing everyone’s notions of what was possible on television. Can you imagine what he could have done with It? Holy crap, that’s fun to think about.
And now, here’s an Indian TV series called Woh, loosely based on It: