When adapted for the screen, Stephen King’s writing often feels like flipping a coin. Films such as Carrie (1976), Misery (1990), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) are considered some of the best movies ever made, whereas Dreamcatcher (2003) or Firestarter (2022) are doomed to failure and irrelevance. One of King’s most beloved books, the 1986 tome IT, has had two English language adaptations since its publication. The novel, totalling at over a thousand pages, holds a special type of legacy. Everyone’s heard of it, hardly anyone’s finished it. Both adaptations, a 1990 TV miniseries directed by Tommy Lee Wallace and two 2010s films directed by Andy Muschietti, are comparably packed – yet audiences and critics seem continually reticent to place them on either side of the coin.
Wallace’s version, running at around three hours, is remembered predominantly for Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise. How could it not be? Muschietti’s films will, in all likelihood, be similarly recalled for Bill Skarsgård as the child-eating clown. Both performances, bolstered by sharp scripts, capture the fine line Pennywise treads. He was never taken entirely seriously by the story, because saying ‘I’m scared of clowns’ has always been a cop-out revelation reserved for awkward first dates. Kids find clowns scary for the same reason they find fire scary – we teach them to fear these things. Phantom balloons which burst, spraying you with blood, would be such a commendably-unscary concept if written by a novelist who didn’t spend more time establishing a tone and populating a book with bittersweet images of childhood. Pennywise is important, but he only works if the world crafted first is able to welcome him.
The 1990 miniseries is weaker in this regard. Despite Wallace claiming Twin Peaks (1990-91) as an inspiration, the deeply televisual feel of the two feature-length episodes makes Curry’s rough voice and playful demeanour stand-out ineffectively. His more brutal elements from the novel are toned down, mostly to fall in line with American censorship laws from the time as to not show children in danger. The 2017 and 2019 films, thanks to a longer runtime, better technology, and a more developed sense of taste in American media, are able to better craft the world Pennywise haunts. Everything in this vision of Derry is calloused and empty – and the bright youthful colours which inhabit the minds of the Losers’ Club form a contrast, allowing Pennywise to enter seamlessly. The Muschietti films also manage to transplant much more of the novel over – such as Eddie’s phantom leper, the house on Neibolt Street, and showing Georgie’s arm being torn off, all of which were important tonal beats and character moments from King’s book. Another inclusion which I was glad to see, strangely, is the homophobic attack which opens Chapter Two. It’s there, not as lurid exploitation, but as an example of the types of feelings and behaviours Pennywise feeds from – as well as giving more texture to the world.
Both adaptations ignore the more disconcerting sexual moments from the book, like an extensive sewer orgy after the kids defeat Pennywise for the first time. Though undeniably an expression of artistic truth, it’s something even hardcore King fans have to accept as first to be excised.
The Wallace series, at least to modern eyes, captures the feeling of melancholy more effectively. Despite being a weak horror presence, Curry’s Pennywise looks cheap. He looks like he’s wearing a Halloween costume – as opposed to Skarsgård’s more designed appearance – and the bawdy laugh and cheap jokes Curry spews from scene to scene build into a sense of inexplicable sadness. Here’s an interdimensional being, committed to an eternity of scaring children, and its level of humour is comparable to that of a preteen. The performances of the child actors, most of whom don’t seem to fully comprehend the material, also contributes to this bittersweet sensation of youth. The modern cast, though undeniably more professional and given better direction, betray a sense of understanding of a smarter screenplay – they speak and act more like how an adult would imagine children acting in this scenario.
The modern films are commendable, at the very least, for attempting to create a sense of abject terror. Whereas the Tommy Lee Wallace miniseries, constrained by both technology and US television rules, would suggest violence and fear more than it was shown, the Muschietti films often try to overload the senses. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is seen constantly, in long sequences where his performance leaves nothing to the imagination. Pennywise dances to loud music and bright lights, he takes hold of the children and keeps his face inches from theirs, babbling and drooling. Mainstream horror movies often leave much of the heavy lifting to your imagination, so it’s a brave choice to show everything. Chapter One was criticised in AP for not building a sense of tension, but the film isn’t trying to do that. It doesn’t want your heart to race as a character slowly tracks through a dark corridor. It wants your breath to be torn away, for a split second, when you’re confronted with a creature so malevolent and undeniable as this iteration of Pennywise. I don’t think it entirely works, because the line between terrifying and try-hard is very thin, but it’s certainly a distinctive approach which makes the first film a fascinating watch.
Both struggle with the adult portion of the story, predominantly the ending. Both iterations of the adult cast fully understand the source material – something not easily said about the screenwriters. The Wallace version fails to capture the sadness and instead lands on melodrama, and the Muschietti adults turn into wise-cracking effigies of their childhood selves. Because both adaptations miss the mark, it’s worth noting that the novel ends up in these woods too – criticism about his endings was levelled at King so commonly in the 80s that he made a joke of it in the book. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is effective through the eyes of lonely children. Pennywise the Interdimensional Spider, “The Eater of Worlds”, isn’t effective at all, especially through the eyes of successful adults with mortgages. Skarsgård’s shrivelled baby-head is a better visual than an unwieldy giant spider prop – and Pennywise’s nemesis, the giant talking turtle, is another understandable deletion – but the pseudo-Lovecraftian origin of It should’ve been at least considered for the chop.
Arguably the most acclaimed adaptation of a Stephen King novel, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, takes the setting and story from the novel and twists it into a visual and auditory literary work. Kubrick’s use of symmetry informed a generation of filmmakers, just as how King’s enmeshment of character and horror influenced a generation of writers. King’s novels, eternally dense and variable in quality, remain popular among readers – but his distinct writing style and superstar name continue to struggle onto the screen. Sometimes taking the story and transferring it into another medium isn’t enough. Both It adaptations remain faithful to the book, which might perhaps explain their inability to capture audiences. Even people who have never read the book or seen the movies know of Pennywise, the evil shapeshifting clown who terrorises a small town until a group of losers rise up against him. That’s where Pennywise lives most effectively – in the mind.