|I don’t want to traumatize any of you, so here’s a
relatively non-scary picture of our old pal Pennywise
It is one of Stephen King’s masterpieces, a symphonic novel about friendship, the power of childhood belief…and a killer clown from beyond the edge of the universe… But mostly the childhood belief stuff.
I think it’s safe to say that, if you haven’t read this novel, you should run and grab it and READ IT because it’s magnificent. If you’re worried that it will traumatize you, know that it will, but it will also inspire you to the very core of your being and encourage you to never lose the pure faith and the innocence you had in your childhood. Also it will remind you that being an adult sucks, but we already know that, so no big surprises there.
I’ll wait for you to file out the back and go pick it up. You can come back later after you’ve read it.
Alright, moving on!
The plot follows a group of seven friends, Bill, Ben, Eddie, Beverly, Richie, Mike, and Stan as they face off against a malevolent force which feeds off of the fears of its victims, appearing in a multitude of shapes (sort of like a Boggart, for you Harry Potter fans). Having somehow woven itself into the very fabric of the Maine town of Derry, It is omnipresent and seemingly immortal, reappearing periodically throughout history to cause chaos and destruction. In 1958, the kids face this being and then, 27 years later discover that, as adults, they have to face It again. Only now they have grown up and have lost the childish innocence that allowed them to survive the first time. It’s like a Wagner opera in horror novel form, exploring everything from racism, domestic violence, bullying, mental illness, mythology, small town isolation, the power of childhood, the influence of history on the present day, the potency of belief, and the fabric of reality itself.
It. Is. Amazing.
There have been rumors that this work of art is being considered for the big screen treatment (maybe, possibly). Whether that will actually happen is debatable since the project has just recently lost its director, but the buzz is still there, and who knows, someone else may step in and revive the project. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait 27 years.
That was an It joke. If you didn’t get that, it means you didn’t leave when I told you to. Go now and read it, then you can come back. We’ll be waiting for you. Check out the audiobook version. It’s wonderful. *makes shoo-ing gesture*
But anyways, as soon as I heard that this book was being considered for a big budget movie, I found myself thinking of the 1990 TV miniseries. Now, as a teenager, I saw Part 1 on a band trip and it scared me to death, but I loved it anyhow. I never actually saw Part 2 until recently when I re-watched the whole thing, and…I’m kind of wishing I had just left it at Part 1. But I’ll get to that later. The point that I want to make is that, if we want to re-make this story, we’ll have to pay careful attention to what the miniseries did right and what it did wrong if we’re ever going to do justice to this story.
It is not exactly unfilmable the way a novel like Ulysses or Infinite Jest would be, but it is so massive and so multilayered that a film adaptation could either gut the story by removing everything of value (the little details that make the characters so great), or be a goopy mess that tries to do too much and fails to congeal into anything even remotely coherent. This would be especially true if the filmmakers botch the macroverse elements which place the It being in conflict with the creator of the universe, an archetypal Turtle who, in the Dark Tower series is revealed to be one of the 12 guardians of the cosmic beams which support the Dark Tower (and all of reality) itself. It’s heavy stuff and if done badly, could end up being very very silly.
Now, the 1990 miniseries isn’t all that fabulous, but it does do a few things right. The characterization of Pennywise the Clown (one of It’s incarnations) by Tim Curry is just marvelous. The man sure knows how to exude malevolence. The character itself seems more of a demented trickster rather than a real threat in the miniseries, but the moment when It first appears at the very beginning should cause anyone to jump. Who ever takes over the role for a new adaptation has very big (red, floppy) shoes to fill.
Another thing the miniseries does well is its depiction of the Losers Club as kids. The chemistry the group has is wonderful and the actors they chose (including a very young Seth Green) get along so well together, I would watch a whole TV series focused just on this group. The biggest tragedy of the miniseries is that we don’t get to spend much time with this group (which is mostly due to necessary time constraints). They feel like a genuine group of friends, which is part of the reason why Part 1 works so well.
Part 2 isn’t bad, but when it stumbles, it falls hard. The actors fail to really gel the way their younger counterparts did, and the pacing is very uneven. Then, of course, the big obvious one is the final battle with what I can only imagine is a rejected stop motion puppet from Jason and the Argonauts. Without the apocalyptic storm which destroys Derry, or the universe-traversing mental battle between the Loser’s Club and It, all that’s left is a battle between 5 people and a veeeery silly spider puppet. I’m willing to forgive bad effects, but the scene carries no emotional weight whatsoever. It’s clear the budget ran out, and the scriptwriters decided that the macroverse stuff was too difficult to film (an understandable decision, considering how abstract the whole thing is), and so they chose to make the scene as uncomplicated as possible, which sort of hamstrung the whole thing. Overall, the scene just doesn’t work, and the lack of a satisfying conclusion sort of robs the entire series of its potential awesomeness.
So, what can we learn from this if we are to make a big budget film adaptation?
I know Stephen King is quoted as saying that, if he had his way, it would be a 32-hour miniseries. I’m not opposed to such an idea, but I know it’ll never happen. But, while a lot can be safely cut (like the homicidal rampage in the bar or the weird sex ritual in the tunnels), there are some things that should stay behind:
1. Having the two timelines run concurrently instead of chronologically – The Lost-style flashbacks are wonderful and give the story much more symmetry than if we do the 1958 stuff first and then do the 1985 stuff after.Plus, the final battle has waaaay more power if it’s being fought by the adults and the kids at the same time.
2. Pennywise is terrifying AF, but let’s not forget the human villains – For the first half of the book, the scariest characters are Tom Rogan, Alvin Marsh, and Henry Bowers. It isn’t until the second half when you realize the full extent of what It really is, that It even feels like a real threat. Before that, It is a character King almost dares us to underestimate, just some psychopath in a clown suit. A good director could really make use of this, especially since the miniseries really didn’t do much to make Henry Bowers any more than an easily escapable cliche bully character.
3. We deserve a good climax (interpret that sentence HOWEVER you want) – The battle with It practically levels Derry, and very nearly rips the universe apart. I’m talking Interstellar-level mind-exploding cosmic insanity. We need that. Stephen King (despite his inability to trim anything unnecessary out of his books) really knows how to deliver in the catharsis department. When things are at their most hectic, he is not one to shy away from literally blowing everything to Kingdom Come (including, if needed, Kingdom Come itself) to give us, as readers, the closure we need. And we know that the technology exists to make this happen. The ending is insane, but it is not unfilmable.
4. We need a Pennywise that will keep up away from all open drains for the rest of our life – The miniseries Pennywise felt more like a sadistic trickster who just likes scaring people. In the book, every encounter with It is a life and death struggle with the human character either just barely escaping, or falling prey to It. We need to feel that holy-crap-we’re-all-going-to-die immediacy and intensity. There’s a whole generation or two out there that aren’t as afraid of clowns as they need to be. We must fix that.
All obsessive book fans feel this way, so I’m not being even remotely original in my pleas to whoever ends up adapting this, but still. DON’T MESS THIS UP, WHOEVER YOU ARE!
What many fail to recognize is that this isn’t just a scary horror novel, it’s actually a really good novel in and of itself, and I think if it (It? It?) is treated seriously, it could make for a genuinely mindblowing film. Plus, we need more good horror films, amirite? AND I am rather partial to the monster genre anyways, so it’s win-win.
So whoever you are, Magic Hollywood Movie Maker People, pleeeeeease give us a good It that doesn’t insult our intelligence. I promise. We can handle it (and It).
And to you, dear Readers, I shall see you next week!