The 1st Edition cover to King's terrifying novel.

The 1st Edition cover to King’s terrifying novel.

It

  • Author:  Stephen King
  • Published:  1986
  • Publisher:  Viking
  • Pages:  1093
  • First Line:  “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
  • Last Line:  “Or so Bill Denbrough sometimes thinks on those early morning after dreaming, when he almost remembers his childhood and the friends with whom he shared it.”
  • Film:  1990 TV film (***); 2017 (****)
  • First Read:  1990

The Novel:  What are we most afraid of?  Stephen King has confronted us with it at some point or another.  But much of it comes into play in this novel, often described as his best (I just now Googled “best Stephen King books” and It was in the top 3 of every single list on the first page).  It reminds us why we are afraid of the dark, why our childhood fears stay with us long after we can remember them, and what can come out of the sewers.  Most of all, as children, we are afraid that we don’t matter and that adults will just ignore us and ignore the potential peril we can find ourselves in.

I read (past tense) Stephen King a lot, starting in junior high (I began with The Stand, in 7th grade – length never scared me away from a book) and culminating in the summer I spent working the graveyard shift at a cannery in 1993.  After that, King’s books started to be not quite as good and I started to move away from popular books and immerse myself in more literary works.  But I still have most of those books and I have been enjoying several of them over the last couple of years or so.  I still think The Stand is his best novel (at some point I’ll cover it in this series) but I also continually return to It.  Nothing proves that more than the status of my copy.  It’s the movie-cover copy, complete with Tim Curry as Pennywise on the cover.  It’s starting to fall apart; the edge of the spine has gone completely white, there are numerous tears in the cover and it’s starting to come off.  I have a lot of books that aren’t in great shape but this book might be in the worst shape of any book I own that I bought new.  I read it back in 1990, I remember reading it in the Spring of 1993, listening to X, Pet Sounds and Dark Side of the Moon at the house on Blooming Fern Hill (I didn’t have a CD player yet but I owned those three CD’s, so I would go up to my parents house and listen while reading), I remember reading it sometime in the late 90’s and I know I read it a few years ago.  So it’s been read a lot and is over 1000 pages and it might not survive another reading.

I come back to it because it has a great story to tell, because it is completely terrifying and because I love the characters that King creates.  Among that list of characters is the city of Derry.  Derry, in some ways, is Bangor, King’s home, but it also exists as a separate entity.  Derry has a history, a terrifying history that dates back before the dawn of civilization, when It came falling from the sky and found a home, a home that would culminate in terror and violence every 27 years or so.  We learn that sordid history of Derry, of the disappearance of settlers, of the random acts of horrific violence, of the explosion that killed so many of the town’s kids, of the creature that haunts the sewers.  All of this just becomes a bit more terrifying when you go beyond this book and realize that Derry is mostly destroyed in the end, but not completely, and there will be other King stories set in this town where so many dark and terrible things happen and that sometimes none of this ever ends.  (Okay: side note, because this will come back to a weakness in the novel – nothing ever ends in King’s books, and that has been going on since his first novel, Carrie, where we realize at the end this may all happen again and for the most part that gets a bit ridiculous, except in the extended edition of The Stand, where it is poetic).

There are two stories going on at once, and we realize fairly early on how they are connected.  The first is the string of child deaths that mark the town from October of 1957 until it is stopped by a group of seven children in August of 1958.  The second is a similar string of deaths and disappearances that begins in 1984 and stretches into 1985.  Those seven friends who stopped the horrible evil once before made a vow that if it survived, if it somehow came back, they would return and do what had to be done once again, whatever price had to be paid.

There is terror and horror in the descriptions of what happens: “It held George’s arm in its thick and wormy grip, it pulled George toward that terrible darkness where the water rushed and roared and bellowed as it bore its cargo of storm debris toward the sea.  George craned his neck away from that final blackness and began to scream into the rain, to scream mindlessly into the white autumn sky which curved above Derry on that day in the fall of 1957.”  But it is not all horror.  The novel works so well not just because of the terror and horror, but because we are given real characters to enjoy: “Here is a poor boy from the state of Maine who goes to the University on a scholarship.  All his life he had wanted to be a writer, but when he enrolls in the writing courses he find himself lost without a compass in a strange and frightening land.  There’s one guy who wants to be Updike.  There’s another one who wants to be a New England version of Faulkner – only he wants to write novels about the grim lives of the poor in blank verse.” (more on the literary connections is down below)

This all comes alive in part because of Pennywise the Clown, possibly the most terrifying creation of a man who specializes in such things.  Pennywise is the evil under Derry, he is It,   It can be so many things, all the things we fear, a mummy, a werewolf, a leper.  Or it can be the violence within, the horrifying things that lie beneath the surface, and that’s where the worst horrors of the book spring from.  I once wrote that I wouldn’t be surprised if Ian McEwan had never known anyone nice, given his characters.  But I wonder the same about King.  King has an amazing imagination and creations like It or Randall Flagg or The Shining are a wonder to behold, but the most terrifying things he writes about are the violence in all of us.  So many of his characters in so many of his books have violence deep in their core – Jack Torrance might have been corrupted by the hotel, but it was the violence in his soul that was the most terrifying aspect of The Shining.  The same holds true here.  In spite of the horrifying evil that Pennywise does, the scenes that affect me the most are the ones involving Beverly and the cycle of violence she inherits, first from her father, then from her husband, who gives her the structure, but also the same terror, that her father delivered.

And yet, for the kids, the real terror is that so many awful things are happening and none of the adults come to their aid.  They are forced to do the dirty work themselves – adults turn away from them when they are in need.  King makes that part of the darkness at the heart of Derry, but it’s the fear for all children – that they don’t matter and that their problems aren’t important enough for adults to bother with.  That’s why bullied kids commit suicide.  That’s why kids end up emotionally scarred.  It’s in the conceit of a fantasy notion, but it’s a very real horror and is of one of the more poignant aspects of the book.

What all of this comes to is that this is an incredible story, one I keep coming back to, but that does not mean just anyone should read it.  First, there are those who are disinclined to such a book, either because of the horror, or because of the violence (don’t tell me you’ll avoid it because of the length, because I’ll just be disappointed – if you avoid books just because of the length that’s your problem, not the book).  I don’t blame those people at all for not wanting to read this, or, really, any book by King.  But the book is also not without its flaws.  I won’t pretend that the conclusion is a disappointment – all of this unstoppable evil and then it comes to this strange metaphysical battle involving the Turtle and a giant spider.  And once the children do what they need to do, apparently the next step is to say goodbye to childhood by all sleeping with Beverly, which would be bizarre enough at any point, but even more bizarre for 12 year olds.  If that scene just creeps you out, well then, again, this is not the book for you.  But so much of what comes before is so well planned, the creation of an amazing creature of evil, the fine detail that gives us not only a fictional city, but also its entire dark, violent history, and all of these fascinating characters.  It’s far from a brilliant novel, but as is clear from how often I keep returning to it, it is definitely a great read.

Also, a nice bonus for a person like me, King has a nice sense of literary history.  At one point we are told the names of some of the people who died in one of Pennywise’s previous incursions.  They include Snopes, McCaslin and Sartoris, all characters from Faulkner.  One character makes a comparison between what is happening and what happens in Lord of the Rings, where the path in front of your door can lead all the way to adventure and danger.  And when one character, permanently scarred by his childhood encounter with It and afraid of the dark, is described through the years, we find out “Henry had measured out the years of his incarceration with burned-out nightlights instead of coffee-spoons.”  I didn’t get that at first, in 1990, but oh do I ever get the Eliot reference now.  I think about it now as I remember the frightening things of my youth and remember that one of them was that Thoreau was right and that my life might be one of quiet desperation.  That scares me a little as I measure out my time in blog posts.

It's not perfect, but Tim Curry is creeeeeeeeepy!

It’s not perfect, but Tim Curry is creeeeeeeeepy!

The TV-Movie:  I’m not big on television at all, but I’m especially not big on TV movies.  If I watch them, it’s usually because I read the source material.  This is one of the first TV movies that I remember specifically making time to watch.  I know I read the book first, because that was my thing, even back then, but I must not have bought it that long before I read it because I do have the movie cover.

Now, this is not a perfect adaptation, by any means.  The cast is mostly solid, but it’s not like they cast big names in the film – these are mostly television actors plying their trade – names like Richard Thomas, Harry Anderson and John Ritter were a little strange to see in a Stephen King adaptation after all.  Also, because this is a television movie, a lot of the violence and sexual overtones of the book have either been greatly reduced or completely excised.  So, the sheer monstrosity of Beverly’s husband or her father and the way they use violence to keep her “in line” does not nearly come across as forcefully as it does in the book (although, quite frankly, I’m kind of glad for that).  It always look like a television movie.

There are a few things that are changed that I wish they hadn’t.  They could have kept the important resemblance between Audra and Beverly, but they clearly didn’t even try.  They could have emphasized that Eddie, like Bev, essentially married his single parent, but instead they have him still living with his mother.

But, to their credit, they do a lot of things well.  The children were all cast very well (surprisingly, most of them didn’t go on to real acting careers and one that did ended very badly), even if several of them look too old for the part.  The actors, most of whom are kind of out of their depth, do a surprisingly solid job.  And the script manages to keep as much horror as is possible given that this was airing on television.

That brings me to the single best decision the filmmakers made with this film: the casting of Tim Curry.  At this time I knew Curry as the butler from Clue.  Most people probably would have known him from Rocky Horror.  I doubt anyone would have realized how god damn frightening he could be.  He is utterly terrifying almost every time he is onscreen (Veronica, watching part of it with me commented that this is probably why everyone in our generation finds clowns creepy).  Every time he is on the screen, it works, no matter what else is going on.

That, of course, brings up the one other thing that keeps this from really being all that great: the ending.  The problem is that the ending in the film isn’t the fault of the filmmakers – King wrote an even more bizarre ending and they made the best use of it that they could, with Pennywise morphing into this giant spider, and the group coming together and basically beating it to death in the end.  Is it a terrible ending?  Yes, it is.  But really, at that point, what could the filmmakers do?  In a sense, by structuring the movie the way they did – with the conclusion of the flashback events coming at the end of the first part (the kids aren’t used nearly as much in the second part), they had undercut their own finale, since that one is so much more dramatic.  But, hey, it’s still a *** film and is still some good creepy entertainment.  And whenever Curry is on-screen, emphasis on the creepy.

This poster is probably enough to either make you go see it right now or never ever see it.

The Film:  The opening scene of the film is familiar.  It not only comes almost straight from the book but it also perfectly echoes the scene in the tv-movie, although that scene came a few scenes in, after we’ve already seen the clown and have an idea of the horror he represents.  Poor Georgie Denbrough, just out having fun with his new boat in the storm and he happens upon one of the greatest evils ever put on the page or the screen.  We know the dialogue and even the inflections in Georgie’s reactions (even the sewer opening looks similar, which probably isn’t a reflection of both versions having been filmed in Canada since they were filmed in different provinces on opposite sides of the country) but it’s that new voice that’s different, that higher-pitched voice designed to appeal more to little kids but that only masks one of the most terrifying performances to ever appear on celluloid.  When those teeth come out, we understand the horror about to be unleashed and since this is an R rated film instead of a made for television movie, we know it’s going to be a lot more graphic.  But then something different happens.  It’s not that we see the horrific aftermath of what Pennywise does to Georgie but that he pulls him into that sewer.  Instead of following things up with the funeral we move forward to the next year.  There is no funeral because there is no body and that’s where things take a turn.

For years, I have used the first X-Men film as a basis for comparison.  That film didn’t follow any specific storyline from the comics and indeed made some choices that were very different than any history of the comic.  However, all of the characters were very true to how they had always been written.  It was new and old at the same time, true to the spirit without being faithful to the words.  This is another perfect example of that.  The time of the film has been moved forward to 1989 rather than 1958 and the second film will be contemporary (just as 1985 was contemporary for the book’s release).  Why 1989?  Well, perhaps because of that film we see on the marquee the first time the theater is in the background, because isn’t The Joker, after all, the original psychotic clown?  But it’s not just the year that’s different.  So many little characteristics have been changed (Stan is the rabbi’s son instead of being not particularly devout, Mike lives with his grandfather instead of his parents who are now dead, it’s Ben who knows the town’s history instead of Mike, Mike is now home-schooled instead of going to a parochial school, Henry’s father instead of being the town loser is a cop which adds a different dimension to their bullying / bullyed relationship) but none of them feel like a violation of what King had put on the page.  These are the characters, very much as we have been reading about them for over 30 years.  And part of the reason that we feel that so intensely is because the kids who play them are so damn good.  In the tv-movie, the kids were good but they were clearly being asked to play second fiddle to the adults who were the stars.  Here, they are allowed to be the stars of the film and we are seeing stars in the making.  The most notable is Jaeden Lieberher, who has already been proving himself over the last few years in St. Vincent and Midnight Special (though I didn’t recognize him from either) as Bill, the leader of the group, the boy determined to find out what has happened to his little brother.  The change in having George disappear instead of just dying gives a different meaning to Bill’s quest to find out what has happened and then drives his quest for vengeance.  Aside from Lieberher, the big stars in the making are Finn Wolfhard, whose turn as Richie here is much less sympathetic than his starring role as Mike in Stranger Things and also gives him the best line in the film (which I won’t reveal) and the heart-breakingly beautiful Sophia Lillis who looks so much like Amy Adams that Adams just has to play her in the second film (and she will be playing a young Adams in the new HBO production of Sharp Objects) as a Bev who has to deal less with being poor and more with an unsavory reputation.

I went into this film expecting a powerhouse performance from Bill Skarsgard and boy did I get it.  I expected to see some terrifying scenes.  But I was impressed by the scope of what I saw.  The cinematography is fantastic, the music is perfectly creepy and then terrifying when it needs to be.  The editing is extremely well-suited to the genre and to all the most frightening aspects of Skasgard and his performance.  Thanks to the changes from the source material, we never know quite what is going to happen next and there are some genuinely surprising moments (which I also won’t mention).  The script makes good use of some original ideas (to me, the most terrifying scene with Pennywise is the scene where Bill goes into the cellar) and the scenes that lead to the climax of the film, which stray the farthest from the original novel also don’t stray at all, but simply borrow some aspects from the parts where the kids have grown up.

It comes down to this: if you think this film is going to scare the crap out of you, then you are right.  I have read the book numerous times (and had just finished re-reading it again when I saw the film), have seen the tv-movie numerous times and thought I would know when I needed to look away to keep from getting too unnerved and I still wasn’t always right.  It is surprising and smart and terrifying, with fantastic direction and very good acting from a group of kids who I think have good futures ahead of them.  It’s only the third film I classify as Horror that I’ve gone to see in the theater since moving to Boston 12 years ago and it’s the only one that didn’t have a giant ape.  But I don’t regret it, because with the exception of Jackson’s King Kong and unless you count Black Swan (like I do), this is the best English language Horror film made in the last 15 years.

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