From Book to Screen: It

We’re back at the Stephen King Book to Screen series! At long last, we reach one of the most anticipated and high-profile titles of the series in the form of his iconic work, It!

Published after being ousted as Richard Bachman, and Skeleton Crew, his second collection of short stories, one could imagine there was a decent amount of anticipation about King returning to a hard, full-length horror novel. With a variety of adaptations over the decades and a continued significance in horror pop culture, this has proved one of King’s most successful works.

His second longest novel after The StandIt is perhaps one of three works that one can could King’s magnum opus. The Stand is an epic undertaking of a novel depicting a climatic battle between good and evil in a post-apocalyptic world. The Dark Tower series is a similarly grandiloquent work. Odd perhaps that It, a book about one fateful summer in a group of children’s lives, takes on a similar scope.

Yet for Stephen King, a childhood summer is as much a landscape for the primal moral forces of life to collide as any fallen world or multiversal quest. Published in the fall of 1986, it represented the accumulated work of 5 years of writing and nearly a decade of brainstorming and plotting. The initial kernel of the idea for It began its growth in 1978 while King and his family were living in Boulder, Colorado.

Aside from inspiring The Shining, King’s stay in the Centennial State found him dwelling on the childhood story of the three billy goats gruff. Crossing a rickety bridge on the way to pick his car up from a repair shop, King began to imagine taking that tale and transporting it into a real-life scenario. The idea took root in his mind and bloomed into a concept that interweaved childhood and adulthood issues.

King’s eventual return to Maine also inspired him, as he included the Bangor sewer system and other notable Bangor locales into the fictional town of Derry. A tempest of concepts of dreams and nightmares and the blending of childhood and adulthood created a perfect storm to inspire a truly gargantuan work.

Several critics at the time did not appreciate the book’s length. There were comments that many of story’s turns were unnecessary and did not justify themselves. There was some controversy as well over the graphic depiction of childhood sexuality, though there was also understanding of where that might come from. There were other critics, though, who felt that the entire work clicked, genuinely conveying the feeling of being a child and the nature of memory and reflection.

Despite mixed critical reaction, It became one of King’s most popular works. Pennywise has been deemed one of fiction’s scariest clowns, and while It has never had quite the same amount of sales as King’s most popular books, it is still among his top 10 highest-selling. It has been adapted multiple times. It is not perfect; it’s a warty book at times with probably too much fluff and certainly some choices that King likely should have thought twice about. All the same, It still fairly ranks among King’s best, and perhaps its warts are part of what gives it its charm.

While Pennywise the Clown has become the iconic image from this tale, he is merely a metaphorical device for the real horror at play in this book. Much of King’s work dabbles with boomer nostalgia and an era of childhood when latchkey kids ran around relatively unchecked, engaging in all sorts of adventures until the hard truth of growing up hit, and the events of the 60s and 70s caused a generation to face reality.

King dives deeply into this idea in It when a group of friends are called back to their childhood home to defeat the evils of their past. It, the creature, plays on fears, adopting the form of what scares you most, and this concept of primal childhood fear leaving deep psychological wounds informs much of It‘s pathos. King sketches out a group of friends who lovingly dub themselves the Loser’s Club as much of the world around them treats them poorly. Each faces their own troubles at home and in the world.

This awkward pain of growing up and struggling to find oneself works well due to King’s ability to call on that feeling of being 12 and having the world before you and not knowing your way through it. The book is brilliantly structured around the adults hearing the call that evil is returned, and, having forgotten the entire experience, are forced to slowly remember the events of the past. The book has a great way of telling parallel storylines without feeling like the action comes to a halt every time a flashback happens. The way the childhood and adult timelines connect and interweave works quite well to achieve the desired nostalgic tone, threading towards the story’s epic conclusion as the timelines nearly merge.

There are fair complaints to be made about the bloated length of the book. In such a long novel, there are some sections that likely could have been tossed aside. Some of the character building doesn’t quite need every little scene. The detailed flashbacks to the town’s past, and following Mike’s tales of It’s past exploits, brings lots of flavor to It’s eternal terror, but not every single scene really contributes to advancing the plot. While I love the cosmic mind battle at the novel’s end, it does get a tad goofy. And while King’s intentions may have been pure with the notable childhood sex scenes, they probably have too much detail in hindsight.

Still, as I alluded, It‘s stuffed nature is part of its charm. It has some extraneous material that a child writer wouldn’t know better than to exclude. It‘s enormous scope and numerous character details do give the ending a final punch, and the elemental descriptions of Derry upending in the wake of It’s destruction bring home the idea of change being ultimately good, even if we lose some of that childhood magic.

It is a reflection of King’s own youth in Bangor (with presumably less cosmic space clowns and rape) and his effort to retain a sense of childhood wonder even as he ages. His commentary that we ought to try to keep some part of our childhood nature in us is well taken. These strong moments of nostalgia knock hard on my own heart as I grow older and start to realize the true magic that childhood held.

It is these genuine moments, written so well, that give It a sense of staying power. Children making a bond in blood, and keeping that bond no matter what, can’t help but stir the heart.

The first adaptation of It came within four years of the book’s publication. Filmed for television and aired over two nights on ABC, the film ended up being a big hit for the network. Despite being an adaptation of a grisly horror book, having to compete with coverage of George H.W. Bush’s foreign trips, and mixed pre-airing reviews, it ended up pulling in 30 million viewers.

Production on this version began what might be considered the second big wave of King adaptations. Pet Sematary‘s box office success jumpstarted several adaptations of King’s work, and ABC eagerly jumped into the fray with its rights to a TV adaptation of It. Banking on a wave of popular long-form TV adaptations of large dramatic novels, It emphasized the drama aspects of the story.

George Romero was originally tagged to be attached to the adaptation. Romero put lots of work into developing artwork, writing the story, and other concept ideas. There was plenty of inspiration from the recent TV hit Twin Peaks, which showed the creativity that might be achieved in a television format. However, a combination of scheduling conflicts and the studio balking at an 8-to-10-hour work caused Romero to drop out.

The It adaptation was reduced to 3 hours and went for for a less graphic depiction than Romero had in mind. Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the WitchFright Night Part 2) was signed on to direct instead. The script was originally written by Lawrence Cohen, but once Wallace was brought on he rewrote much of Cohen’s script, which had differed substantially from King’s novel. There were changes King did not appreciate, but also an attempt to boil down all of the story into the runtime. It only partially achieves that goal; while it is inevitable that you lose some material turning a gargantuan novel into a TV movie, much of its content is dramatically toned down and some character development and subplots are exorcised entirely. This robs this version of It of much depth.

This version does maintain the timeframe of the book, with a childhood set in the 1950s and an adulthood set more or less in the then-present. But the miniseries fails to execute the complex interlocking time structure of the novel. While not as direct as the later adaptation, this version more or less devotes the first half to the childhood part of the story and the second half to adulthood.

Of course, the most memorable aspect of this version is Tim Curry‘s Pennywise the Clown. Curry’s performance is iconic enough that it is still remembered and celebrated years later. His gravelly voice and casual yet menacing demeanor brought the clown to life and helped haunt people’s nightmares in ways that rose above the otherwise cheesy aspects of the adaptation.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of cheesy aspects. Cheap special effects, almost too much sentiment in parts, and uneven acting drag down parts of this work. The kid actors gathered for this version are largely not up to snuff. Jonathan Brandis is somewhat ok as the young Bill, and Seth Green is a notable casting as young Richie Tozier. While as a group they achieve a sentimental dynamic, they are not the strongest in their own separate scenes. The adults don’t fare much better, with stiff performances from most of the group, save perhaps Annette O’Toole.

While there are aspects of this It that work well, it is hardly an amazing piece of horror filmmaking. It it is too handicapped by uneven direction and acting, and being made for TV means it cuts its grit off at the knees. Only occasionally does this version tap into the strong nostalgic feelings that the novel evokes so well.

Though this adaptation is two separate films, they bear discussion and review together, though we will also rank them as separate works. Attempts to begin another adaptation of It  were ongoing for nearly a decade, having started in 2009. With Warner Bros. having garnered the rights, they desired an R-rated film that would be a grittier and truer to the novel. It is worth mentioning that there was an Indian TV series adaptation called Woh, though as a 52-episode show it is outside the bounds of this series.

While David Kajganich was originally attached to write and direct, he was soon replaced by Cary Fukunaga, who helmed the project for a large part of its development. While Warner was initially insistent on a single-film two-hour adaptation, Fukunaga was able to convince them to embrace a two-film structure with the first film focused on the childhood portion of the novel and the second on the adults. A great casting search was undertaken and initially Will Poulter was cast as Pennywise.

However, this vision of It eventually reached an end in mid-2015 when Fukunaga clashed with the studio over budget cuts and being unable to achieve his artistic vision. He dropped out of the production, citing that his unconventional horror story clashed with what Warner thought it could make money on. An early version of Fukunaga’s script did receive King’s approval directly.

This led to director Andy Muschietti being attached. Further rewrites occurred to try update the film to modern times. While Will Poulter dropped out, soon Bill Skarsgard was cast as the evil clown and the rest of the cast was brought onboard. With filming occurring in the summer, Bangor, Maine was scouted out for location and details, though filming actually occurred in New York.

It debuted in the fall of 2017 and was a massive success. Garnering a box office gross of $701.8 million against its $35 million budget, it was a major hit. It became the highest-grossing horror film of all-time and broke many other box office records for R-rated films, Thursday-night openings, and Stephen King adaptations. In addition to the opening weekend records, it also won a number of longevity-related records for R-rated and horror films.

The film was also a critical success, with widespread praise for most aspects of the film. The performances, the cinematography, and production all received massive acclaim. It has helped jumpstart yet another a new era of King adaptations, with many projects that have been made and continue to be made in the last five years, due in part to this film’s success.

Andy Muschietti’s work holds up years later, though some of the cracks in the facade are revealed down the line. The actors cast as the Loser’s Club are all really great and play off of each other well. Their on-screen friendship captures the nostalgic feeling of endless summer that King’s novel does so well. The sun-drenched cinematography helps, too.

Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise also establishes a new legacy for the character. His performance is quite creepy and unnerving, and the costuming for him is certainly creative and different, if stretching credibility that any child would be lured by him.

The setting is updated to set the childhood of the film in the 1980s, as opposed to the novel’s 50s setting. This does change the dynamic of the story somewhat, though the film does a decent job of capturing the feel of the 1980s.

The largest complaint with this film is that so much of the work is set around jump scares that it starts to feel predictable by the end. Muschietti does attempt to time scenes differently and play moments out for dread, as opposed to the creatively-bankrupt scares that many modern horror films rely on. There are also some really strange moments, such as seeing Pennywise dance inside a tiny box before leaping out. But ultimately every scene ends with Pennywise jumping out as a child runs away. This repetitive structure does feel a little stale.

Despite this, It does a fairly good job of capturing the feeling of a King novel. The score is great actually, creating some memorable motifs that help encapsulate the heart of the story. While it still isn’t quite as dark as one might hope, there is enough here to satisfy most fans of the novel.

The sequel seemed inevitable to follow on the success of the first movie and finish out the story. Production on part two began in the wake of the first film’s release. The child actors were asked which actors they wanted to see as the adult versions of their characters, with two of those choices being cast: Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader, who play the older Beverly and Ritchie.

There was hope to include scenes cut from the first film to help achieve a cohesive feel. While some scenes were re-included, many cut scenes were not. As casting concluded and filming began, the same composer was asked back from the first film as well.

It Chapter Two had more of a mixed success. It grossed $473.1 million, which, while profitable, still proved to be a smaller success than the first film. Critics also had a more mixed reaction to this portion, with much criticism directed towards the film being overly long and having too many plots and meandering side-roads that don’t always go to satisfactory places.

These criticisms are largely fair, as Chapter Two is certainly a weaker work. While the cast gathered to play the adult versions of the character are all good actors, the script does them no favors. It highlights an issue of both adaptations, which is that separating the adult and child portions of the novel doesn’t really work. The adult portion of the story is barely a story, as it acts more as a framing device for the childhood portion of the book. Intercutting between the time periods is a smarter approach.

Indeed, the adult portion of the story feels woefully empty. The film attempts to correct that by flashing back to a portion of the kid’s part of the story that was left out from the first film, but this feels woefully deficient compared to the novel’s more complex structure. Chapter Two feels like an incomplete story as a result.

The direction also goes in bizarre directions. While the impressive cinematography is still present, there are weird attempts at humor that don’t quite click. Bill Hader delivers his lines like he’s in a different kind of film. There are strange musical intercuts in certain scenes, such as an odd five-second clip of “Angel in the Morning” during what ostensibly is a scare scene. It feels like an editing mistake more than anything.

The result is a film that feels like eating the giant burned chunks of an excellently-cooked filet mignon. It may be part of the same steak as the first film, but it is not tasty when eaten on its own. There’s definitely some quality here, but not enough to really recommend it.

Neither adaptation is a fully faithful version of the novel. Whether it’s missing tiny details or cutting out many of the historical aspects of Derry’s history that spell out the long and powerful nature of It’s evil, all three films miss the boat in some manner. The new film duology strangely robs Mike Hanlon of being the Derry historian and book worm, handing that off to Ben Hanscom and thus making Mike a largely empty character. The second film’s attempts to revise that comes across weird. The 90s one, meanwhile, cuts out much of the novel’s edge with the presence of evil in the town largely forgotten.

Despite these failures, the most faithful is likely the 90s miniseries. It at least captures both the adult and child portions of the novel in one film, even if they are somewhat divided. It also is more faithful to the finale of the novel, though it fails to include aspects like the Ritual of Chud.

The best adaptation has to go to the 2017 film. It has its flaws, but it most genuinely captures the feel of the novel. From the camaraderie of the Loser’s Club to the emotional musical score and the nature of the terror of Pennywise, this film is genuinely good. While Fukunaga’s original script might have been better, what we got is still pretty darned good.

Both attempts fail to take on the interlocking time period structure that is the strength of the novel and would likely be the strength of the best adaptation moving forward. There is a better version to be made, whether a longer TV miniseries or a film trilogy that captures the structure of the novel and adds some of the depth that makes the climatic showdown between It and the Loser’s Club the stuff of epics.

If you aren’t a major King fan, watching the 2017 film is likely good enough, though you would be remiss to miss out on Tim Curry’s great performance in the 90s version. King fans will likely enjoy all three films, despite the ’90 and ’19 film being somewhat average works. A new It film likely will not be coming anytime soon, but one can hope that the truly perfect adaptation will eventually come. Until then, take comfort that the great ending of the ’17 film feels pretty close to what you want.

1990 version

  • Ranked #2,644 globally
  • 6,965 users have ranked it
  • Wins 43% of match-ups
  • 7 people have it at #1
  • 16/93 on the Stephen King filter

2017 version

  • Ranked #1,550 globally
  • 3,006 users have ranked it
  • Wins 57% of match-ups
  • 7 people have it at #1
  • 10/93 on the Stephen King filter

2019 version

  • Ranked #5,269 globally
  • 1,117 users have ranked it
  • Wins 47% of match-ups
  • 2 people have it at #1
  • 31/93 on the Stephen King filter

These are my personal rankings for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the very end, we will see where my Stephen King taste overlaps with the global consensus.

  1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
  2. Stand By Me (1986)
  3. Carrie (1976)
  4. The Dead Zone (1983)
  5. The Mist (2007)
  6. Creepshow (1982)
  7. It (2017)
  8. The Stand (1994)
  9. Stephen King’s It (1990)
  10. Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
  11. Cat’s Eye (1985)
  12. Christine (1983)
  13. The Running Man (1987)
  14. Cujo (1983)
  15. The Shining (1980)
  16. Pet Sematary (1989)
  17. Silver Bullet (1985)
  18. It Part Two (2019)
  19. Apt Pupil (1998)
  20. Thinner (1996)
  21. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
  22. Salem’s Lot (2004)
  23. Children of the Corn (2009)
  24. Salem’s Lot (1979)
  25. Firestarter (1984)
  26. Creepshow 2 (1987)
  27. Pet Sematary (2019)
  28. The Dark Tower (2017)
  29. Carrie (2013)
  30. Children of the Corn (1984)
  31. The Mangler (1995)
  32. Graveyard Shift (1990)
  33. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
  34. Carrie (2002)
  35. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
  36. Trucks (1997)

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