“It just isn’t empirically possible”
Considering I was around ten-years old when first seeing Tommy Lee Wallace‘s “It”—I’m pretty sure it was post-1990 since I was only eight then—my memory held its adaptation of Stephen King‘s novel in high regard. I probably watched bits and pieces over the next could decades, always believing it to be scary for more reasons than just Tim Curry‘s performance as Pennywise the clown. Something about the underbelly of suburbia and the idea that malevolence exists to force its residents into doing nightmarish acts struck a chord with me before experiencing David Lynch‘s use of similar themes on Blue Velvet during college. The use of flashbacks also captivated my interest by providing a grander scope along with the reality that evil never simply fades away.
Re-visiting it today can’t help but reveal a lot of my love was purely based in nostalgia. The score is over-the-top, the relationships over-wrought, and the acting broadly melodramatic for no other reason than it having been made when it was. You have to give ABC credit for green-lighting this project, though—despite committing eight-to-ten hours with George Romero behind the camera before downsizing to a three-part event and even further to the two-part miniseries Lawrence D. Cohen would eventually distill King’s 1,200 pages into—because the subject matter didn’t necessarily lend itself to primetime family-friendly programming. The author’s work became a cinematic goldmine in the years since Carrie, but this was the first television adaptation since 1979’s “Salem’s Lot”. Its success of course spawned many more.
Even with obvious aesthetic and content shortcomings showing its age, (Is it a coincidence Pennywise is coming to cinemas thirty years later?), the story itself remains effective. That’s a testament to King and how he imbues his classic horrors with a supernatural realism we can relate to and fear. This isn’t some monster that just happens to blow into Derry, Maine one year—it’s a manifestation of the pervasive evil we are all aware of beneath the surface of Small Town USA. Tragedies happen everywhere and citizens forget mostly because they weren’t the ones affected and were therefore afforded that luxury. We go about our business hoping bad luck won’t inevitably darken our door. And we provide complicit ignorance towards the truth in exchange for that good fortune.
It’s this theme that will never become obsolete or hidden beneath miscues of budgetary constraints or handcuffed venues. When we watch the memories of what happened during 1960 flood back after being locked away in the subconscious of Bill Denbrough (Richard Thomas), Ben Hanscom (John Ritter), Beverly Marsh (Annette O’Toole), Eddie Kaspbrak (Dennis Christopher), Richie Tozier (Harry Anderson), and Stanley Uris (Richard Masur), we understand the crippling fear conjured. It’s a child’s propensity for seeing beyond the pragmatic, physical world of adults that “It” feeds on. And since these six (“The Losers Club”) survived to grow up, they would have forgotten forever if not for seventh member Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) activating their pact. Just as children died back then, they are dying once again.
So the first episode is a reunion of sorts from afar. We watch a little girl fall prey to Pennywise’s lure and realize she’s but one of many Derry casualties in only a few weeks. Mike (who never left) couldn’t help but acknowledge the similarities to his adolescence, knowing in his heart that “It” being back made more sense than mere coincidence. He must then call each of his childhood friends (who all moved away before finding unnatural success in their disparate careers), his voice triggering their pasts. Suddenly we’re whisked away to watch how they met as bullied youths and how they grew into a team with the strength to combat any predator standing in their way (Pennywise or Jarred Blancard‘s slicked back, knife-toting teenager Henry Bowers).
Bill (Jonathan Brandis), Eddie (Adam Faraizl), Richie (Seth Green), and Stan (Ben Heller) are nerdy chums who hang in the Barrens—a forest strip with a shallow creek in close proximity to the town’s sewer system. Ben (Brandon Crane) is new in town, Beverly (Emily Perkins) an abused pariah mocked as “the janitor’s kid”, and Mike (Marlon Taylor) a bullied would-be historian who knows about what’s happening despite not yet knowing what’s happening. They’re each haunted by Pennywise’s specter of death and destruction, his shape-shifting ability to morph into glimpses of their worst fears meant to subdue and render them easy prey. Instead it brings them closer together, vindicates them from dismissing themselves as crazy, and supplies physical form to what is generally dismissed as an abstract concept.
We watch their confidence grow until they become positioned as the only means to stop “It” since adults can no longer accept tragedy has a distinct cause. And in the second episode—wherein their adult selves drop everything to return to the town they forgot—we are made to wonder if that confidence can be forged again. They’ve all had their demons despite financial and creative achievements and one could say they’ve stemmed from that year and “It’s” effect. So they worry whether or not they can still fight; whether it’s still their fight to even try; and whether they’ll survive the attempt. Pennywise’s tricks escalate because their thresholds for fear have increased. “It” doesn’t have to beat them, though. They only need to beat themselves and leave.
A lot of what makes King’s story so great is ultimately bastardized because of the condensed nature of this made-for-TV beast. One: the shortened duration forces its flashback structure to introduce past and present as quickly as possible. This in turn ensures we know who will be the first to die since he or she has to be saved for last. Letting the past play out independently from the present would have alleviated this unfortunate reality because we’d be halfway through before meeting any adult versions at all. Two: focusing so heavily on the characters’ individual and communal battles renders it impossible to give the town’s complicity enough weight—arguably the most captivating piece of the whole. We get bits and pieces here and there, but never enough.
The final result is therefore just one major through-line of the book with everything else coloring the periphery. You cannot fault Cohen for going this route due to his limited resources, but it’s still a disappointment. So too are the cheesy performances that lend a soap opera slant instead of authentic drama. With many sequences possessing heightened emotions already, these overtly hammy readings only push things overboard towards comedy. And while toeing the line between horror and humor proves the genius of Curry’s Pennywise portrayal—to chillingly creepy effect—it prevents the others from ever feeling like real people. As such we care about their lives only as much as they service the story. For being such a character-driven plot, this disconnect does the whole a huge disservice.
You can still watch with enjoyment, though. There’s simply more potential than success. “It” proves that a cinematic treatment with a darker tone should transform what was an adequate adaptation into something special. So keep this version in your back pocket to give your kids a taste of King without the violence and gore when they gravitate towards the horror genre. This can be their introduction to his themes and ability to project terror upon the “ordinary” of everyday existence. That’s not to say Curry’s Pennywise won’t still give them nightmares (heck, maybe the practical effects-driven mammoth spider will too), just that they’ll hopefully get over them quicker and perhaps be the better for it. Then, if they handle it well, move on to the greats.