Not too long ago I had praised the bold terribleness of the 2003 Stephen King adaptation of Dreamcatcher. I love that movie dearly for how batshit crazy it is with asshole ripping weasels, British aliens, and Morgan Freeman’s eyebrows. What I hadn’t realized was how closely that movie and presumed book are to the previous and more well-known work It. So many years have passed since I had watched the 1990 miniseries and even longer since reading the tome of a novel that I couldn’t recall the similarities of a group of friends who encounter something otherworldly as children that brings them together some decades later which they must overcome again. It’s not like these are the only two books that are similar in the writer’s bibliography, the youthful storylines also resemble Stand By Me which is due to King’s ultra nostalgia for the baby boomer generation so any childhood flashback has that carbon copy aesthetic and vernacular whether it fits the time period or not. It became famous as a novel by its volume but the miniseries’ notoriety was bringing to life the nightmarish clown and to this day is the selling point.
If your early 90’s memory is hazy, the miniseries is broken into two episodes, the first sets up the seven friends of The Losers Club jumping between a particular middle school year in 1960 and where they are now thirty years later. The lone friend Mike who remained in their hometown of Derry, Maine contacts the estranged gang after the resurgence of the child consuming entity. Episode two is the return to Derry and constructing a plan to stop “It”. If it’s not obvious by the brief sentence that sums up part two, the first episode is by far superior and not because I’m nostalgic for my nonexistent 60’s glory days. This is one of the few instances where the child actors sell the story better than the adults. Their camaraderie is more charming than the jaded adult plus it’s more believable for an 11-year-old to be afraid of the manifestation of clowns, skeletons, and wolfmen than an adult or an adult viewer. The first episode sets up so much that you want everyone to return to the rich history of this small town that inhabits their past yet so much time is spent refusing the call. Once everyone is back they’re either ready to leave or in constant denial of the circumstances. It gets repetitive fast and makes episode two stuck in a rut. Even when you’re watching Ritter, Anderson and O’Toole you’re thinking of their smaller counterparts.
I have difficulty wanting to admit this is a horror movie. 1990 was not an era of pique television and American Horror Story gore wasn’t getting on ABC primetime. Audiences remember Pennywise because clowns are such a specific horror icon. He resonates in your mind over all the other relationships and side plots because Tim Curry plays him so sinisterly campy. Pennywise has maybe fifteen minutes of screentime total but chews up the scenery in every damp sewer, beckoning children with treats like a creepy man in an unmarked van. The sharped tooth clown himself is only a manifestation of a light based shapeshifting alien(?). In the final act, he takes on the form of a giant spider which I find more mesmerizing and fearful because A) I adore cinematic spider, B) practical effects and C) you get to watch TV actors stab to death a massive prop. The horror is watered down by the melodrama elevated by the after school special-esque soundtrack and the Big Chill happy montages as the grown ride bike and eat Chinese food to a forgotten Motown song. The scary moments that follow up each of those scenes like a fallen deck of bicycle cards covered with Pennywise’s face or mutant fortune cookies containing eyeballs, cockroaches and crabs are more silly than terrifying. Every instance in which I should have been spooked, I thought “I bet that works in the book.”
The movie takes a lot of liberties with the novel which you have to when condensing 1,100 pages into three hours. As a story, it mostly works which is what the miniseries should be judged on. The major slip up is with psychopathic bully Henry Bowers who is the Loser’s Club’s tormentor as a child and follows them into the sewers to encounter “It” for the first time. As an adult in an insane asylum, he is recruited by Pennywise to help kill again but the film negated adding the plot line from the book that Bowers had been manipulated once before, which lead him to kill his own father. All the other condensed and altered character specificities work under the rushed circumstances of having to flesh out everyone’s backstory so quickly. Themes get lost in the in translation and that why the miniseries isn’t the densest of the material. As for the consensual gang bang of 11-year-old Beverly Marsh, as much as that could never be shown on television by how protective we are as a culture to childhood innocence and you know, the FCC, it would in no way work for this incarnation of the novel. It’s too controlled and sweet with its sling shots and asthma inhalers to introduce the complicated mechanics of sex used to stop the creature.
I’m still going to defend Dreamcatcher because it is the better adaptation of the same story. Being made thirteen years later and with an R rating allows it to be disturbing and filthy the way that it should be even if it’s with subpar material. Plus I can respect it for being so weird with its character choices and villain manifestations where It plays it so safe. No horror movie is truly great if you can comfortably watch it with your parents. The good news is that it makes it prime for a remake, an opportunity to get it right a second time. I’m already too hyped for that 2017 release for what it will explore especially as it relegates itself exclusively to the youth story line. I’m ready to see a Stephen King adaptation be brazenly terrifying in a way we haven’t seen in ages. There’s a well to delve from in the novel and I hope it would feel in no way indebted to the mediocre miniseries. Let’s see what “It” can really do.