I'm gonna come right out and say it, I am a nerd. I have read a lot of books, and it just so happens that approximately half of them are by Stephen King. I may be slightly exaggerating, but seriously, the guy has written close to one million books.
When I heard they were going to make a two-part movie of IT my favorite of King's novels, I was both excited and terrified. There have been many attempts to capture the magic of his writing on film and very few of them come close. At best the movies aren't nearly as frightening as the source material, and some of them are hilariously bad.
I remember when the IT Mini-series aired on ABC. I was in 5th grade. My favorite authors were J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen King. I had just finished reading The Stand, the big un-abridged one, but I hadn't yet read IT. My first introduction to Pennywise was Tim Curry, which was awesome, though not quite horrifying. I remember being slightly confused as to why everyone thought it was Stephen King's scariest book. I love Curry's performance though, and as time goes by it really is one of the only things that make the series worth watching again.
Over Christmas break in 7th grade I finally read the novel, and I hardly slept a wink. The made-for-television version of IT had not prepared me at all for the brutality of the book. It gave me a complex about thinking scary thoughts, and being alone, and going to sleep. I had to see it through as fast as I could. It took me a week, every spare moment of my vacation, and I was not the same kid when I was done.
I had never experienced being hooked like that by a story. The younger versions of the characters were all my age, which made it more realistic in my head. The shocking violence, the graphic sex, and the foul language made it even more enticing. The reading became an act of rebellion for a thirteen-year-old with strict Catholic parents. The thing driving me the most to get through the book, however, was that I didn't feel safe until the monster was dead. I needed to know how to kill an IT, just incase I ever came across one.
If you're a fan of horror, you're probably familiar with at least the basic outline of IT. The novel is complicated and jumps between timelines and perspectives a lot, but I'll try to sum it up for the squares the best I can:
The main story centers around a group of kids from Derry, ME, that call themselves the Losers Club. There's Bill, who's struggling with the recent loss of his little brother Georgie (one of ITs victims;) Richie, the trash-mouth; Eddie, the hypochondriac with an over bearing mother; Stan, the scaredy-cat jewish kid; Ben, the over-weight new kid; Beverly, who lives alone with her abusive alcoholic father, and Mike, the black kid from just outside town. The plot line in the book bounces back and forth between 1957, when the kids first encounter IT, and 1984 when they return for the final showdown.
In the 1957 timeline, as local kids start mysteriously disappearing, the members of the Losers Club are all individually having a rough summer, being tormented by a gang of local bullies lead by Henry Bowers, and suffering from nightmarish encounters involving their worst fears (teenage werewolves, mummies, sinks vomiting blood etc.) The group comes together after a rock fight with the bullies, and they realize that they've all been having these horrifying visions that all seem to involve a shape-shifting clown monster.
Mike, having studied the towns history, tells the other kids about a dark malevolent force that's plagued the area for generations. After some research and a smoke hole ceremony, they figure out that this evil comes from outside space and time. It came on an asteroid that crashed in pre-historic Derry and awakens every 27 years to feed off the townspeople, manifesting as their deepest fears.
Because the adults in town are all in a mental fog where they can't see the horror or bring themselves to care, the Losers Club decide it's up to them to defeat IT. After the kids drive IT into the sewers at the house on Neibolt St. they decide to reluctantly track it down where it lives, and defeat it with an inhaler, silver slugs from a slingshot and the power of positive thinking. There's another fight with the bullies on the way and the kids are chased into the sewers. Following a long journey into the pipes, the kids fight the monster in the form of a giant spider and Bill gets thrust into the macroverse, gaining further weird cosmological insight. They kill IT (or so they think) and escape the sewer. They vow to return in 27 years if IT ever comes back, and surprise, surprise... IT does.
In the 1984 timeline Bill is now a successful writer married to an actress, Richie is a famous radio DJ, Eddie runs a limo company, Ben is an award winning architect, Beverly is a fashion designer in an abusive relationship, Stan is a rich accountant and Mike is still in Derry, working as the town librarian. Mike is the only one that remembers the events of 1957 and has to reach out to the rest of the Losers Club when people start disappearing again.
Stan commits suicide immediately after getting the call, so our heroes are a man short right from the beginning. When the Losers Club returns, strange things start happening immediately and everyone slowly starts to remember the details as they spend more time back in Derry.
If having to face the monster again weren't bad enough, IT helps the bully, Henry Bowers, escape from the local psychiatric hospital he's been locked in for 27 years. Mike gets stabbed by Henry and ends up in the hospital during the final showdown. Henry is then killed by Eddie when he attacks the rest of the group at their hotel.
Things get pretty bleak when Beverly's abusive alcoholic husband, Tom, shows up looking for her. Being weak minded, he's easily possessed by IT and kidnaps Audra, Bill's wife, who showed up in town against Bill's wishes. Tom drags Audra into the sewers and is killed when he delivers the hostage.
Bill and the rest of the Losers Club go to rescue Audra. They face-off with their nemesis again in an Ancient Tibetan Ceremony Bill learned from a cosmic turtle, called the Ritual of Chuud, a battle of wills in which you bite down on the tongue of your enemy and tell them jokes until one of you loses by laughing.
While Bill and Richie are mind melding with IT, which is now a giant pregnant spider, Eddie sprays it in the face with his inhaler, declaring that it's battery acid, before it rips his arm off. Eddie dies, but the creature is weakened enough for the group to rip out ITs heart and squish it. Then they escape from the sewers with Bill's catatonic wife as the entire town collapses. The end of the book is Mike writing an entry in his diary about where all our characters end up as his memories start to fade. Bill brings Audra out of her catatonia and all is well as everybody forgets everything.
There is so much more to every aspect of IT, but that is about as concise as I can be with a story that goes this deep. All of these characters are very richly developed. Needless to say, this book was never going to end up on screen in it's entirety. There are some scenes that are too gruesome and twisted even by today's standards, not to mention the scene where 12-year-old Beverly graphically takes everyone's virginity in the sewers, which is definitely one of the most WTF things I've ever read in modern fiction.
The novel creates an atmosphere of dread that can't be matched on film. That being said, the most recent attempts, IT and IT Chapter Two do a remarkable job capturing the spirit of the source material despite the 80's update and several character and plot differences. The 90's mini-series, not so much, although it is technically more faithful to the book.
I'm sure there are purists out there that would argue that the television version of IT is superior in the way that it sticks closely to the plot line of the novel, despite the exclusion of any real gore. The characters are introduced as adults and have to re-discover what happened when they were kids, much like the book. It's more of a puzzle for the audience to solve, as opposed to two distinct linear timelines.
There are a few differences from the novel as far as the characters are concerned. Adult Richie (Harry Anderson of Night Court fame) is a stand up comedian, a change that carried over into the recent films. Eddie (Dennis Christopher) lives with his mother, as opposed to being married to a woman just like her. They leave out a lot of context, but the changes are pretty insignificant. If you've read the book, you could assume the violence and some of the monsters we never see onscreen (The Creature from the Black Lagoon, flying leeches, the shark from Jaws etc.) are still there. With the source material to draw context from, this version could be scary, I suppose.
The kid actors in the mini-series are great, notably Jonathan Brandis (Neverending Story 2) as Bill, and a young Seth Green (Robot Chicken) as Richie. The 1957 scenes are definitely the most enjoyable. It's harder to relate to the adults because the dialogue is pretty terrible, and with Harry Anderson and John Ritter (Three's company) involved, it always seems kinda like a sitcom episode.
The effects haven't aged well either. The claymation is especially wonky, and they use it in a lot of high stakes scenes. It looks silly mostly, although there is one really cool scene where one of the bullies, Belch, gets folded in half and pulled into a pipe. In the book he gets his face ripped in half by Frankenstein's monster. I am a little disappointed that I never got to see that realized on-screen in any of the movies, but I digress.
Andy Muschietti's recent adaptations, IT and IT Chapter Two, stray pretty far from the novel in many ways, but they're both beautifully realized and perfectly cast. With the 80's update, likely inspired by the Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things, I was personally able to relate more to the Losers Club, being an elder millennial myself.
I was a little disappointed that almost none of the over the top monster manifestations from the novel made it into the films, but at the same time, I loved the updated scares. The scene at the restaurant in the beginning of IT Chapter Two is spot on and brilliantly executed. The final battle with the alien-clown-spider at the end, though still being very different from the novel, is so much cooler than the claymation spider-thing in the 90's mini-series. They still rip out it's heart and squish it. Close enough.
I wish they had explored more of the super out-there origins of IT and the relationship with Maturin, the friendly giant cosmic turtle that vomits up the universe. I guess the filmmakers decided that extra dimensional cosmology is too much for a movie audience. They change the Ritual of Chuud as well, in a way which is probably more digestible for squares. It changes the story quite a bit from both the book and the television series, focusing on a search for artifacts from the Losers Club's past to burn in a ceremonial bucket.
The characters vary from the earlier versions of IT in many ways. Younger Ben, for instance, is the one who researches the history of Derry instead of Mike. Mike's father, who in the novel pushes him to look into the town's history, is dead. Stan is slightly more religious, and prepping for his Bar Mitzvah. Instead of the smoke hole, Mike and Bill learn of Its origins by tripping balls on a medicinal plant when they're grown-ups. As adults, Eddie is a risk-analyst as opposed to the owner of a limo company. Richie is struggling with being secretly gay and in love with Eddie. The Tom and Audra kidnapping storyline is missing completely from the new movies, instead Pennywise kidnaps Beverly in the first movie and she's the one who goes catatonic after staring into the deadlights.
The newer cinematic universe seems to break away from the novel in ways that made me extremely skeptical at first. If Lord of the Rings had taken this many liberties I would have been furious, but for some reason I loved these films. Perhaps the differences were enough to suspend my need for all the details of the novel to be referenced, allowing me to appreciate the movies for what they were... really excellent horror movies.
The cast is what really drives Muschietti's films. The performances are all top notch, but Bill Skarsgard is the stand-out as Pennywise, the dancing clown. His take is equal parts goofy and terrifying, and it makes Tim Curry's earlier incarnation look like a joke (No disrespect, Mr. Curry.) Bill Hader as adult Richie gives an emotional and compelling performance I was not expecting, and the kids are all fantastic, especially Finn Wolfhard (Richie) and Xavier Dolan (Eddie.)
I understand why Muschietti's IT and IT Chapter Two might upset a super fan-boy, but at the same time, I consider myself a super fan-boy and I thought this reboot was inspired. The basic plot is intact, and the sound design and cinematography immerse you in the creepy atmosphere of Derry, ME. I didn't expect these movies to remain very faithful to the novel, and though they are quite different, they somehow succeed in paying proper respect to King's original vision.
It would be impossible and wrong to put everything from the novel into a movie. The ABC Mini-series was great for its time but has lost its effectiveness over the years. Save for Tim Curry as Pennywise, it's hard to take seriously. The newer films are fantastic as a set. IT Chapter Two relies very heavily on jump scares and would probably have a hard time as a stand alone horror flick, but together the Muschietti films are like the Lord of the Rings of horror movies. As a fan, I was completely satisfied, and I look forward to watching the six-hour extended super cut when it comes out.
At the end of the day, you should read the book if you truly seek to understand. It's the only way to properly immerse yourself in the disturbing, cocaine-fueled universe of early eighties Stephen King.