So I Heard Y'all Want to Float: The Past, Present, and Future of Stephen King's IT
Disclaimer: The following article contains spoilers for the novel, miniseries, and recent film adaptation of IT.
At this point it’s impossible to restrict IT to just a novel. It’s evolved into something much more. Thanks to the miniseries and new film adaptation, yes, but also to the countless coming-of-age monster invasion books and movies and TV shows clearly inspired by King’s novel. It is a supernatural Stand by Me, an R-rated The Monster Squad, a crazier A Boy’s Life, a new season of Stranger Things. The story of IT sometimes feels like it’s always lived in my head, one way or another. It’s progressed into a fairy tale, almost, existing far beyond simply words printed across paper, a tale that will never die, something storytellers will be rehashing for the rest of my life and beyond.
This is IT at its barest skeleton: a group of friends abandon their childhood innocence to defeat their greatest fears.
Now with a little more flesh: an entity as old as time itself haunts a small New England town, killing children every twenty-seven years before returning to hibernation. Seven children fight back and presumably kill it. Then, in their forties, the killings begin again, so they go back home to finish what they started.
But where did King first come up with this idea? From a bridge, of course.
In 1978 my family was living in Boulder, Colorado. One day on our way back from lunch at a pizza emporium, our brand-new AMC Matador dropped its transmission—literally. The damn thing fell out on Pearl Street. True embarrassment is standing in the middle of a busy downtown street, grinning idiotically while people examine your marooned car and the large greasy black thing lying under it. Two days later the dealership called at about five in the afternoon. Everything was jake—I could pick up the car any time. The dealership was three miles away. I thought about calling a cab but decided that the walk would be good for me. The AMC dealership was in an industrial park set off by itself on a patch of otherwise deserted land a mile from the strip of fast-food joints and gas stations that mark the eastern edge of Boulder. A narrow unlit road led to this outpost. By the time I got to the road it was twilight—in the mountains the end of day comes in a hurry—and I was aware of how alone I was. About a quarter of a mile along this road was a wooden bridge, humped and oddly quaint, spanning a stream. I walked across it. I was wearing cowboy boots with rundown heels, and I was very aware of the sound they made on the boards; they sounded like a hollow clock. I thought of the fairy tale called "The Three Billy-Goats Gruff" and wondered what I would do if a troll called out from beneath me, "Who is trip-trapping upon my bridge?" All of a sudden I wanted to write a novel about a real troll under a real bridge. I stopped, thinking of a line by Marianne Moore, something about "real toads in imaginary gardens," only it came out "real trolls in imaginary gardens." A good idea is like a yo-yo—it may go to the end of its string, but it doesn't die there; it only sleeps. Eventually it rolls back up into your palm. I forgot about the bridge and the troll in the business of picking up my car and signing the papers, but it came back to me off and on over the next two years. I decided that the bridge could be some sort of symbol—a point of passing. I started thinking of Bangor, where I had lived, with its strange canal bisecting the city, and decided that the bridge could be the city, if there was something under it. What's under a city? Tunnels. Sewers. Ah! What a good place for a troll! Trolls should live in sewers! A year passed. The yo-yo stayed down at the end of its string, sleeping, and then it came back up. I started to remember Stratford, Connecticut, where I had lived for a time as a kid. In Stratford there was a library where the adult section and the children's section was connected by a short corridor. I decided that the corridor was also a bridge, one across which every goat of a child must risk trip-trapping to become an adult. About six months later I thought of how such a story might be cast; how it might be possible to create a ricochet effect, interweaving the stories of children and the adults they become. Sometime in the summer of 1981 I realized that I had to write about the troll under the bridge or leave him—IT—forever.
If you haven’t read the novel already, I honestly don’t know what you’re doing here. But sure, okay, to recap: weighing in at over a thousand pages and 444,414 words, IT’s central narrative weaves back and forth between 1958 and 1985. Six boys and one girl team together (“The Losers’ Club”) to defeat Bob Gray (“Pennywise the Dancing Clown”), an evil, seemingly immortal creature with the ability to transform into its victims’ greatest fears. The novel’s structure goes against everything I believe sustains strong writing. Rather than pushing forward without looking back, the reader is constantly assaulted with flashbacks. IT is less of a novel about what’s happening now and more about what happened before. Long scenes detailing the histories of side-characters litter every other subchapter; details less famous writers would have been forced to edit out. Constant Readers will recall an old interview with King stating the manuscript received editorial notes for numerous cut-jobs, all of which he refused. One has to wonder what kind of book IT would be if he’d listened to his editor’s advice. Yet somehow, these flaws have become the novel’s strengths. In a strange twist of events I love the flashbacks, I love the abundant exposition, I love the side-characters and their fully fleshed out lives. I love that Stephen King took his time and spent over a thousand pages telling the story he wanted to tell. It’s so goddamn selfish and beautiful and I love it all.
Before I became familiar with IT the novel or even Stephen King as a writer, I first found myself obsessed with the 1990 miniseries. I watched this thing countless times, which is saying something considering it’s nearly four hours long. How much of my life have I devoted to this miniseries? Difficult to say. Days, probably. Entire days of my life spent watching Tim Curry being a sewer menace. It goes without saying that, given this was adapted for television, the majority of the book’s more brutal scenes are lost. I remember loving the first half of the miniseries as a kid, but finding the second half (the grownups section) a little boring. Now, upon recent revisits as an adult, I can safely conclude that both halves of the miniseries are terrible. Nostalgia isn’t strong enough to keep me blind forever. Those who claim the miniseries is better than the 2017 film adaptation (or that it’s just good in general) are living in denial.
Most readers who just arrived to this section are thinking, Woh? What the fuck is that? I’m glad you asked! Woh was an Indian adaptation of IT, first aired in 1998 and consisting of fifty-two episodes. In this version, Woh (or, It) is the evil spirit of a clown who committed suicide because he was too short, which kind of might be an improvement over King’s original story, as much as I love it. I recommend reading Siddhant Adlakha’s wonderful in-depth article about the show over at Birth.Movies.Death., which is how I first discovered Woh. Also? All of the episodes are available for free on YouTube. You have no excuse not to devour them all immediately.
The film adaptation of IT has had a long, frustrating journey from its initial conception to last weekend’s insanely successful opening weekend. In 2009, David Kajganich (screenwriter of 2007’s The Invasion) signed on to write the adaptation as a single film (presumably encompassing both the kid and adult sections). This did not work out, which is probably for the best, because in 2015 Cary Fukunaga (director of True Detective season one) joined the project as director and co-writer (alongside Chase Palmer) with a vision of adapting the novel as a two-part series. The first film, which we are now referring to as IT: Chapter One, would focus entirely on the Losers’ Club as kids, updating the book’s 1958 setting to 1985, while the second installment in the duology would detail the adults returning to Derry twenty-seven years later. Promises of making the film just as graphic as the book were made and Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) was cast as the iconic Pennywise. However, three days before shooting was scheduled to begin, Fukunaga resigned over disagreements with the studio.
I was trying to make an unconventional horror film. It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience. Our budget was perfectly fine. We were always hovering at the $32 million mark, which was their budget. It was the creative that we were really battling. It was two movies. They didn’t care about that. In the first movie, what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.
Clearly a tragic day for horror fans. Fortunately, Fukunaga’s original screenplay eventually leaked online, so curious minds at least had some knowledge of what could have been (the screenplay is still available, if you know where to look). The draft, dated 3-18-2014, indeed fulfilled its promise of violence and extreme horror. Soon after Fukunaga dropped out, another took his place: Andy Muschietti, the writer and director of 2013’s Mama. Many believed Muschietti’s version of IT would in no way live up to what a Fukunaga adaptation could have been, especially since the studio claimed they were scrapping his screenplay altogether. However, one has to wonder how true this statement was after finally watching IT: Chapter One over the weekend. Having read Fukunaga’s screenplay, I have to say, it’s remarkably similar to the finished product. It makes sense that Fukunaga and Palmer ended up still maintaining writing credits.
Fukunaga’s screenplay and Muschietti’s film aren’t exact replicas, of course. There are significant differences, especially in tone. Fukunaga’s screenplay comes off much darker than the finished film, while the film offers a ton more humor. Other noteworthy changes: instead of a creepy-ass painting, Stan Uris is tortured by a naked, decomposing woman who emerges from a Mikveh while he’s pissing in it; Patrick Hockstetter meets a much more gruesome death in the screenplay than the film; the “apocalyptic rock right” found both in the novel and film is changed to an insane and beautiful Fourth of July firework attack in the screenplay; unlike the finished film, Fukunaga gifts us with a wonderful, violent flashback to 1879’s Silver Dollar Saloon massacre; Fukunaga turns Pennywise into a giant, one-eyed starfish thing; and, also in the screenplay, Henry Bowers is inexplicably named “Travis.”
Both the original screenplay and the finished film have their share of departures from the book that I personally found unflattering, specifically concerning the character of Mike Hanlon. In the novel, Mike serves as the town’s historian. He’s the one who takes an interest in the history of Derry and digs through mountains upon mountains of research. In this new adaptation, the historian character trait is yanked from Mike and given to Ben Hanscom instead. It’s important to note here that Mike is one of the few black kids living in Derry (and possibly the only black kid found in this film) and Ben is an overweight white boy. In fact, the role of Mike in this film is mostly nonexistent. The horror aspect of Derry’s terrifying racist history seems to be erased for something less offensive. At least in the screenplay, Fukunaga dips his toes into the white supremacy themes found in the town. But in Muschietti’s film, Mike barely exists as a person, much less an African American. Another unfortunate change in the finished film not found in the screenplay: toward the end, Bev Marsh is abducted by Pennywise and held hostage, leaving it up to the boys to save her. Destroying a well-crafted character by turning her into a simple damsel in distress toward the finale seems like a rather pointless move on the film’s part, especially after it went through such strides to make her feel just as equal, if not superior to the boys. There is also far less dam-building time than in the novel. In the screenplay, there is only passing reference of the boys DAMMING IT UP, while in the film it is not found at all. I suppose, if put in the position of cutting unnecessary plot from the story, the dam stuff would have been the first to go. It nevertheless remains an odd absence in the film.
After everything I’ve complained about above, readers might suspect I came out of the theater despising IT: Chapter One. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I loved this film. It surpassed my expectations by a mile. Sure, there are areas for improvement, as I already discussed, but it’s still a mostly enjoyable experience. Kid actors are typically terrible, but in this case I wasn’t annoyed as much as expected. Standouts included the children who played Richie and Bev and even Georgie. And, maybe it’s a controversial opinion, but I’d take Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise over Tim Curry any goddamn day of the week. Dude killed it.
There is a lot to love about this IT adaptation and I cannot wait for Chapter Two.
Now, as for the sequel, not much is known yet. Obviously it’ll take place twenty-seven years after the events of Chapter One. Thanks to an interview Entertainment Weekly recently conducted with Muschietti, we know it’ll also include plenty more scenes featuring the child actors from the first film. He also provided us with a sneak peek of Mike Hanlan’s bleak future:
My idea of Mike in the second movie is quite darker from the book. I want to make his character the one pivotal character who brings them all together, but staying in Derry took a toll with him. I want him to be a junkie actually. A librarian junkie. When the second movie starts, he’s a wreck. He’s not just the collector of knowledge of what Pennywise has been doing in Derry. He will bear the role of trying to figure out how to defeat him. The only way he can do that is to take drugs and alter his mind.
In addition, Muschietti mentions a much darker future for Stan, who if you recall in the novel slit his fucking wrists open and scrawled the word “IT” on the wall with his own blood. I hesitate to speculate a darker outcome.
At the time of this writing, IT: Chapter One has already brought in over $117.2 million in ticket sales. From the NY Times:
The R-rated movie, adapted from Stephen King’s 1986 novel about a demonic clown, Pennywise, who emerges from a sewer to prey on children, had been expected by box office analysts to take in roughly $70 million over its first three days — a total that seemed almost unbelievable in itself, given that the previous record-holder for a September release was the PG-rated “Hotel Transylvania 2,” which arrived to about $50 million in 2015.
This is fucking huge, not only for the future of great new Stephen King adaptations, but for the future of horror films in general. The more popular this film becomes, the more likely bigger studios will take risks on the genre. Not only that, but surely you must take into account how many new readers this film will attract. A friend of mine who teaches high school English recently messaged me with excitement, explaining how all of a sudden, his students are carrying around Stephen King novels. IT, The Shining, Insomnia, The Gunslinger—the list goes on. So if you’re asking yourself why we won’t shut the hell up about IT, consider what’s at stake. The success of IT directly affects anyone working in the horror genre.
Life might be shit right now in almost all other aspects, but goddammit, it sure feels good to be a Constant Reader.
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