Does the 1990 movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It still…float?

Cover art for 25th anniversary release of Stephen King's It © Cemetery Dance (2011)
Cover art for 25th anniversary release of Stephen King’s It © Cemetery Dance (2011)

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article here about Stephen King and, in particular, the aspiration to re-read his classic, creepy yarn It.  Since then, I’ve done just that, or rather, I’m in the process of doing that. I picked up a copy of It for my Kindle and have been spending delightfully unsettling stints here and there in the small town of Derry, Maine, that has long been troubled by an ominous creature that feeds upon children.

It is a pretty long book, and I’m about a third of my way through the electronic version. Thankfully, it’s all just as excellent as I remember it years ago. Without getting too spoilery, the story of It takes places in two time periods of the same universe – the late 1950s to the early 1960s and the mid 1980s – and it revolves around a close-knit group of friends. In the 1950s, after It appears (again) in the form of a clown named Pennywise and begins tormenting Derry’s children, seven kids who escape Pennywise’s “charms,” band together to fight It, becoming life-long friends during the process.  In the 1980s, with Pennywise once again resurfacing, the group of seven, now adults scattered around the world, reunite in Derry to end It once and for all. It is a story of both good versus evil as well as the strong ties that bind. (It’s not really about a clown, though his visage has become quite famous since.) King weaves together the groups’ experiences in the 50s and the 80s quite masterfully and in a witty and down-to-earth way that captures ones attention rather than in the manner of “oh god, not another flashback.”

In 1990, It was made into a two-part TV movie, a fact that I became aware of a few years later in college when it appeared in the library’s video collection. I made a date with those two VHS tapes and looked forward to an evening of chilling, on-screen storytelling. Then, I thought It in visual form was okay. Good. Kind of what I pictured but with lots from the book missing. Just not terrible enough to make for some decent entertainment. And that was mostly due to Tim Curry. But more on him in a moment…

© Warner Bros. Television (1990)
© Warner Bros. Television (1990)

When I started reading It again just recently, my thoughts couldn’t help but turn towards that movie, especially when Pennywise popped up. Visions of Tim Curry as the mad and persistent clown simply can’t be unseen.  And the more I read, the more I wanted to see the televised version of It again. Soon enough, a couple weekends in fact, I gave into that need as easily as a kid who really, really, really wanted one of Pennywise’s balloons. After all, they float, dontcha know…? 

We all float down here float, dontcha know...? © Warner Bros. Television (1990)
© Warner Bros. Television (1990)

Let me just start out by saying that culling down the contents of It into a three-hour miniseries must have been one helluva task. I do not envy what was surely a heavy-handed challenge on the part of the screenwriter. As with any novel-to-screen transition, large sections of the book don’t exist in the movie, but the basic necessities of the story are there with passable characterizations that are strong in some instances and weak in others. It – the made-for-prime-time movie – lacks much of the intensity of the book, but its spirit isn’t complete shattered by showing only what was deemed appropriate for general audiences. Unfortunately, It as a whole hasn’t age very well as it reeks of the late 80s and early 90s movie-of-the-week conventions and atmospheres, falling too deeply into Velveeta territory and melodrama at points to be taken seriously.

Far and away the best thing going for TV’s It is Tim Curry. He gives an absolutely unforgettable performance as Pennywise.  When I read It for the first time, I didn’t envision Pennywise anywhere near as vividly as Curry’s portrayal of him. When I saw It for the first time, I was much more terrified of Pennywise as Curry’s performance was so very spot-on and more than I could ever have seen in my own mind. My point is, the one reason to see It today is to witness Tim Curry’s utterly watchable and highly unsettling take on Pennywise. (Though it is fun to see some familiar TV faces — John Ritter, Richard Thomas, Harry Anderson — in horror-lite roles.)

© Warner Bros. Television (1990)

Why else is the 24-year-old miniseries It worth watching today? Because of the kids. The movie is broken into two acts: the first taking place in the 1950s and the second taking place in the 1980s. If there’s one thing that really shines in King’s writing, it’s his portrayal of children in ordinary-turned-extraordinary situations. (See the excellent Stand By Me, as an example.) The child actors in the movie, which also include a couple notable, young faces such as Seth Green and Jonathan Brandis, are not only more enjoyable to watch generally, but the way their stories are presented is so much more palatable than that of the adults. Honestly, in the movie, the end of kids’ story is much more scary and satisfying and then end of the adult’s story. That’s not to say that the adult characterizations are bad, the actors themselves are well-suited to their individual roles, but they aren’t as compelling as that of their junior selves.

© Warner Bros. Television (1990)

For a couple years now, rumors have been floating around the Internet about a possible It remake, and it seems now that the inklings are finding some truth. While I can’t possibly imagine who would fill Pennywise’s size 30s as well as Tim Curry (Eddie Izzard, maybe?), I’d love to see It on screen again….as long as it has a thoughtful cast of children. As I said, the strength of It  lies in the kids. While there’s plenty of interest in reading and watching adults deal with crazy and fantastical situations, as I said, there’s something truly supernatural in seeing kids take on challenges that can’t be seen (or won’t be acknowledged) by the older set. Ingenuity and pragmatism reign supreme among them, even over the worst and scariest of masquerading clowns.


Like what you’ve just read? Cary posts to Geek Force Network every Friday. You can also find more words that she put together in paragraphs at Recollections of Play and United We Game

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