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Stephen King’s IT: the page to screen legacy

Forgive me for choosing a very easy author to write on for the Halloween season, but there is a reason why Stephen King is so frequently discussed and widely read. It cannot be overrated, the author is a master of horror. King has churned out several books considered modern classics and his influence on cinema, of course, is unquestionable. The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, Stand By Me, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are among the most famous.

Cinematic legacy directs us smoothly to the story that this article is devoted. IT is a novel with a string of high-profile, very mixed-bag screen adaptations. Nevertheless, it is, in my opinion, one of the greatest pieces of twentieth-century literature. When speculating on why society loves horror, the answer is usually “escapism”, which is a shame because IT, despite being a great medium for such an ism, also boasts powerful literary merits.

The novel follows a group of teenagers in Derry, Maine, who realise that the town is home to a demonic entity that usually appears to the human eye as Pennywise the Clown ( you may well recognise this character thanks to pop culture). The narrative alternates between their younger and adult selves, the latter storyline set 27 years into the future when ‘it’ returns.

I won’t dwell on the novel for long because there is too much one could praise: for instance, its compulsive readability for a novel over a thousand pages long. Instead of repeating the novel’s endless critical achievement, however, I thought it pertinent to examine its legacy of film adaptations. As mentioned, there has been a variety(!). My aim is that this insight might inspire you in your annual Halloween film bingeing.

The first adaptation came in 1990: a three-hour TV miniseries starring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown. This version is frankly hilarious. Apart from the title (it got that bit right), it is an appallingly dated film only likely to be enjoyed by those who grew up with it and therefore have nostalgia bias. It is the last thing you would want for a Halloween film night in 2022 unless you were drinking heavily and purposefully watching something trite.

If you search “IT 1990” on YouTube, endless clips pop up to perfectly demonstrate what you’re not missing. The main issue is that the villain poses no threat. Whilst Tim Curry is, admittedly, lots of fun to watch, he isn’t remotely scary. Many scenes feature him simply taunting the children without following through or trying to kill them. To make matters worse, the profoundly anticlimactic ‘final battle’ takes an underwhelming two minutes. The consensus is that Curry, in this rendition, is the sort of villain so unmenacing that you could probably take him singlehandedly with a cricket bat.

Add to that a generally uninspiring cast (with one promising child performance in Jonathan Brandis), and you’ve got everything that you’re not looking for in a scary film, but on the contrary, everything you do want for a Bad Film night, which is I suppose can be a valuable thing- sometimes.

The two modern adaptations, however, directed by Andy Muschietti and starring Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise, are magnificent and will provide quality Halloween entertainment. The first film came out in 2017 and focuses solely on the children’s storyline, starring Jaeden Martell (Knives Out, The Book of Henry), Sophia Lillis, and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things), among others. It was widely praised and rightly named one of the best Stephen King adaptations. The star-studded second film, focusing on the characters as adults, came out in 2019 with James McAvoy (Atonement), Jessica Chastain, and Bill Hader.

These are perfect Halloween films even if your interests don’t especially reside in horror, for not only are they scary but extremely well-written. The dialogue sparkles with humour and charisma. In the cinema screening of IT: Chapter Two, I can testify that the audience erupted with laughter more than once. Avoid if you dislike bad language, but if you occasionally enjoy crass humour, look no further (Finn Wolfhard is especially hilarious, as you would expect).

Another undeniable advantage of Muschietti’s adaptations is the score, composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. The Wallfisch family of musicians almost warrant an article in themselves (his grandmother Anita Wallfisch was the cellist of the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz), and he produces a score not unworthy of such a musical ancestry. If you like an emotive, tear-swelling score, again, look no further.

Such a diverse variety proves the versatility of King’s literature. Wonderful adaptations of his books can be stunning, and others can be a tad embarrassing. But either way, whether you’re after a genuinely scary production or something to guffaw at with a bottle of gin, I think it’s fair to say that the legacy of IT will live on.

Image Credit: “Stephen King’s IT” by Patrick Lauke is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.