Review: Stephen King’s It

Directed by: Tommy Lee Wallace
Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen, Tommy Lee Wallace
Starring: Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher, Richard Masur, Annette O’Toole, Tim Reid, John Ritter, Richard Thomas, Tim Curry, Jonathan Brandis
Released: 1990 / Genre: Horror / Country: USA / IMDB
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Stephen King’s quite brilliant novel It showed the horror maestro at his best, balancing childhood innocence and adventure with nightmarish horror cooked up from the depths of their own imaginations. Turning a thousand-plus page paperback into a two, or as it turns out, three hour film was always going to be a difficult task, yet with the finished article it is clear the filmmakers brought in to do it weren’t far off making a perfect adaptation.

Perfection in whose eyes though? In terms of pure cinema, Kubrick made the best effort in adapting King’s novel The Shining, but the completed film was quite different from King’s vision. Here, the filmmakers strive to take everything that is good about the novel and get it on celluloid, as well as recreating on the screen, as closely as humanly possible, what King envisaged in his head. The film isn’t perfect but for the most part it is a spirited and suitably macabre attempt to bring Stephen King fiction to the screen. That is why this little television movie has found its place in many a King fan’s heart.

stephen king, It, horror film, based on novel, tommy lee wallace, clown, evil, tim curry,

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The story, for the first half, is told in flashback and we begin in the present day. A young girl is found mutilated and the police have no leads even though, as we find out, there have been other murders of young children in the area. Mike, a forty-something librarian living in Derry, where the murders are taking place, begins to suspect that Pennywise may have returned. Pennywise, the dancing clown, had taken children thirty years earlier when Mike and his friends were still young. They made a pact, all those years ago to fight the clown, but swore that if It ever returned they would all come back to Derry to fight the monster again. When Mike find’s a photograph of a boy who was killed thirty years earlier, he knows it is time to call on his friends to meet their promise. Via phone calls to each of the six friends, we begin to find out the true horrors they all faced thirty years earlier.

The story is a superb, captivating, and terrifically conceived original supernatural horror tale. Just as the book had readers sucked into the fantastical, the film does the same, and for the first hour and a half you can hardly fault it. It is the quality of the first half that makes the second half disappointing. It is a pity that the film struggles with the suspenseful tug it showed in abundance in the first half, but you have to put it down to the script and the adult actors playing the characters in the present, not totally grasping the essence of the roles.

The child actors appear made for their roles. It may have been easy for them to act like the ‘big’ heroes of the piece but they stay very level headed, each reacting to the horrors that present themselves as any child in the world would. However, the first half of the film works so well because it gets to the bare bones of the novel and that is the friendship between them. The pulling together in the face of danger, the laughter, the messing around; Bill’s horror stories by the dam; Mike’s tales of Derry’s strange, mysterious past; Ben’s fight with the school’s bullies; Eddie’s protective mother; Beverly’s abusive father. A real sense of togetherness between them, which carries the film for the most part. It is when the adult actors have to recreate this ‘friendship’ and ‘togetherness’ that the film falls down, because the task simply proves too difficult. The adult actors just don’t display the closeness that the child actors found, and the film’s most pleasing aspect is lost.

The ending doesn’t help the second half’s overall appeal because it doesn’t work at all. Here, the filmmakers fail for the first time in trying to stay true to the book. The ending in the book is much the same, but on paper its simplistic cliche can be glossed over, however, on film it shows up and stands out like black on white. It is strange how the film can suddenly look less than impressive after an almost faultless ninety-minutes.

Overall, there is much to enjoy and admire in this adaptation of one of Stephen King’s best novels. The first half is superb, the second half is average but for the most part it is thrilling stuff.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Heather Reply

    It was difficult to convince my husband to watch this with me, but finally after getting him securely drunk I got him to sit down and watch it just last evening. I’ve always said Pennywise is the second scariest clown in movie history and Tim Curry is utterly insane as him.

  2. Dan Reply

    @Heather: I’ve always thought Tim Curry makes Pennywise the scary monster that he is. I can’t imagine anyone doing it better. The voice, the facial expressions, the deliver of the humour – just brilliant. The film wouldn’t be half as good without him I don’t think. Well done for getting your husband to watch it…I haven’t got a hope (alcohol or otherwise) of getting my fiancee to watch it! 🙂

  3. Rodney Reply

    I remember being horribly disappointed by this film when I first saw It, having just read the novel (I was a teenager, so about twenty-odd years ago) and being blown away by King’s ability to generate tension purely from the written word. I can’t say WHY I was disappointed, I just remember thinking the film never (Could) lived up to the book.
    Honestly, I haven’t seen It since that first time, so your review has provoked a desire to revisit It and see if my original opinion was correct.

  4. rtm Reply

    I was already terrified of clowns before I saw this and this movie certainly didn’t help. I thought this movie was great up until the ludicrous and un-scary ending. Glad you agree Dan, I thought it was such a pity considering how good it was leading up to it.

  5. Castor Reply

    Such a f’ed up movie, it terrified my childhood!! I thought it started well, really macabre and creepy but the movie only really works when it is with the children. When it switched back to the adults, it was just… weird.

  6. Dan Reply

    @Rodney – I heard they are making a new film of the book. Not sure about the talent involved. I think it helped me that I saw the films as a kid firstly (so it scared me senseless) and then read the book years later as an adult. I love the way King – as a writer – can make an adult feel those emotions of a child through his work (often because his stories involve children protagonists). I agree that the film can’t live up to the book but there’s so much going on in the novel it would have taken a ten-part one-hour per episode mini-series to do the whole story justice. I think they did a good job here but I agree with…

    @Castor – in that the second half, when the adults become the main players, it loses something. I think a case could be made to produce a film that concerns only the children’s story. I know the coming back 30 years later is an important aspect of it but there’s so much in the book the kids get up to you could make a great movie out of just that. Just play it like a straight-forward monster movie with the kids victorious in the end…no 30 years later.

    @rtm – have you read the book Ruth? Although I mention in the review that the film gets it wrong I don’t think the book’s ending is that good either. But I’ve always had a problem with King’s endings. Brilliant set-up, great middle act, and then runs out of gas as he tries to finish the story (not always – The Shining is perfect, Carrie likewise, Misery is also pretty good too but The Mist…oh dear!) I like to think that the Dark Tower series was supposed to end after book number four but he spent another 119 books ending the thing! 🙂

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