“When it comes to IT and Pennywise the Clown, there’s enough room in our cinematic universe for both adaptations and interpretations to coexist.”
As we approach the much anticipated opening night of IT on the silver screen, I ask you to consider this question: is it really worth your time to compare the miniseries and this new version, to position one film against the other?
For me, the answer is no.
Before jumping in (the sewer) I think it’s worth noting that I’ve been a superfan of the book and ABC miniseries since the mid-1990s. In recent years, I’ve also become a sort-of collector of memorabilia from said miniseries (production swag, a screen-used costume, pins, fanny packs, autographed laserdiscs, and…you get the idea). It’s also worth noting that I’m one of the filmmakers behind the new documentary film, Pennywise: The Story of IT (starring Tim Curry), currently in production. So, clearly, my appreciation for IT—both book and miniseries–is well documented.
Let me also say that I’m so glad Andy Muschietti’s version of IT exists and will be unleashed upon moviegoers starting tonight. In fact, I just returned from Hollywood where I attended the world premiere, with cast and crew in attendance. Wild horses wouldn’t have been able to drag me away from the theatre this past Tuesday night.
All that said, I’m well aware of the flaws that exist in the 90s miniseries. Those flaws—as well as the successes—have been discussed at great length across the Interwebs and beyond, so they won’t get much airtime here. I’m not here to convince you why I think the miniseries is great and why I feel it sometimes gets a bad rap. Instead, I’d rather challenge you to try and appreciate both as two distinct bodies of work entirely because I think, if you can, you might get more out of them.
Andy Muschietti’s upcoming adaptation of IT is not a remake of the 1990 miniseries. Calling it a remake (or reboot or redo) suggests that his version is utilizing the miniseries as its source material. But as many of us know, the real source material is the 1986 tome penned by The Master himself, Stephen King. And while the end results of both Tommy Lee Wallace’s vision and that of Andy Muschietti’s are no doubt unified in that they are filmic adaptations of King’s written work, they are inherently different.
They were created in different eras, under different circumstances, with drastically distinct resources, for a different medium, and ultimately experienced (at least initially in 1990) by a different kind of audience.
Those last two differences (medium and audience) are worth looking at more closely. The expectations imposed on a film destined for network television (in this case ABC) will always differ from those imposed on one destined for the theater—particularly if it’s given an R-rating. Also, keep in mind TV audiences of the late 1980s/early 1990s were not yet conditioned to the intensity, sexuality, and on-screen violence we now accept as commonplace thanks to the likes of “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” Even in 1989, the AIDS epidemic was still very much in the headlines, so the sharing of blood in the Lucky 7’s blood oath from the book, for example, was obviously not going to fly on network television. Tommy Lee Wallace skirted some of these obstacles by harnessing the horror in other ways, oftentimes by relying less on jump scares and more on creating an unsettling atmosphere to contrast against the kids and their stories. Some of this spooky subtlety is one of the reasons I think the miniseries works.
Yet even by today’s standards, direct violence on and oppression towards children is considered somewhat taboo. Thankfully for Muschietti & Co., one of the gifts of having a theatrical project with an R-rating is having that broader, artistic license to create something darker and more sinister—to push the boundaries even further. And I think it’s that amount and variety of terror in a film that can dictate who the audience ends up being.
If you’re of a certain vintage, you either first saw the miniseries when it aired over two nights in November 1990 or—if you were slightly too young to stay up and catch the broadcast, like me—you experienced it with the help of your local video rental store. In either scenario, our small screen relationship with the miniseries was an important part of that initial viewing experience as well as our nostalgia for it looking back.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion and it can come into play when a film we cherish from our younger years is interpreted in a new way. But instead of succumbing to the half-true notion that “nostalgia” is a dirty word or retrogressive emotion, I accept that for many of us it’s one of the many reasons we cherish the miniseries. It’s the genesis behind comments like, “Yeah, but he’s not Tim Curry.” Some can’t get past the idea of anyone but Curry playing Pennywise the Clown. It’s our nostalgia for certain films and characters that can allow us to accept their flaws (maybe even sympathize and enjoy them) while focusing on their strengths—sometimes to the point of romanticizing them. It’s all just part of our personal histories with films and how our opinions of them evolve as the years go by.
While nostalgia plays a role in keeping fans loyal to the miniseries, it’s clear to those who have read the book that the film strays from King’s story. For some of us our very first experience with the Losers’ Club was in the miniseries—not the book. It’s clear to those who’ve read the book that plenty was left out and changed in order to accommodate myriad things (runtime, the audience, etc.). King’s work is so extensive, it’s inevitable that there would be deviations. Though our sneak peaks of the new version suggest certain elements will be truer to the book, we’re going to see other kinds of deviations. But it’s another reason why I won’t compare 1990 and 2017: each represent a unique interpretation of a book of enormous size and depth. Much like the miniseries, Muschietti’s version may overlook or change certain things, but I have confidence that these decisions were made for good reasons and with pure intentions. At the end of the day, it’s just the nature of the beast.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t dig a little deeper into the portrayal of Pennywise. Much like the films themselves, I don’t believe it does a service to either Tim Curry or Bill Skarsgård to stack their portrayals of Pennywise against each other. The innate brilliance and versatility of both Curry and Skarsgård as actors is surely one of the reasons why both were cast in the first place. Curry brought his own flavor to Pennywise, transcending the even-then legendary role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, and allowed audiences to get lost in his dead lights. From what we’ve seen by way of trailers and sneak peaks, Skarsgård is bound to do the same—but with his own flavors. Because King’s source material is so robust and rich, there’s plenty of room to explore and play with how Pennywise is interpreted and realized on-screen. Again, like the films themselves, both performances should (and will) stand on their own.
Whether it’s to satisfy a tamer TV audience within the confines of 192 minute miniseries, or a diehard horror community with two highly anticipated theatrical films, both attempts to bring King’s story to life are nothing short of heroic—by filmmaking standards. It’s a challenging book with challenging characters and themes. That the writers and filmmakers involved in both have given it a go is good enough for me. As a fan, it’s all I’ve ever wanted.
So, when it comes to IT and Pennywise the Clown, there’s enough room in our cinematic universe for both adaptations and interpretations to coexist. If we can adopt that mindset, we’ll all be able to appreciate both—independently—for what they are and what they aren’t.
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