Stephen King Week: What Is Feeding On Derry? A Look Back at IT's Previous Awakenings

After much nervous speculation, this weekend we finally got to see the new film adaptation – the first theatrical film adaptation – of Stephen King's horror masterpiece, It. This is one that fans have truly been awaiting with baited breath, and while it has turned out to be every bit as great an adaptation as we could have hoped for, it is very understandable that many people were so nervous. It is a story that means a lot to a lot of people, both in its original form as a novel, and in its second form as a 1990 TV miniseries. As one of Stephen King's most iconic works, it made a massive impression on a whole generation of horror fans, particularly kids who saw the popular miniseries during their own youth. In terms of the importance of both of those works in their readers' and viewers' lives, this new film has a lot to live up to. It also has a daunting amount to try and get right, as the novel is a sprawling, hugely ambitious epic that not even a three-hour miniseries could properly contain. We've already published our review of the new film, but in order to better understand exactly what it has to live up to, we need to take a look back at both of these previous classic iterations of King's tale. What better way to wrap up our week-long celebration of the films of Stephen King?

The Novel (1986)

A thematically rich, structurally ambitious, and highly imaginative over-1,000-page epic, It is a towering achievement in Stephen King's bibliography. In fact, one could make a very strong case that it is his crowning achievement: quite possibly his best novel, and certainly the summation of many of the recurring themes that ran throughout his first decade-and-some-change of writing. Misfit childhood friends coming of age under painful circumstances (see also Different Seasons' novella The Body, which was the basis for Stand By Me), adults having to face outward representations of their inner demons (see also The Shining), a small town consumed by a supernatural evil (see also 'Salem's Lot), and the supernatural used to examine the darker corners of human nature (see also The Dead Zone) – all of these elements and more are present in the framework of his massive tale of growing up and facing the darkness. But this isn't just a recycling of past ideas, or a “Best of Stephen King” compilation, but a reworking of – and elaborating upon – these ideas in new and different ways. It feels as if everything else he had written was building up to this one tale of primal evil, and the core aspects of humanity brought out in the fight against it. Its length may at a glance seem a bit insane, but it (well, almost) fully justifies that length by using it incredibly well to develop an unforgettable set of themes and characters, and to build a very complex and real-feeling mythology and world.

By now surely everyone knows the premise, about a group of childhood friends (“The Loser's Club”) who come of age while fighting a nightmarish evil that is feeding on the children in their town, and who then reunite as adults to face it once again when it returns. But there is so much more to the novel than just that. With the time and attention to detail that King gives to the story, it certainly is not only about that, but about their more real-world coming-of-age experiences as well, telling a story that is as relatable as it terrifying. The drama in the book is as well-told as the horror, and anyone who grew up as a bit of an outcast will surely find much to relate to in the slice-of-life stories of Bill, Richie, Eddie, Bev, Mike, Ben, and Stan. The chemistry between the kids, and their non-supernatural experiences together, feels extremely true to life, and is alternately funny, sad, and frightening – not even just in the horror elements, but in the tense interactions with the sadistic bullies led by Henry Bowers. Further refining the formula that The Body/Stand By Me did so well, It gives us the prototypical coming-of-age story for its decade and beyond, while wrapping it up in supernatural elements that enhance the themes and help them resonate further. When Super 8 and later Stranger Things became such major pieces of our modern nostalgia-loving pop-culture, “Spielbergian” became the go-to adjective used to describe such things. But while both of those borrow plenty of visual and storytelling cues from Spielberg, they owe at least as much to Stephen King for their narrative format and the makeup of their cast. Neither Stranger Things nor Super 8 could possibly exist without It, as they both reinvent the Loser's Club for a new generation.

But even beyond the Loser's Club, the novel is about the town of Derry and the evil that resides in it on a much, much grander scale: with its nonlinear storytelling and its excerpts of historical study dating back decades and centuries, It brings to life an elaborate mythology stretching back to when the town was founded, and beyond. The long-lasting, eternally present effects of It's evil are felt very strongly in the book, and It becomes so very clear that It is much more than just a creature that feeds on children: It is a Lovecraftian Elder God which is as eternal as fear itself, and which boasts a mythos that could make Cthulhu jealous. It is, crucially, so much more than just a killer clown. It can take any shape, but it is bigger than all of them, and King's writing lets us feel just how big and scary it is, on a cosmic level. Its closest literary analog is Lovecraft's Crawling Chaos, Nyarlathotep (which also sometimes performs as a sinister entertainer – a stage magician), and like Lovecraft, King is able to give the sense that its true nature really is indescribable in human thoughts. It's the sort of horror that only a novel can readily tell.

But it is about more than that still: It feeds on fear, and fosters fear and hatred in the victims it preys on. In practice, this means that it brings out the worst of human nature, and plays people against each other to fuel animosity on which it can feed. This means that the villain of the novel is not just It, but the darker side of humanity as well. It stirs up people's racism, homophobia, and misogyny and takes pleasure in making us turn against each other, and kill each other, while it simply eats up the emotional fallout. Thanks to this subplot, the social themes in It run unexpectedly strong, and also provide the book with some of its most chilling moments, like the fire at the Black Spot (a white supremacist mass-murder of black concert-goers at a 1920s jazz club), the hate-crime murder of a gay twentysomething that sparks the 1980s portion of the story, and Beverly's ongoing struggles with domestic abuse and its aftermath. Re-reading the novel today these themes are just as powerful as ever, and possibly more powerful than they've been in a good few years: the idea of an incorporeal force that divides and devours populations by stirring up violence and hatred directed at the Other (whether that means people of color, LGBT people, or women) hits terrifyingly close to home in these times when large swaths of the population feel a palpable sense of danger. It may have overslept a few years (the book came out 31 years ago, and in the story Its feeding cycle sees it wake up every 27), but It certainly feels alive and well today.

As a horror novel about the indescribable terrors of our worst nightmares, and as a horror novel about the cruelty and hatred of which mankind is capable with just a small push, It is absolutely brilliant. And as a drama about kids coming of age, about the familial bonds of childhood friendships, and about adults looking back on those parts of their past with fondness, melancholy, and terror, it is equally brilliant. The greatest secret to Its success is that it is every bit as great a human drama as it is a horror story; in being so relatable and so genuine in these experiences of youth and adulthood, it transcends its genre and enters the realm of truly great American literature, even as it gives us some of the scariest moments that King ever wrote. It isn't quite a perfect novel: it has some self-indulgences, some detours, and at least one wildly misjudged sequence that the book would have been better off without. But it comes very, very close (approximately one less-lenient editor away) from being a perfect novel, or at the very least the perfect Stephen King novel, and in the grand scheme of things, a few missteps in an over-1,000-page book are not that big a deal. Its massive length may be daunting (it took me many years to finally read it for this very reason) but it uses that length brilliantly, to tell a grand-scale story that not only spans 27 years in the lives of its main characters, but that also goes far back in time to build its wonderfully ambitious, dream-haunting mythology. This is a novel that is completely worth the time commitment, and one which almost never feels overlong or unnecessary; with a very few exceptions, I wouldn't want to lose any material from It. Quite to the contrary, its incredibly well-developed world of Derry, Maine is one that I didn't want to leave when it was over, and one that I surely will revisit again. This is a novel that deserves the highest recommendation.


The Miniseries (1990):

There tend to be two common schools of thought on the It miniseries. There are those (basically, my generation) who saw it in the formative years of their youth, and as a result think of it as one of the great horror masterpieces of the 1990s, and rank Tim Curry's Pennywise alongside Freddy, Jason, and Michael Meyers as one of the all-time great horror villains. Then there are those who were already fans of the book before they saw it, who think of it as a lame TV adaptation which fails to capture the horror of the novel, especially in its obviously budget-starved ending. Upon revisiting the miniseries to write this review (I hadn't seen it since my early teenage years, and thus was among those who remembered it very fondly), it turns out that the truth is unsurprisingly somewhere in between those two standard narratives. It is certainly true that the miniseries is harmed by having to keep the content network-television safe, is further harmed by an obviously limited budget that really shows as the second half goes on, and also makes some odd choices of what to emphasize and what to leave out. But it actually held up significantly better than I expected, especially in the first half with the kids. For late-80s/early-90s network television, this actually is a really good miniseries, and aside from wishing that the final confrontation had been handled better or allowed more money, I'd say that this is about as good a version of It as TV of its era possibly could have produced.

Allowing for the content restrictions of the TV format, the first episode of the miniseries genuinely is really good. The framing device is very effectively handled, as the kid story is told in parallel with each of the Loser's adult selves remembering back on that time as they return to Derry. But the best thing about this first half is how good the kid storyline is. The kids have great chemistry, and genuinely capture the feeling of being a group of close friends. Most of them are also very well-acted, especially the haunted, wise-beyond-his-years Jonathan Brandis as Bill Denbrough and the already-hilarious Seth Green as Richie Tozier. Even seeing it at the time, it would have been clear that Green would go on to be big, and much like seeing River Phoenix in Stand By Me, this miniseries is a sad reminder of the life and career that the late Brandis should have enjoyed, even as his strong performance anchors the first half of the film.

Rewatching the miniseries as an adult and a fan of the novel, one of the biggest surprises was how actually really faithful the first half of the miniseries is, to a point. A lot of the major story beats and character dynamics from the book are present here, and while plenty had to be cut due to the time constraints (most notably the major subplot involving the house on Nieboldt street), both the story and the soul of the book are faithfully represented. Especially when it comes to the coming-of-age arcs, and the Losers' escalating run-ins with Henry Bowers and his gang, the miniseries adapts the novel unexpectedly well. Though again, that is to a point. While I viewed it trying to be very lenient to the ways in which network TV content restrictions would limit what from the book could be shown, it is undeniable that the brutal impact of much of the book is severely lessened. On the human side of things, Henry Bowers is reduced to a mere bully, if still an especially nasty one, while the book had him gradually escalate (with some help from It) to become a full-blown violent sociopath. On the supernatural side of things, since most of the book's horrors involve violence against children, and that certainly couldn't be shown on TV in 1990 before the 10pm watershed, It/Pennywise is basically reduced to either killing people off-screen, or threatening to kill our main characters the next time he sees them. He does the latter a LOT by the end of the miniseries, making him a villain of much talk but much less action, and it robs him of more than a few of the teeth he has in the novel. But a bigger problem than all of this is that, since the miniseries had to conclude the first episode with the kids defeating It for the first time, there comes a point at the top of the third act where the pacing accelerates like crazy. After being a mostly very faithful translation of the novel which really takes its time in the character development portion (the strongest point of the whole miniseries, to be sure), the plot jumps from the point where the Losers all figure out about Its existence to the point where they decide to kill It literally from one scene to the next. It still works, but especially to a fan of the book it feels pretty obviously like a large chunk of act 2 got skipped over in the interest of time. The character arcs still function as they should, and part 1 ends very strongly, but what suffers is the mythology, and that is a very unfortunate casualty indeed.

The themes and mythology are the one part of the first episode that the miniseries really doesn't get right. For starters, it totally tosses out the window the themes of It manipulating people's hatred and bigotry; It certainly still manipulates people and brings out the worst in them, but the themes of racism, misogyny, and homophobia are altogether absent, which is a shame. But more importantly still, it hugely glosses over and oversimplifies the mythology of what It is and where It comes from. We don't get nearly as good a sense of its history of using the town as a feeding ground, we don't get any real explanation about the psychic hold it has on the people of Derry (or the way that it wipes itself from the mind of those who encounter it – so it's totally unexplained why the adult Losers don't remember their first fight with it), and its very nature is changed significantly. In the novel, it is clear almost from the beginning that It is a shape-changing being – again, rather like a Lovecraftial Elder God – which takes many forms, of which Pennywise is only one. The miniseries way overemphasizes Pennywise, to the point that you get the impression that it is Its true form, and It is basically just a clown-demon that can also transform into other things. The Lovecraftian proportions of what It is are largely lost, to the point that when, at the end of part 1, It appears as the Deadlights and starts referring to itself as the eternal Eater Of Worlds, it comes totally out of left field and seems like an arbitrary change that hasn't been built to at all. It feels as if the miniseries wanted to turn Tim Curry's Pennywise into a Freddy Krueger-esque villain, at the expense of the novel's much more interesting mythology. It is also worth noting that in the novel it is VERY rare for Pennywise to appear as just a normal-looking clown to lure kids in before it kills them (that happens probably just two or three times in the book's more than 1,000 pages – usually it appears as a demon vision of a clown more like in the new film), but that is almost all that Pennywise does here, again changing the nature of It as a villain. Of course, none of this is to say that Curry's Pennywise isn't great on his own terms: Curry is brilliant, and creepy as hell, and his iconic status as one of the most memorable horror villains of the decade is entirely deserved. His performance completely lives up to its strong reputation, and works very well as its own character; it just isn't the same as It from the book. The real issue is that the very different nature of the character doesn't always gel well with the otherwise very faithful narrative, causing things like the third-act appearance of the Deadlights to not make much sense in the new context. Pennywise still provides plenty of creepy and memorable moments, but the end result is some added unevenness.

Part 2 is where a lot more unevenness occurs. Once again, the cast is (mostly) great, with standout performances from John Ritter as Ben and Dennis Christopher as Eddie, who truly inhabits the neurotic character, and gives some of his best acting work outside of his award-nominated role in Breaking Away. Once again the script is also extremely faithful to the novel – although in this case, it may be a bit too much so. Subplots from the book make it into part 2 that the limited runtime doesn't really have time for, some things are kept in that translate rather awkwardly from book to screen, and while the cast once again has excellent chemistry, they are too often reduced to group conversations that mostly just provide huge amounts of exposition. It's an admirable attempt to faithfully translate the book, but too often it feels a bit stilted and doesn't always work. There are also a couple odd changes to the characters: specifically, the baffling reduction of grown-up Richie to a spineless, constantly-complaining foil who gets almost nothing to do, while in the book he wound up being a strong character who was very important to the plot. Still, when it works, it really works – like in the famous Chinese restaurant scene – and is much better than its reputation suggests, thanks largely to the strong cast.

However, the end definitely does not work, and more or less lives into its reputation as a bit of a letdown. To be honest, the end of the novel was kind of setting this TV miniseries up to fail: the book ends with a highly surreal and abstract cosmic encounter with the Lovecraftian Elder God that is It in its true form, and this would have been very difficult for even a big-budget theatrical film to achieve in 1989/90, let alone a modestly-budgeted TV movie. The film tries anyway... but it clearly doesn't have the money to deliver what it has to, and the result is an underwhelming final battle with an animatronic creature that looks real enough in close-up and facial movements, but in motion is very clearly a mostly-inanimate prop. To a degree this falls into the category of something that can be forgiven if you remind yourself that you're watching beginning-of-the-90s network television, in the context of which it's pretty impressive that they were even able to create what they did. I still enjoy the ending well enough, and don't have much trouble cutting it some slack in the effects department, but it is undeniable (especially after the great final confrontation with Pennywise at the end of part 1) that this is by far the weakest point in the entire miniseries. In the end, part 2 is by no means bad – it's still one of the better 1990s King miniseries – but it doesn't reach the level of quality that part 1 at its best was able to achieve.

I expected this miniseries to not hold up well at all, and to pale in comparison to the book once I had read it. It certainly has its flaws, of both content and budget, but overall it held up much better than I expected. Unless it had more money and a longer runtime, I can't imagine an early-1990s television adaptation of It being any better than this. Within the restrictions that it had to accommodate, it really is quite good, faithfully adapting much of the plot, and certainly capturing the novel's heart. The much-dulled teeth caused by the network-TV content restrictions are unfortunate, and it is even more unfortunate that the supernatural mythology of It is so drastically reduced, but particularly in the kid half of the story, the dynamics between the characters find the soul of the book and bring it to life. It certainly helps that the cast is mostly excellent: the kids, the adults, and especially Tim Curry, who really does earn his fright-icon status. Sure, it's uneven, and sure, it leaves a lot of room for improvement (this really did deserve a new film adaptation, and I'm so glad it got an appropriately great one), but for a 27-year-old television miniseries, I still think it defies expectations in what it was able to do, even if that sometimes is faint praise.

For Part 1:

For Part 2:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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