Thursday, September 7, 2017

Theory Thursday: Stephen King's "IT" (1990) is Overrated

Scene from IT (1990)
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: IT (2017) opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory: The IT (1990) TV miniseries is overrated.

This Friday's adaptation of IT isn't the first Stephen King adaptation to hit the big screen this year. In theory, it's also not the last if you include Netflix's Gerald's Game at the end of the month. However, IT (2017) may be the biggest profile movie from the master of horror to come out in recent months (he's also got a great TV show in Mr. Mercedes). Who could blame people for feeling some anticipation? A certain weight comes with thinking of King's book "IT." It is notoriously the story that scared a generation of children with over 1,000 pages of disturbing horror and a clown named Pennywise, who is considered to be responsible for the past 30 years of society's fear of clowns. In fairness, Poltergeist got there first, but King just exploited general fears and used the clown as the mascot.

So what makes the book so revered among King fans? In some ways, it's the book where he threw everything and the kitchen sink into the story. People who have read the book will know that it takes hundreds of pages to get the plot going, but every last bit of the atmosphere is key to making the journey work. It's a tale spanning 27 years in its central plot, but explores horror almost from the beginning of time. It's a tale so expansive that, like Watchmen before, it would take some cajones to even adapt half of "IT" right (not including some of the more "vulgar" elements that range from disturbing to contrived). Most of all, the story feels intimate and insular at points that it contradicts the essence of cinema, and it's doubtful that Andy Muschietti will be able to be completely faithful even with an R-Rating, two movies, and a big budget. Of course, he probably shouldn't be faithful on *some* parts, notably because they still escape decency clauses that western society has for almost everything, including mainstream movies.

Which makes it interesting to return to the conversation of IT in celluloid form. Muschietti's version isn't the first. That honor belongs to director Tommy Lee Wallace, who adapted the book into a TV miniseries in 1990. While the idea of a TV miniseries has become more liberal in the decades since, the choice to make one on ABC back in a time when The Simpsons was considered controversial is a bit baffling. Okay, it makes sense from a financial standpoint. After all, King was coming off of a decade as a literary bestseller. He was the hot ticket no matter what hit the big screen. Speaking as "IT" was the biggest (literally and figuratively) book he ever did, audiences would clearly be interested in whatever TV offered. So, over two nights and a few hours, IT premiered and received a quick reputation of being scary, largely thanks to Tim Curry's interpretation of Pennywise.

Much like certain King adaptations (including most recently with The Dark Tower), it is almost best not to have read the book ahead of time. While one could argue that Wallace's take was "faithful," it was in the TV standards and practices way. Some brutal death and sex scenes were omitted for obvious reasons. A lot of the supporting stories where everyone from blacks to homosexuals were attacked by townspeople were also removed. It makes sense also in keeping the story centralized, though it does form the essence of what the book was about. "IT" wasn't just about a scary clown. "IT" was supposed to be about the overarching theme of fear throughout history and how it impacts people's lives, especially those of the children dubbed in the story as The Losers Club.

Considering the reputation, I have trouble understanding the lasting appeal of IT. Maybe it comes with seeing the miniseries later in life (ironically, when I was 27), but you can't help but notice how much it's a product of the early 90's. The choice to hide any flaws behind Curry's renowned performance seems a bit trite. Despite having a solid group of actors for both the children and adult performances, none of the central stories are necessarily that exciting. Much like the book, it takes awhile to get to the heart of the story. Even then, the characters feel secondary to the thing everyone remembers from the miniseries: Pennywise the Dancing Clown. It helps that King punctuated these scenes with memorable scenarios that work even in the censored landscape of TV. Scenes of clowns appearing shower drains or in swamps are jarring by default, and Curry manages to ham it up enough in a way that makes you at least disoriented. Never mind that the effects are goofy and that the melodrama in the final half doesn't mix well with a certain major special effects set piece that is hard to find any defenders of.

I'm sure that one could talk about this solely from a production and story standpoint and make a good argument for why it's overrated. However, I think it's at times cruel to focus solely on that. I feel that another major issue with Wallace's IT being the de facto interpretation is that you don't get a good grasp on the book. Because TV is so limiting, you're not allowed to travel through the dark and demented history of these characters, never getting to feel more than dread that could never be shown. The language also has to be restricted, in part because the characters do talk like children, and they do say some naughty things. IT may be fine at getting the big points across, but there is no doubt that those who love "IT" the book cannot find the essence of what they love in Wallace's version of the story. The danger is there, but it's more of a Goosebumps version that plays towards younger audiences, never feeling like the giant adult fears that King makes them out to be.

The miniseries also never quite gives off the impression that the trauma has a lasting impact on anyone. Sure, there's horror in interpreting this chaos, but there's something more haunting with how visceral the visuals are when read on the page. The advantage that Muchietti has is that he is making the film in a time where horror is allowed to have a more distinct budget and tell a story that is allowed to be aggressive in its indulgence. While I for one think that Muschietti's IT doesn't have a great looking Pennywise, I do think that it tonally has the chance to be more of what the book was. Even if it takes liberties, I'm sure that it will have the atmosphere and dread that the book did, and elevate the text in a meaningful way. The whole story was about adult fears in a child's world. You can't get that with an ABC miniseries, even in 2017, especially when violence and sex is involved.

In some ways, I get the hesitation to praise Muschietti's vision. Wallace has had almost 30 years as the essential adaptation of King's work. However, it does feel like a disservice to fans of the miniseries who may get a decent shock from the page, which is more reliant on audiences forming their own imagination of the Losers Club's fears. As much as it should be read literally, there's passages in the book that will be tough to have everyone visualize the same. One can hope with the right effects and tone that Muschietti's take will at least strive for something more faithful. Maybe it will be tough for people to think of anyone but Curry as Pennywise, but I can't imagine that anyone would consider the 1990 version to be overall better just from the execution details. I don't know what to expect, but IT in 2017 could at least redefine the story for a new generation, and that's fine with me. 

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