IT (1990): Converting King-Size Terror For Network Needs

The relationship between Stephen King’s novels and television stretches as far back as 1979 with the original two-part miniseries of Salem’s Lot but said relationship really heated up in the ’90s. The catalyst was another two-part miniseries adapting his monolithic hit novel It. It resulted in big ratings for ABC, who would go on to produce several King-adaptation miniseries throughout the rest of the decade like The Stand and the King-scripted redux of The Shining.  This first adaptation of It remains a subject of debate among fans to this day but also has a strong cult following for a few reasons this review will explore.

It was adapted for television by Lawrence D. Cohen, who adapted Carrie for the big screen in 1976, in collaboration with the miniseries director, Tommy Lee Wallace. The script is surprisingly faithful to the novel for a t.v. production: like the book, it starts with intros of all the members of the Loser’s Club as adults as they receive a call from Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), an old friend beckoning them home to fulfill a promise they all made to each other as children.

In short order, a string of successful adults who were once “Losers” make their way back to their old hometown of Derry, Maine: the roster includes author Bill (Richard Thomas), architect Ben (John Ritter), limo business owner Eddie (Dennis Christopher), professional comic Richie (Harry Anderson) and fashion designer Beverly (Annette O’Toole). All of them have a mental block on their past but remember the importance of this promise. When they return home, their collective memory of a fighting an ancient evil as children returns, an evil that took the form of a malevolent clown, Pennywise (Tim Curry).  They learn this evil is killing children once again and they’re the only ones can end its reign of terror… but this time they have to kill it for good.

The resulting miniseries runs just over three hours and does a solid job of covering the book’s storyline in a Cliff’s Notes kind of style. The miniseries format is a pretty comfortable fit for King’s expansive style of storytelling, efficiently handling both the dense plotting and the need to spread narrative focus around within a large ensemble of featured characters. It doesn’t have time to go as deep into detail as the book, of course, but this isn’t a bad thing. This miniseries does a good job of reining in those elements to fit t.v.’s needs, creating a steady flow of incidents that never become dull or bogged down.

That said, the adaptation has some obvious flaws, though it isn’t entirely fair to lay all of them at the filmmakers’ feet.  It is often criticized for creating a tremendous build-up that leads to a quick, anticlimactic finale.  However, said finale also faithfully follows the book, right down to the staging of the battle.  Some viewers complain that the kid-driven first half is better than the adult-driven second half. However, that seems more an issue of personal taste than actual criticism, particularly given the strong performances of the adult cast, and viewers who feel that way should note that said issue is also baked into the source material.

A bigger issue is that the brisk pacing of the film leads to a perfunctory treatment for key parts of the story: for instance, a rock fight between the losers and their bullies that is pivotal in the book is reduced to a quick skirmish here. Even worse, all the non-Pennywise villains barely register in this telling of the tale: Beverly’s abusive husband is almost a comical figure here and Henry Bowers is a one-note bully that generates little menace. The book made them terrifying figures that provided a real-life sense of danger to balance out the supernatural evil. That sense of balance gets lost in this miniseries.  On a similar note, the book’s overripe horrors had to be toned down to fit 1990-era network standards, meaning the miniseries has a certain sanitized feel to those who know the book.

In spite of these issues, It is never anything less than watchable. Wallace’s tidy, straightforward style of direction works with the orderly script to keep the audience engaged. He manages a number of effective setpieces in both halves of the production, including Pennywise’s introduction in a sewer drain and a newly-devised scene where Pennywise terrorizes Eddie in a school shower.  Both script and direction have a reverence for the material, with  no attempts to be ironic or undercut the material with humor.  The sincerity of the filmmakers shines through, even when the material is blunted by network television’s dictates.

That sense of sincerity also shines through in the production’s biggest asset: the performances.  Both the kid and adult casts turn in heartfelt work.  Among the kids, Jonathan Brandis impresses as the young Bill and Brandon Crane gives an understated, sensitive performance as Ben. Seth Green had one of his early roles here as the young Richie and his comic skills make him a reliable scene-stealer.  

Among the adults, Thomas makes a suitably intense older version of Bill but it’s Anderson and Ritter who really dig in, giving emotional performances that suggest they were thrilled to get a break from small-screen comedy. Christopher also has an affecting monologue near the end when he relates his character’s secret shame as an adult. It’s also worth noting that O’Toole captures a sense of warmth to Beverly that is lost in the feature film versions. Both sets of actors have a nice rapport and the way they support each other goes a long way in selling the bond of friendship that the story relies upon.

That said, in terms of acting, It belongs to Tim Curry and his all-stops-out performance as Pennywise.  Curry uses his natural charisma and comic chops to draw out the seductive charm that makes this evil clown such a potent nemesis. When it’s time to scare, he shows an impressive grasp of the dark side not previously shown in his work. It’s a truly iconic performance and perhaps the key element that drive’s the miniseries’ cult appeal. On a side note, Bart Mixon’s makeup effects play a big role in Curry’s work: the base design of the makeup is subtler and more believably clownlike than the design from the recent feature films and Mixon comes up with a number of subtle, effective distortions of it for Pennywise’s more monstrous moments.

To sum up, the miniseries version of It may have some obvious issues but it’s also easy to see why it retains a strong following. It’s more faithful to the spirit of the book than the recent feature films and its direct, subtle approach made a big impression on a number of younger viewers who cut their horror-fan teeth watching this during its original broadcast or via VHS. Most importantly, the cast does a great job of selling the sense of heart the story has beneath the scares – and Curry’s interpretation of Pennywise remains one of the great t.v. horror villains. If that summation of attributes sounds appealing, you are likely to enjoy this humble but oft-effective adaptation.

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