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The Enduring Evil of ‘It’

Stephen King’s novel, the 1990 miniseries, and the 2017 film are distinctly different, but they all focus on the horrific power of fear

 Pennywise of the 1990 miniseries next to Pennywise of the 2017 movie Getty Images/Green/Epstein Productions/New Line Cinema/Ringer illustration

Stephen King hates it when people overanalyze his work. “I’ve never had much patience for academic bullshit,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014 when dismissing the documentary Room 237, a film exploring theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining adaptation. “Those guys were reaching.”

King would’ve loved my adolescent relationship with his 1986 novel It, then: It was fueled by unexamined instinct. I came to it after watching the 1990 television miniseries adaptation and I never intellectualized my fascination. The clown-terrorizes-town saga made me feel like I’d just finished sprinting up the stairs of a particularly menacing cellar. My friends and I played the two-part VHS repeatedly one summer, cloistered and shrieking on a sectional couch. The goofy special effects and stilted dialogue were easy to overlook because Tim Curry’s impeccable, gleeful lunatic turn as Pennywise the Dancing Clown was the scariest thing we could imagine. That summer, obsessed with the miniseries, I read the novel, a shaggy and berserk doorstopper that was decidedly age-inappropriate. I would interrupt our repeat viewings to elaborate on what had been left out. A lot had.

Both the movie and novel follow seven middle schoolers in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, who team up to battle a child-eating, shape-shifting monster haunting the town’s sewers. After temporarily subduing It as kids, the group of childhood friends, led by stuttering Bill Denbrough and corralled back by librarian Mike Hanlon, reunite when the monster returns, to defeat It once and for all.

The book is startlingly freaky and layered in strangeness. There’s a talking turtle. The children dig a clubhouse in the ground and stage an ambiguously Native American–themed vision quest by inhaling smoke. They discover an ancient technique for driving away demons known as “the ritual of Chüd” and then they follow it. Twice. Plenty of the novel’s flourishes have aged horribly, from wisecracking Richie Tozier’s repertoire of racist voices to the fact that Stan’s only character trait is being Jewish. The 1990 miniseries, even with a three-hour-plus run time, rounded off the book’s jagged edges and shambling digressions (and also its infamous child gangbang scene, which is exactly as disturbing as it sounds). The newest adaptation of Ita superior work to its 1990 cousin—streamlines its source material even further. Part of this is because director Andrés Muschietti split the story in two; the second installment is forthcoming, so this newest edition is only the first chronological half of the story. But another reason is that Muschietti’s It is a horror film done as King would want, without reaching for too much meaning. It’s a movie of jump scares and ’80s nostalgia, so popcorn-perfect it should’ve been released in summer proper.

It’s also completely different than the book.

Pennywise in the 2017 film adaptation Warner Bros.

It is a magnetic and compelling story because of two qualities, which are present to varying degrees in all three versions. First, the being known as “It” is a demonically effective monster. It is infinitely malleable, capable of taking whatever shape will scare its target the most. It is fear distilled into evil, and it bites. The trick to the monster’s enduring terror is a duality; it is both cosmic and banal. In the book, children see It fall from the sky, a primordial entity with no end, and King portrays It as an undefeatable force burbling up from gutters; entrenched, older than America, possibly as old as the universe. But It both encourages and feeds off of ordinary human cruelty, growing stronger every time an adult ignores a child’s plea or a bully hurls a slur. The way Beverly, the lone girl in the group, experiences It is especially terrifying, both as a torrent of gore beckoning her down a drain and also a force driving her abusive father. She has no respite. Her first encounter in the most recent film is the closest the movie gets to King’s folkloric horror; watching actress Sophia Lillis scream, blood-soaked on a bathroom floor, both echoes and magnifies the primal thrill of Carrie.

The second reason It resonates is the Losers’ Club, a band of tween protagonists, led by stuttering Bill, whose brother Georgie’s murder kicks off the story’s events. It paints a convincing portrayal of childhood friendships, the deeply felt and too-frequently-brushed-off bonds among the young and lonely. Even more than Stand By Me, It is the ur– “kids on bikes” story, a tale of a pack of scraggly outcast kids against their frequently unkind world. None of the kids are particularly two-dimensional, and the scenes in which they simply hang out as friends are some of the finest, with palpable camaraderie.

The 2017 adaptation recreates King’s precarious and precious group dynamic, but it does make one curious change. Toward the end of the film, It snatches Beverly and drags her into its lair, kicking off a rescue mission. In the book and the earlier film, however, Beverly is the one character who can injure the beast with a silver pellet; she rescues the boys. To swap the roles is a strangely retrograde flourish, though, in the end, not one that tanks the final act of the film. Overall, although the kids are hardly more than archetypes as individuals, they’re convincing as a unit, which is the important part.

There is a third reason It has endured. King might side-eye it, but what the hell. As much as the author hates ponderous reaches for meaning, It is a hell of multilayered novel, a wobbly, towering meditation on fear, childhood, sex, racism, Eisenhower’s America, Reagan’s America, AIDS, cigarettes, blood, abuse, the concept of original sin, and, most of all, community. The book is immense, part coming-of-age tale, part history of a spooky town; a thriller where the memory of fear is more important than the moment of conflict. Instead of distilling evil, it explodes it into an almost uncontainable scourge, a terror as big as the imagination.

In a 2016 essay about the novel for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Adrian Daub noted that the title translated into German is Es, or Freud’s term for what is known in English as the id, the deepest part of the subconscious mind. “It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it,” Daub wrote. “Rereading It, one realizes that the primary enemy in this story of seven middle-school outcasts confronting a malevolent, shape-shifting, child-murdering entity that haunts their town every 27 years is the American power of sublimation.” Whether It is animated solely by the power of imagination, whether it is an alien monster or the devil itself, and how much it influences or feeds off of Derry’s residents is never made clear, but questions about the monster’s origins are besides the point. Rather, the scariest part of the book is the notion of slowly realizing that the menace has always been just on the periphery.

The new film only approaches this haunting concept, instead leaning toward the story’s more practical horrors. The movie puts the evil of It front and center, stringing together a series of interactions with such rat-a-tat frequency that their scariness begins to dull. It’s a fun movie, jumpy and sinister, but it only flirts with the cosmic horror of its source material. Perhaps the second installment will go darker and deeper, as it will focus on the Losers’ Club as adults, when they are not only tormented by It, but possessed by the resurfaced, flickering, unreliable memories of childhood fear. I don’t mind waiting to see; as King taught me, the only thing scarier than a monster in a sewer is getting that monster lodged into your imagination.