Book to Movie: Stephen King's IT (1990)
Screenplay by Lawrence Cohen
Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace
Based on the novel, IT, by Stephen King
In 1990, ABC television kicked off what would become a small industry of making Stephen King books and short stories into two-part television mini-series. IT was first. It would be followed by The Tommyknockers, Sometimes They Come Back, The Stand, Golden Years, The Langoliers, and a remake of The Shining. They were of varying quality, but IT ranks near the top in terms of story and production value.
The adult cast reads like a who’s who of the 1970s and 1980s. Richard Thomas of The Waltons fame is cast as the grown up Bill Denbrough. The late John Ritter as Ben Mears, Harry Anderson of Night Court as Riche Tozier, Annette O’Toole as Beverly Marsh, Richard Masur from One Day at a Time as Stanley Uris, Tim Reid who played Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati as Mike Hanlon, and character actor Dennis Christopher as Eddie Kaspbrak.
The child cast is a little less prolific with one exception. Voice talent Seth Green – most noted for playing Chris Gordon in The Family Guy, plays 12 year old Richie Tozier. Seems they got a kid who can do voices to play a kid who does voices. He was also well known in the early 1990s as the fast food worker who danced and yelled “Cha-ching!” in a Rally’s fast food commercial.
Rounding out the child cast is the late Jonathan Brandis of Seaquest 2032 fame who committed suicide in 2003. Brandon Crane played a young Ben Hanscomb. He would go on to play a recurring role in the Wonder Years. Adam Faraizl played young Eddie Kaspbrak. Faraizl had just limited television roles between 1985 and 1992. Ben Heller’s only acting gig was to play 12 year old Stanley Uris. Emily Perkins who played Farrah Fawcett’s daughter in The Burning Bed plays adolescent Beverly Marsh, and the obscure Marlon Taylor played young Mike Hanlon.
The star of the cast, by far, is Tim Curry who steals the show as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Curry’s versatility as an actor is well documented and he is able, with the help of superb makeup and costumes, bring to life the most evil clown in the history of the little screen.
The story unfolds differently than the book. In the book, the two time periods are told almost side by side, with first person narrated flashbacks followed by chapters of current events. This allows the plots to unfold simultaneously. In the television mini-series, the calls are made to each character in the present tense, but the episode is dominated by the childhood battle with Henry Bowers and It. It culminates with the battle with it in the sewers of 1958.
The second episode focuses almost entirely of the adults coming to terms with their mission and carrying it out.
Tim Curry is so over the top with his performance as Pennywise that I thought it was one of the rare instances where the true essence of King’s monster was accurately and fully portrayed. Dare I compare it to Jack Nicholson in The Shining? Of all of King’s characters to grace a screen, Tim Curry’s Pennywise is my favorite.
The first half of the miniseries is much more enjoyable to watch. For all of their credits, the adult cast didn’t have the same chemistry as the kids did. The kids portrayed terror, fear, affection, disappointment, and fun well. The adults turned in a performance marked with a lot of over-acting.
There are many minor variances from the actual text. They serve, for the most part, to improve the viewing of the story on television. The encounters in the house on Neibolt St. are hinted at and referenced, but not developed. The first encounters each child has with It is rewritten as well. All but gone from the television version is Beverly’s abusive husband, Al Marsh. In the book, he becomes It’s tool as it is he who kidnaps Bill Denbrough’s wife and delivers her to It in the sewers. In the movie, he has the small bedroom scene where Beverly clouts him with the cold cream jar. It himself snatches Audra Denbrough.
Like The Stand, which is supposed to climax in a scene to large in its scope to be portrayed, It falls short. In the book, It assumes the form of a giant spider because this is what the children’s mind can fathom. IT is beyond comprehension. Bill and Richie do get an up close and personal view of It in its true form. In the movie, we are limited to a giant spider. The special effects are done as well as possible, but we never get that feeling that this creature is The Eater of Worlds. Ah, the limitations of the visual medium. . .
The only real character amalgamation is that of Eddie’s mother and wife. In the book, Eddie is married to a woman who is very much like his mother, but a different person nonetheless. In the movie, he still lives with his mother even though he is in his thirties and financially successful. It is a minor point.
Screenwriter Lawrence Cohen should be credited for writing a strong screen play that really portrayed the book well. He rewrote what he had to of King’s long narrative to make it work for television, but altered none of the characters and made no ham-handed plot adjustments. The result was a truly enjoyable television mini-series.
That Cohen could pull this off is no surprise for he has a great deal of experience in working with King material. He wrote the screenplay for Carrie which is one of the better movies made from a King book. It is vastly different from the book in its telling, but the story essence is the same. He also wrote screenplays from King works The Tommyknockers which was an ok movie from an ok book, and The End of the Whole Mess which was for the TNT network series Nightmares and Dreamscapes based on short stories from the eponymous book and from Everything’s Eventual. He also adapted Peter Straub’s best novel, Ghost Story, into a decent motion picture.
Combine one of King’s finest works with a strong script, strong directing from horror director Tommy Lee Wallace, and a stellar cast of unknown kids and you come up with perhaps the best of King on television.