Stephen King’s IT Still Floats: A Look Back At The Original Mini-Series

by Ben Martin

In the eighties, one of the world’s most prolific authors, Stephen King was at the height of his popularity. By that point, everyone had read at least one of his books or seen one of the film adaptations. Folks who had seen a minimum amount of King’s work were in the minority. For the most part, a vast majority of readers were part of his rabid fan base. Big-screen adaptations of King’s material were voraciously consumed by moviegoers as well. However, except for King’s debut novel (Carrie) this master of horror was known for writing exceptionally dense tales. Thereby many of them proved difficult to adapt to the traditional 2-2 and a half hour theatrical release format.

Only Salem’s Lot, based on the first of King’s books that were the size of a doorstop, had been adapted as a TV mini-series. This adaptation was helmed by (the recently deceased) horror director, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The miniseries aired on CBS in 2 two-hour segments in November 1979. Salem’s Lot proved highly successful and was re-aired the next year in a one-night, 3 hour edited version in which it’s success was repeated, and it’s reputation cemented. Despite the successful pairing of King’s work with the mini-series format, none of his other works were taken into that arena. That is until 1986 when King published one of his most famous tomes, IT. Consisting of over one thousand pages, IT was big enough to use as a weapon against an evil clown, should you need to.
No doubt, the book would be adapted, but everyone knew that IT was too big for the silver screen. The rights to the novel were purchased by ABC shortly after its publication with plans to adapt the material into a primetime mini-series. The original intention was to make a 10 episode, 10-hour mini-series with (the recently late, great) George A. Romero writing and directing. Alas, those plans fell through due to scheduling conflicts. Lawrence D. Cohen, who had previously broken-ground by being the first to adapt King’s work with his screenplay for Carrie (1976) was tasked with co-writing the IT teleplay instead. Cohen’s writing partner on the adaptation was none other than genre favorite, Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), who would also serve as the miniseries’ director. The teleplay followed the plot of the novel quite closely, despite eventually becoming a two-night, 4-hour mini-series.
IT is set in the small town of Derry, Maine. A place that has an odd history; one in which a catastrophic event occurs every 30 years. More disturbingly though, children have a habit of disappearing or being killed in Derry. The most notorious of these murders took place in 1960. On that day, Bill Denbrough’s (Jonathan Brandis) younger brother, Georgie (Tony Dakota) was killed. In his grief, Bill still manages to make a group of friends, despite his stutter. There’s Beverly Marsh (Emily Perkins), who has no mother and an alcoholic, abusive father. She has a secret admirer in Ben Hanscom (Brandon Crane), who is overweight and fatherless. Some of the jokes at Ben’s expense are dished out by Richie Tozier (Seth Green).
Thankfully though, Richie’s only kidding with Ben, as a friend, attempting to make him laugh. Richie is a class-clown with a motor-mouth who uses these qualities not only to endear himself; but also as a defense mechanism, as he’s bullied for his appearance. Making up for his motor-mouthed friend’s verbal abundance is Eddie Kaspbrak (Adam Faraizl). Eddie is quiet and frail, suffering from asthma. However, Eddie’s real issue is his over-protective mother. In today’s parlance, Ms. Kaspbrak would be referred to as “a helicopter parent.” A helicopter parent who believes her son could or does suffer from just about any ailment you can imagine.
Rounding out “The Losers Club” is Stanley Uris (Ben Heller), who is the only Jewish boy in town and is not accepted by others. Last but not least is Mike Hanlon (Marlon Taylor). Mike is a victim of racism as he is the only African-American character in a predominantly white Derry. Mike’s inclusion in the group inspires them to change their group nickname to “The Lucky Seven.” (The latter nickname was an invention for the mini-series.) These friends all initially bond over the fact that they each have characteristics that cause them to be largely ostracized by other classmates, particularly the resident bully, Henry Bowers (Jarred Blanchard).
Not long after Georgie’s death, a rash of child disappearances and murders rock Derry. At this time, all the kids realize they are experiencing the same terrifying encounters. They are each being visited by Pennywise the Dancing Clown (played in a way by Tim Curry that would ensure nightmares for a generation.) Soon, they realize that Pennywise is not just a homicidal clown who also eats children. He is a demonic force of evil, responsible for all of the misery that has befallen the town of Derry for hundreds of years and in other places before that. “IT” as it sums itself up is, “An eater of worlds.”; taking the form of Pennywise to lure in children. Together, The Lucky Seven, make it their mission to destroy “IT.” When they are successful in doing so, the band makes a pact that wherever they are in the world, they will reunite to vanquish “IT,” should “IT” ever make a return.

Fast-forward 30 years later to 1990 and again, a child is murdered in Derry. Mike Hanlon (now played as an adult by Tim Reid) is the sole member of the old crew who still resides in their hometown. He has chosen to stay and serve as the town historian. Upon news of the murder, Mike knows that “IT” has returned.
Thus, he contacts the remainder of The Lucky Seven to make good on their vow. Having used his childhood trauma as inspiration, Bill (Richard Thomas) is now a successful horror novelist. (Much like Stephen King himself, who regularly makes his protagonists authors.) With little hesitation, Bill is the first to hop a plane back to his childhood home. Beverly ( Annette O’ Toole of Superman III and Smallville) has gone far in life as well and she is now a well-recognized fashion designer, climbing her way to the top of the industry. Ben (John Ritter), has also become successful, as an architect.
To make his return, he requires some liquid courage. Richie (Harry Anderson) has done well as B-grade comedian and radio DJ. In spite of his best efforts to joke his way out of the situation, Richie chooses to stay true to his promise. Eddie (Dennis Christopher) has managed to move forward,but only physically. Aside from having a job as a limo driver, Eddie still lives with (and is primarily still controlled by) his mother. After a few puffs of his inhaler to calm himself down though, he sticks to his guns. Finally, Stan Uris (Richard Masur) who was happily married, until he heard of “IT”’s return, awaits a dark fate. The group returns to their old stomping grounds to defeat the ultimate evil.

Aping what CBS did with Salem’s Lot, ABC debuted Stephen King’s IT in November 1990. The mini-series was an instant hit, breaking records at the time. Almost immediately, the mini-series ingrained itself into pop culture. Through the years there were home video releases, as well as constant re-airings of IT. This presence through the years not only helped to ingratiate the mini-series as a respected adaptation in the horror genre but also ensured that Pennywise became one of the ultimate boogeymen for a generation. Nearly 30 years later, with a new big screen adaptation upon us, there is only one question: Does the IT mini- series still float?
For the most part, I found that IT still works. However, I think the reasons it works are the themes within it, and the cast as opposed to the production values. One of the key elements of the story is childhood; something that all of us have experienced and the majority of us have fond memories of. Since some of the earliest bonds we make tend to be the strongest, we tend to remember our best childhood friends and the adventures we all had together. This is primary reason IT works so well. When watching the childhood portions of mini-series, I’m taken back to my childhood.
In letting memories and nostalgia take over, you make yourself more vulnerable to the horror of it all, particularly the horror of Pennywise himself. Bringing Pennywise to life, Tim Curry delivers a performance that truly and utterly works with the actor disappearing into his character. Some dated special effects notwithstanding, every scene with Pennywise works. This character is also the origin of some people’s fear of clowns. (Much like my girlfriend, who was forced by her cousins to watch IT at too young of an age. Now, she refuses to even look at IT. I also have a friend who has similar reactions regarding the character.) Aside from Curry, who gives a performance he will forever be remembered for, the rest of the cast (both adolescents and adults) give decent performances.

The problems with this mini-series are noticeable, however, specifically after 27 years. I say that because I don’t find that particular aspects of IT have aged all that well. The mini-series is certainly a product of its time, which is quite evident. The special effects don’t hold-up that well, and the cinematography is flat, much like many Canadian-American productions of the time. Most TV in the early ‘90s did not possess the cinematic look that Twin Peaks did.
Normally, this is not an issue as I try to view content strictly in the context of the time in which it was made. Alas with the long running-time, I found those aspects eventually impossible to ignore. Also, like Full Metal Jacket; the second half is weaker than its first. Especially since the climax, while satisfying, isn’t as intense as everything leading up to it.
All-in-all though, despite being dated, IT still floats for me. Again, this is largely due to Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise. Is it as scary and great as I remember it being when I was a kid? No, it isn’t, but I still think it’s good at serving thesource material well while managing to still be scary enough. Now, if you were terrified of this mini-series as a kid; I would suggest you give it another go.
I’m relatively sure that you’ll be able to handle it as an adult. Despite my criticisms here, I think this mini-series’ reputation is still well deserved. With the big-screen version of IT opening this weekend, we shall see what reputation it goes on to garner. More importantly though, will it outshine this mini-series?

Stephen King’s IT is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital. I’m sure it will also be in heavy rotation on TV in the next couple of weeks.

The new version of IT floats to theaters nationwide this weekend; Opening Friday, September 8th.

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