It’s been more than 30 years since Stephen King’s 1986 novel IT first terrified an unsuspecting public and ushered in decades of prejudice against clowns of all shapes and sizes – many of them wholly innocent of mayhem and murder.
It’s been nearly as long since the 1990 miniseries first brought the horrific and recurring events in King’s oft-used fictional town of Derry, Maine, to light.
Now, in a much abbreviated retelling, a new generation of moviegoers has the chance to be creeped out anew. Although there are genuinely disturbing images and a good amount of things jumping out of the dark, this latest movie version directed by Andy Muschietti fails to resonate beyond those computer-generated thrills and chills.
Alas, the only thing truly scary about this movie is that it now considers 1989 to be the long ago period of yesteryear – far different from the 1950s era of King’s own youth that was the setting for the novel and the previous television incarnation.
Now, apart from the fact that 1989 seems like yesterday to me and I still have unopened mail from that year, there’s another problem with that choice: 1950s America provided just the kind of congealed conservatism and homogeneity that was the perfect canvas upon which all of Derry’s hidden – and very real – social horrors of repression, oppression and good old small-town denial could be played out.
The ‘good’ children were buttoned-down and scrubbed – as were the parents and the homes they came from. To the outside world and the casual observer, it was an idyllic Norman Rockwell-type setting. There was the right side of the tracks and the wrong side of the tracks, from which all bad things – and people – came.
King has long taken delight in and shown a penchant for highlighting the difference between what’s real and what’s presented as a mask to the outside world. He did it to perfection in the book. He used the sewers underneath the town as a metaphor to show that all things drained to the same place – no matter what socio-economic part of town they came from.
The true terror of the original was found in the gulf between perception and presentation – between façade and fact. The town was rife with secrets of sexual abuse and private torment. The townspeople turned a blind eye to the cycle of unexplained deaths and it was their own denial that was represented in the incarnation of a laughing clown who could, when one decided to look closer, quickly lose the mask of frivolity and reveal the ugliness no amount of white paint and no bulbous, red nose could conceal.
That entire plot point – one could say the entire heart of the novel – is wholly ignored in the film version that opened across North America on Friday. It’s a pity because that focus in both the novel and miniseries helped give IT (as it was then styled with all caps) a breadth and scope – indeed, a relevance – far beyond its subject matter.
It also dispenses with telling the story in two periods. In both the novel and the earlier adaptation, a group of friends do battle with Pennywise the clown over two distinct eras. They first encounter him as children and then, since his feeding cycle goes dormant for 27 years, they wage a final, climactic confrontation with him as grown-ups – while feeling the full weight of middle age that has descended upon them.
The children grow up to be disturbed, disillusioned and damaged adults who are compelled to return and do final battle with evil, and that makes the whole affair worth the journey. It speaks to the never-ending commitment to right and justice that can’t be resolved with a solitary struggle – and to the toll such a single-minded purpose exacts on the individuals who take up the fight.
The movie ends by calling itself “Chapter One” and there’s the promise of a sequel when, presumably, the children will return as adults for an ultimate resolution. Let’s hope in that next film some of the underlying pathology from the novel and the miniseries finds its way onto the screen.
MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer and part-time laywer.