This week, director Andrés Muschietti will unleash It on moviegoers, bringing one of horror master Stephen King’s biggest and best books to big-screen life at last. (Reviews have already started pouring in.) Starring Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise, the sinister shapeshifting clown whose made the town of Derry, Maine his killing ground and Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough, the leader of a group of kids on a mission to take the monster down, it’s one of the most eagerly anticipated King adaptations ever. Not even multiple behind-the-scenes shakeups, this year’s big-budget bomb The Dark Tower or the looming shadow of the legendary Tim Curry–led 1990 miniseries seem to have dimmed fan fervor to see the author’s 1986 novel adapted as a blockbuster.
Why are folks so eager to put themselves in the path of Pennywise? What makes It such a standout in its author’s sprawling body of work? What the hell is It all about, anyway – and how will this adaptation deal with it? Here’s everything you need to know about King’s masterpiece and the movie it’s spawned. No clowning around.
Pennywise is one of modern horror’s greatest monsters
He’s the original killer clown from outer space and the most infamous villain in Stephen King’s bibliography, which is saying something. (All apologies, Randall Flagg.) Pennywise the Dancing Clown is the form most frequently taken by a malevolent entity that’s been haunting the entire town of Derry, Maine for centuries; it’s lurked beneath the land since it hurtled through the cosmos and crash-landed on Earth from another dimension millennia ago. This shape-shifter can transform into its victims’ worst nightmares, feeding on both their fear and their flesh. Its preferred target: little kids, whose vivid imaginations give it an extensive menu of terrors to choose from. This also explains the monster’s default mode: What kid doesn’t love clowns? (At least before It more or less singlehandedly ruined their image, that is.)
But in addition to being one mean, multifaceted predator, Pennywise has exerted a malign influence on the entire town. He himself – or It Itself – only emerges from hibernation once every 27 years or so for a feeding frenzy that lasts roughly a year to 18 months. But Its presence in the sewers beneath Derry radiates an evil that makes the small town the murder capital of New England … and generates a sort of wilful amnesia among the population. Such forgetfulness keeps folks from reflecting on their sleepy burg’s history of atrocities, disasters and mass murders. It also prevents people from connecting the dots when the creature resurfaces and kids start going missing en masse.
Overall, Pennywise combines a killer look and set of powers with one of King’s strongest concepts: a fairy-tale troll that hides out not under a bridge, but an entire city – a ghost that haunts not just one house, but all of them. As our foremost chronicler of small-town American evil, King has a royally good time with the idea.
It’s a horror story and a teen-bonding adventure …
Like most of King’s stories, It is set in the writer’s home state of Maine, which seems to have a never-ending supply of both supernatural and human sickness beneath its placid surface. (You always hurt the ones you love.) But the key difference between the book and the bulk of his other works – and, perhaps, one of the main reasons it’s uniquely beloved in his body of work – is the age of the protagonists.
The novel’s action is split into two interlocking halves, the first of which, set in the late Fifties in the book, centres on a gang of outcast kids on the cusp of adolescence. This self-described “Losers Club” consists of Bill Denbrough, afflicted with a stutter; Eddie Kaspbrak, a sickly kid with an overprotective mother; Ben Hanscom, bookish and overweight; Richie Tozier, all coke-bottle glasses and smartass wisecracks; Stan Uris and Mike Hanlon, marked as outsiders by their Jewish and African-American ethnicity respectively; and Beverly Marsh, the group’s sole female member, a red-headed tomboy with an abusive father.
All seven, particularly Ben, are frequent targets of a squad of bullies led by Henry Bowers, whose own violent upbringing has pushed him to the brink of insanity by the time the story starts. Their persecution helps form their friendship, but their true bond is forged by their discovery of their small town’s terrible secret, and their determination to put an end to it. The death of Bill’s kid brother George at the hands – or rather, claws – of Pennywise, whom he finds in a storm drain that his toy boat sails into at the beginning of the story, serves as the story’s catalyst. It also provides the group with a quest for revenge.
… But it’s also a twisted take on class reunions
Without giving much away, the Losers manage to thwart It – but not forever. After their battle is through, they make a solemn pact to reunite if the creature ever comes back. Nearly all of the Losers eventually depart the town, launching highly successful careers and slowly losing all memories – not just of Pennywise, but their entire childhoods. Only Mike Hanlon stays behind, becoming Derry’s librarian and chronicling its sordid, forgotten history.
Twenty-seven years after the original events, a spate of murders – beginning with vicious gay-bashing incident that just so happens to involve a mysterious clown – convince Mike that It has returned. He calls his former friends to let them know the time has come to make good on their promise, unlocking their mystically suppressed memories and sending them on a crash course with their home town. That’s where they must destroy Pennywise for good. These segments of the novel, interwoven with flashbacks to their time as kids, make for a powerful treatise on growing up, growing old and the emotional trauma of going home again.
The movie version sticks with the kids – and gets an Eighties makeover
Rather than stay true to the novel’s original 1958/1985 time frame and saddle audiences with not one but two period pieces, the adaptation hits fast-forward. Now, the Losers’ original battle against Pennywise as kids takes place in 1989, and that conflict will be the sole focus of the movie hitting theaters this week. A second film, set in the present day, will adapt their return to Derry as adults for the final confrontation.
In addition to shifting the focus from Baby Boomers to a more recent generation, the move enables the movie to tap into the same rich vein of Eighties nostalgia exploited by the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix sensation Stranger Things. The two projects even share a star: Young actor Finn Wolfhard, aka Things ringleader Mike Wheeler, plays the Losers’ resident comedian Richie Tozier. Both works are heavily indebted to the hugely influential Steven Spielberg/Chris Columbus/Richard Donner Regan-era teen-adventure classic The Goonies — though Pennywise is a damn sight scarier than Mama Fratelli and One-Eyed Willie.
The Tim Curry–starring TV miniseries adaptation is a cult classic
If all of this sounds familiar even though you never cracked the gigantic book’s covers, chances are good your childhood was scarred by the two-part It miniseries that aired on ABC in 1990. The cast is an odd mix of TV actors, from comedians John Ritter and Harry Anderson to young Seth Green and child star Jonathan Brandis. The script largely bungles Pennywise’s powers, with a whole “if you don’t believe it’s real, It can’t hurt you” element that makes little sense for a creature whose whole modus operandi is transforming into werewolves, etc. and eating people.
But Pennywise himself? Hoo boy. Played by Tim Curry in one of the great roles of his career, the killer clown is the stuff sleepless nights are made of. He gloats, he giggles, he taunts, he devours the scenery like the monster himself devours middle-schoolers – and he generally sears his way right into the brain of the viewer. Let’s just say the new movie’s Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård, has some very big clown shoes to fill. (Bigger clown shoes than usual, we mean.)
True Detective‘s Cary Fukunaga was originally slated to direct It
Derry, meet Carcosa. Cary Fukunaga, the director who helmed all eight haunting episodes of 2014’s True Detective‘s first season, came aboard the project back in 2012; he took over the film from original writer David Kajganich (who moved on to adapt a different epic horror novel, Dan Simmons’s The Terror, for the forthcoming AMC TV series). Fukunaga and co-writer Chase Palmer penned a script for the first of the adaptation’s two planned movies, centered on the Losers as kids; they had even began casting actors, hiring Will Poulter to play Pennywise, before departing the the film over the proverbial creative differences.
Fukunaga and Palmer retain writing credit on the screenplay, which received a makeover from Gary Dauberman for director Andrés Muschietti’s version. “I’m not sure if the fans would have liked what I would [have] done,” the director told Variety. “I was honoring King’s spirit of it, but I needed to update it.” Either way, the prospect of a full-fledged horror movie from the guy who brought the Yellow King to life remains a tantalizing dream. (Or is that a nightmare?)
We need to talk about “That Scene”
If you’ve read the book, or even if you’ve only heard about it, you’re familiar with the most infamous sequence in King’s entire oeuvre (spoiler alert, we guess?): the group sex scene that takes place in the sewers following the Losers’ defeat of It as kids. This pre-adolescent orgy is initiated by Beverly as a way to reconnect the group, which finds their supernatural bond breaking now that their enemy has been (temporarily) vanquished. Some readers see it as a powerfully transgressive allegory for sexual awakening; others view it as book-ruining child pornography. King himself says it was a metaphor for the transition between childhood and adulthood. Either way, it’s the most what-the-fuck moment of his career, which, again, is saying something – and thankfully we can confirm that, for fairly obvious reasons, it won’t be heading to a theatre near you.