Recently, I was trying to find some information about the various adaptations of The Shining, and I came across an offering of three Stephen King made-for-TV adaptations in one DVD package for an almost-reasonable price. In addition to The Shining, the set contains the Rob Lowe version of ‘Salem’s Lot, and It. I’ve watched all three of them before. The Shining is a much more faithful adaptation of the book, which is why I want to watch it again. Salem’s Lot pales in comparison to the 70s version which, itself, didn’t really do its source material justice. I’ll probably want to watch them both fairly close together so as to compare on a fair basis. As to It, well, until recently it had the advantage of be the only adaptation of the book out there.
I read the book shortly after it came out in paperback. I can’t remember exactly when but, in any case, definitely before the original, TV version of It was aired. As a fan of the book, I made a point of catching the two-part movie (miniseries?!?) when it was on. I can’t say I was entirely thrilled.
But first, something not about the what and how, but about the when. The story ITself (ha ha, right?) is about an ancient evil that awakes every 27 years (give or take*) to feed on the fear of its victims, preferably children. The “present” of the book is the fall of 1984 into the summer of 1985.
Whenever a story is updated, the author/adapter often feels the need to update it vis-à-vis current events. A story about terrorism written before 2001 would feel like it was ignoring something important if 9/11 wasn’t subsequently included, wouldn’t it? Stephen King gives us fine examples of both what to do and what not to do when he rewrote The Stand to take place after AIDS. This seemed to be necessitated by the fact that the book is to take place in the “near future” (the original hardcover was published in 1978 to take place in 1980s). Does it make sense to write about a “near future” that has already long passed and, obviously, didn’t actually happen? Or is it better to keep moving your near future forward, while you’re at it, so the reader (at least the ones who have rushed out and bought your revised book as soon as it came out) still gets the sense that your possible future remains possible?
I guess it depends.
In any case, when the made-for-TV-movie treatment came out four years after the book, It, was published, the narrative was advanced five years, to still take place in “present day.” Again, it probably felt more natural to engage the viewing audience with their own “near future.” It also avoids anachronisms. A story set four years in the past has the problem the writers know what happened in the intervening four years but the characters don’t. Maybe not a problem, but putting the characters and the audience on equal footing feels natural.
Even at the time, the mini-series was somewhat disappointing. Part of it was the gap between “made for TV” and “movie” budgets, circa 1987. These days, we expect our TV “events” to look polished. Not so much in the late 80s. Even by those standards, however, watching a badly-done stop-action monster fighting on screen felt a little off. With its TV origins, this production had a strike against it, although it wasn’t entirely its (or Its) fault.
Second strike is that it is a Stephen King novel. With one or two notable exceptions, converting Stephen King’s material to film has not worked out well. The Shining is often seen as an exception although, having just read Dr. Sleep, I now know that King didn’t much care for Kubrick’s interpretation. Its success has more to do with the Nicholson/Kubrick vibe and, in that regard, it is unlike any other King-derived film. Stand By Me is my personal pick for the exception that makes the rule. Based on a King short story, the movie is both faithful to the original and exceptional in its own right. I’ll state that, for what its worth, there are plenty of adaptations that I haven’t seen. Although, to a large extent, this is because so many of them are so bad. The King stamp on a movie frightens me off and not in a good, Stephen Kingly sort of way.
I’ve thought a lot about this phenomenon. For me, I think the answer is that Stephen King’s writing is extremely visual. I talked about this before when it came to his ability to describe the indescribable, and this is part of it. It also applies to simply to his ability to create an image in the readers mind, whether that be the look of Randall Flagg, the creepiness of a House, or just the view down an empty highway. When his writing does so well in using the imagination to paint a picture, translating that to two-dimensional images on a screen will invariably fall short.
With regards to It, there is a similar failing in translation. For example, King uses the repetition of certain words and phrases to help establish the alternative world in which his stories take place. It works well within the books. It works considerably less well when written in as dialog in a screen adaption. In the book, a phrase like “Beep-beep Ritchie” implies a long history between old friends. They’ve known each other for so long that they’ve established their own language when they talk to each other. King lets us see this history by showing them using that language. It illustrates the depth while avoiding creating that depth (extensive portrayals of their relationships before the narratives of the book) or outright describing it (“the children had been friends for so long that they…”). However, when phrases are put on the screen “Beep-beep” or “We all float down here,” they fall flat. Why? Part of it is the shortcomings of the screen relative to the imagination. Part of it is a lesser ability of an on-screen portrayal to create that depth, that history in the way that books can. Part of it may just be bad acting. Or maybe the key is that what makes a good combination of dialog and acting on screen is very different from what comes off well in a book, all of which is very different from what would seem natural if encountered on the street between real people.
Folks often refer to Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise as a strength of the original It miniseries. I find it telling that his best lines (“Kiss me, Fat Boy!”) were written entirely for the screen whereas the signature lines from the book (“Beep-beep” and “float”) come off as awkward. Unfortunately, its the awkwardness that dominates. Again, the production isn’t that out of whack for 1980s made-for-TV, But it struggles more as it ages.
Produces and directors sure saw where 80s It failed. These very reasons must have contributed to seeing the remaking of the movie as a feature film as a good idea. If nothing else, top notch special effects using 2017 technology should be a huge improvement.
Once again, of course, we have to shift the timeline of the story. The “past” episodes of the narrative now take place, as a matter of fact, in between the two presents of the original versions, in Fall of 1988 through the summer of 1989. The new film makes less of an effort to track the book but, even setting that aside, there is little** that shifting the story forward some 30 years impacts. The story does seem to suffer a bit, even when compared to the miniseries. Perhaps the strength of the special effects detracts from the human angle of the story. Especially in the book and carried over into the miniseries, the monster plays on the weakness of each individual child, requiring individual character development. A theme is that the group can achieve together the triumph that, as individuals, would be a failure. As the new film focuses on special effects, with longer and more visual horror scenes, it leaves less time for setting up the characters.
There is also the big shift in the presentation. The original miniseries, like the book itself, tells the story by alternating between the past and the present. In the miniseries, the first “episode” introduces the adult characters and has them remembering their encounters with the clown as children. So by the halfway point, we know both their young and grown selves. The new movie is also filmed as a two-parter. The first movie, and the only one out as I write this, focuses entirely on the children. The adult characters are not present in any way. In fact, the story stands alone. Even if the second film were never to be made, except for those of us who know the original story, the audience wouldn’t feel like they’d been left with half a tale.
Another difference that struck me in particular was the ages of the characters. I don’t recall if, in the miniseries, the ages of the kids are made explicit. I do know that the ages of the actors are around the 11-year mark and that matches the explicit ages within the book. In the new film, there are several clues that the children are meant to be older. First, they look older, as the actors are in the 14-15 range. It is clear that the characters portrayed are also older, although again I don’t recall their ages being explicitly stated. Henry Bowers has a car, which makes him at least 16. His victims need to be at least close to his age, high school at a minimum, to make his bullying of them plausible.
They also don’t act quite like 11-year-olds or even 14-year-olds. The boys emit a constant stream of obscenities and sexual innuendo that seems more appropriate for freshmen in college. While I’m the wrong age to have “been there, done that,” my own memories would suggest that boys aged 11 (or even 14) would not have a ready sexual joke for every occasion, particularly not “the losers.” A year or two later or maybe some locker-room mentality might make a difference, but that language seems rather out of place for the characters that speak it. It also may be that, despite setting the film in the late 1980s, they act more like kids of the twent-teens. Is it also possible that the kids of today are that much different, perhaps vulgar, from kids of the 80s? Maybe. Look at Freaks and Geeks or even Stranger Things for a much more plausible portrayal of boys at this age and in this age.
The older actors and older characters also change the tone of the attraction/romance component of the story. The new Beverly, the actress, was 15 or 16 at the time of filming, an age that can look pretty adult in some circumstances. That impacts the way the various “crushes” play out, even without changing the actual situations or the dialog. Society has changed, but biology does not. Within the books timeline, Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin in 1957. In 1959, Elvis met and fell for 14-year-old Priscilla. Granted, adults dating 13-year-olds was frowned up even then and, by 1985, even more so. Nevertheless, the sexuality of teenagers was at least acknowledged to such an extent that we can use an 11-year-old unpopular girl interchangeably with an attractive 15-16-year-old while blithely pretending we don’t know what we’re all on about.
On this point, I’ll go back to the book. Around the time the book came out, I remember there was something of a kerfuffle in terms of media and its treatments of the sexuality of teenagers. I wish I could recall the titles in question, but I cannot. I think it involved movies. The situation involved the transport of non-pornographic films across the Canadian-U.S. border; films that depicted minors in sexual situations. Doing so exposed the possessors of such media to severe penalties under child pornography laws. It also caused something of a moral crisis among polite society. I recall thinking at the time that the moral crusaders had some real blind spots in terms of what they found offensive and what wasn’t worth noticing. It, at the time, receiving no particular negative attention except that which Stephen King generally garners for trafficking in witchcraft and devilry. Put it on MTV, and it was an international crisis. Write something many times worse in a book (one that exceeded 1000 pages at that) and nobody notices.
You see, the book version of It contains explicit descriptions of sexual congress among the 11-year-olds. This never made it into either movie version, even in the newer one where it might be considered at least age appropriate, if not still forbidden. It‘s [again, !] a real mixed-up set of values we have, applying different rules to different circumstances. Maybe that scene could never be written today, whether for a book or a movie; that I don’t know. Maybe in a few years, It will be republished with the sexing stuff removed. Or maybe we’ll continuing as we always have; feinting in horror at one reference while accepting it as mundane in another context, or perhaps even edgy somewhere else. In this, I suppose, the new Victorians aren’t all that different than the original ones.
*My hyperlink takes you back to an earlier post where I discussed the synchronization of the timelines in Stranger Things, Dark, and Back to the Future. It‘s present day, as well as its 30-year-or-so cycle, fits in well with this theme. The death of Georgie Denbrough likely comes very close to the November 12th, 1984 date that seems to repeat. In this case, however, I’ll not accuse King of paying homage to Back to the Future. I think the key here is that the Losers’ Club of the story, and in particular famous horror author Bill Denbrough, are exactly the age of King himself and when their characters become adults, they are returning take on the monster at the age of King, himself, the age at which he is writing the book.
**Maybe one, just because thinking about it made me think about it. A key factor in the original stories (and miniseries) is that Eddie’s mother forces him into hypochondria and insists that he treat himself with ineffectual asthma medicine as a means of controlling him. The “prescribing” of a placebo inhaler makes sense in a 1950s plot. Not so much in 1989.