For a while, in the 1990s, I read all the Stephen King novels I could get my hands on. Killer clowns, pet revenants, rabid St. Bernards: I devoured them all, most of them repeatedly. It’s safe to say that I was a fan – but in spite of that, it wasn’t the telekinetic teens or the possessed Plymouth Furies that scared me most. No, it was the sheer length of those massive tomes: hundreds and hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of pages of horror, Americana and thinly veiled author stand-ins.
It’s not that I was averse to long books – at the time, I largely lived inside books as it was, and I liked a long read – but several of King’s books weren’t just long, they had the tendency to get long-winded. Especially as the novels entered their third acts, it was often clear that for all the practice he’d had, King didn’t really know how to end a book well. There were several reasons why I stopped reading his books, but his obvious yet unfulfilled need for a ruthless editor was perhaps the main one.
It had been at least a dozen years since I’d last read any King when the movie version of IT was announced; I was intrigued by the writer-director hired to adapt the novel (Cary Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, who later left the project), but more than that it was a sense of literary nostalgia, an oddly emotional loyalty to the voracious reader I was as a teenager and the generous helpings provided by Stephen King. Even after Fukunaga left the project, I was still curious – so much so that when my wife suggested that we could read the novel together, I was eager to do so. She’d not read it before, and I had read it back when I still mostly read German translations (my reading habits changed about halfway during my Stephen King phase). Since the original translation of IT had been subjected to cuts (which I only found out when several of the scenes in the novel didn’t align with my memories), in a sense this was the first time I really read IT.
It’s not a brilliant novel, and it’s difficult to read some of it without a distinct sense of whatthefuckery (and yes, that’s a technical term), but it is a very effective one. It is also very, very, very long. From the get-go, IT‘s chapters are more interested in tone, character and evoking a sense of place, and while this makes the beginning of the novel rather cumbersome, it later pays dividends. King isn’t a subtle writer in general, and he’s definitely not economic with his prose, writing ten pages where one might do – but IT excels at giving you a sense of time and place, especially in the chapters and passages set in the 1950s that combine nostalgia and dread to great effect. By the end of the novel, you have a very strong sense of the younger versions of the protagonists in particular, and both the small Maine and the wilderness of the Barrens have almost become characters in their own right.
I missed IT at the cinema, but thanks to the never-ending stream of bounties that the internet offers I recently watched it off iTunes. I remember the B-movie wasteland that most Stephen King adaptations inhabited in the ’80s and ’90s, the occasional The Shining and Misery notwithstanding, so my expectations were at least not set overly high, but the trailer suggested that the filmmakers knew what they’re doing. The film itself bears this first impression out in some ways: in particular the child protagonists work tremendously well and in some cases offer a clear improvement on the original (as written, young Bill, the leader of the Losers’ Club, is adored by everyone but the novel never quite makes a case why this should be so), though sadly the one Loser who is an African American remains a cipher. Their antagonist, Pennywise the clown AKA It, is also a success, at least as a monster: the creature design combines with Bill Skarsgård’s performance to create an eminently creepy interpretation of It.
However, this is where the book’s sometimes excessive length is very much lacking in the film: even though they split King’s novel into two parts, the first one focusing only on the children (the second part, which will tell their present-day story as they confront It again, is scheduled for autumn 2019), the movie feels rushed, and so many of the things that actually benefit from King’s less than economic storytelling suffer greatly. While the performances of the child actors are mostly spot-on, the characters themselves barely develop any depth. The coming-of-age story that King tells is reduced to trope-heavy generic shorthand. Pennywise works as a monster, but there’s little sense that It is anything beyond the child-killing, shapeshifting clown we see on screen. In general, everything is much, well, smaller.
Worst of all, the film doesn’t take its time to develop the town, Derry, that is Its lair, and the Barrens that become a haven and refuge for the Losers’ Club. In the book we spend hundreds of pages breathing in the stifling, toxic air of a town that a cosmic horror has been feeding on for centuries, and we hang out with the Losers for just as long. The film loses that element entirely and fails to provide an adequate replacement. Instead, it rushes from encounter to encounter, from setpiece to setpiece, breathlessly ticking off all the plot points like a SparkNotes synopsis.
While King is rarely a subtle writer, he is very good at a particular kind of delicateness, a certain tonal quality – not too unlike Steven Spielberg early in his career. When I think of my first reading of IT, I obviously think of Pennywise and his many guises, but more than that I think of the sounds, smells and emotions of spending a summer growing up, falling in love for the first time, realising that the world is much more frightening than it should be and finding the courage to face that fear nonetheless. A film could’ve captured those – possibly a longer film than the one we got, but definitely a more thoughtful one – but it would have had to set its priorities differently. The IT we got is a fairly straightforward kids vs. monster movie; it could have been something different, more interesting and more affecting. It could have captured a mood, the way that another Stephen King adaptation, Stand By Me, did so well. While we were reading IT, I often wished that someone had taken a big pair of scissors to King’s manuscript – but, frankly? While watching the film, I wished that the writers had been given a much smaller pair of scissors. Sometimes King’s inability to be terse is a detriment to his stories; in the case of IT, the filmmakers felt urged to get to the point so much that they damn near cut the story’s heart out.