A Conversation About Stephen King’s It
On the latest episode of our podcast, we discussed Stephen King’s It in honour of its forthcoming remake. We all disliked it and spent most of the episode complaining.
This is a film that has a lot of ardent fans, and we questioned in the episode why that was. Jamie McIntyre, one of our followers, tried to explain. Twitter isn’t necessarily the best medium for that kind of thing, but Jamie’s points were sound, and I was interested in having a brief conversation with him about the film. You can find that conversation, tweaked for grammar but otherwise unedited, below.
Hey, how you doing?
So yeah, It.
So first off as I said earlier I enjoyed your podcast on the 1990 made-for-TV version of It, but I thought it was a little unfortunate that as all three of you never enjoyed it much, there wasn’t really an alternative voice to say what people do appreciate about it so I guess I’ve ended up doing it myself.
So as I said, I think that listening to you guys made me question myself as to what I like about this film, as I couldn’t disagree with much of what you said about it. However, despite the fact its dated quite badly in places and is definitely pretty cheesy, I, like a lot of others out there, still remember the film with a lot of affection and nostalgia.
I think you probably nailed it when you said it might be a generational thing. When this came out in 1990, we were nowhere near where we are now in terms of quality big budget television. I mean it’s kind of a golden age of movie-style TV we’re in now, but in 1990 It was genuinely notable for being a long, quality TV film. Films were really short back then, also. Like, 90 minutes was standard, so this stood out in terms of value for money if nothing else. I also think it helped make it seem more epic – what you guys found a bit long and slow felt to me at the time like a story taking time to unfold. Even just the amount of characters and the timescale. It all seemed really big.
Also I think in terms of the whole scary clown trope, which is everywhere now, that wasn’t really as common then. It was one of the first things to use it – the only others I can think of would be Killer Clowns From Outer Space and Poltergeist… maybe Tim Burton, I guess. People love the whole thing with Pennywise because Curry puts so much enthusiasm into it. Like the bit in the library is genuinely funny (and brilliant for gifs) because Curry throws himself into it.
So anyway, when I saw this I was a kid and it was on the old days of VHS. I still remember the poster with Curry in that clown makeup and a claw and it was really striking and scary and everyone was talking about it. That poster was on the f*****g ice cream van because the van used to rent tapes out!
So every kid in my neighbourhood was talking about it (which is kinda funny given what it’s about) and when I got to watch it with my cousin and my sister we were basically going into it thrilled, and it totally delivered because I was horrified by it. Just things like Georgie, being such a sweet, innocent kid, and the clown seeming so perverted almost with those kinda tears in his eyes when he says, “They float Georgie. Oh, they float,” terrified me. That’s just all my fears of strangers as a kid summed up.
The whole idea that the adults couldn’t see it, the sense that it was this 30 year (40?) year story playing out felt special (laughable though it is looking back, everything about it seemed really high quality compared to other similar TV movies).
I remember finding the idea it could be anything frightening, scenes like when the bigger kid (Haystack) sees his dead father and he’s out on the water and then his buttons turn into pom-poms before the corpse comes out of the water just really messed with my head. The idea that It was messing with them was scarier than if It was going to kill them. It was that tension that I found scary really. The idea that anyone could be It.
I think just at that age and at that time, It seemed really shocking and unexpected to me. Like I’ve probably grown more sophisticated, but seeing it as a kid it was really shocking – for example, Stan’s suicide was horrific for me. I just didn’t expect a main character to die, especially like that. It was just so messed-up that It was so bad that Stan topped himself rather than go back.
I think in terms of the themes I really like the sense that the town, Derry is this archetypal hometown where all of your insecurities and all of the things you’ve forgotten about, the school bullies, the scary places, the dens you built and the kids who looked down on you are all waiting to draw you back. I mean the Losers Club have all become successful adults, but Derry and It are there waiting. I can totally relate to that.
I also like how they have to work out as kids without any adult help how to use its kind-of powers against It, like using belief to combat it. The sewer scene where Eddie screams that the inhaler is battery acid and that makes it real against It was really cool, and also why the spider at the end doesn’t work.
I think those elements around the power of your imagination as a child are really cool and work in the context of making the story quite powerful. How can you beat something when the power of your childhood belief is what beat it last time and you’re an adult now? I think Pennywise taunts them at one point that they’re too old, which is also pretty cool imho.
Other things: it’s just kinda iconic in a lot of ways and really quotable – especially the cheesier lines, and as everyone (my age) has seen it, it’s a good one to talk about. (My good friend, the artist Al Cook, for years has been tweeting the picture of Pennywise down the drain with a Glasgow accent asking people to get him a sausage roll, and it’s just never not funny). I guess I think that it’s just an iconic film despite all of the flaws.
Feel free to let me know if I’m talking complete nonsense. It’s all subjective with these types of things but I thought that the film is loved by people despite its flaws for reasons that kinda didn’t come out in your guys’ review. I mean, I always enjoy your reviews, but this time I felt it was missing a counterpoint?
Hi, it’s great to hear from you.
First of all, thanks for doing this, and for doing it so quickly and with so much enthusiasm. Since we recorded the episode on Stephen King’s It, I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. Usually on our show, at least one of us (often me) feels differently to the others, and so almost every film we cover has at least one contrary point of view. That wasn’t the case here, which bugged me during the recording and has bugged me since, because as I said in the episode, I understand that this is a film that is truly beloved by a lot of people, and I want to understand why.
I guess that’s where you come in.
I imagine you’re right about it being in large part a generational thing, and you make some interesting points about how a big, substantial made-for-TV movie was received in 1990. I’d never really considered the idea that the sheer size of the cast and the length of the production might contribute to that feeling of size and scale – probably because I was so annoyed that it was three hours long.
If there’s one thing that, as an adult, I just don’t have anymore, it’s time. I’m constantly irritated by the length of movies that I otherwise enjoy – two hours is about the limit of my patience these days, and I feel that any running time longer than that needs to be justified extremely well in the work. It’s a personal hang-up, I know, but I’d still argue that It – as a film, I mean, not in its original format – is objectively too long for what it’s trying to do. It’s an unfortunate consequence of condensing a series into a movie rather than just making a movie, but when you sit down to watch the movie, that awareness of the broader context might be interesting and important, but it doesn’t make the movie itself any shorter.
I think Tim Curry is great as Pennywise, but I just don’t find clowns scary at all, so as a horror-movie-monster, he didn’t really do anything for me. I can’t speak for the others, but what I was getting at on the show – and I’m not sure I made it entirely clear – wasn’t that clowns are played-out in popular culture (although they definitely are now) but that I just don’t think there’s anything scary about them, ever. A lot of people feel like that, and a lot of people feel exactly the opposite – a lot of my friends are terrified of them, even real, friendly ones that attend parties. So, I get for a lot of people Pennywise was – and still is – terrifying on principle, but for a lot of other people he’s just a man in big trousers.
I love the idea of the whole neighbourhood talking about it, too. I know for a fact that I saw this movie as a kid, but I remembered almost nothing about it until I re-watched it – maybe if I rode a bike down the street it’d jog my memory. I do remember, though, that many people I knew had watched it and were terrified by it, and this was during my high-school years in the early-mid 2000s. Even then, there was definitely a feeling among kids of a certain age that this was the scariest s**t ever. I’m thinking that perhaps if you were exposed to it then, you remember that feeling, whereas if you watched it as an adult and you don’t have that association, it just comes across as silly. That’s true of anything, but seems to be especially true of It.
Obviously, this ties into a lot of your subsequent points about how it felt, as a kid, to see a movie that was told almost entirely from the perspective of kids. The idea that adults aren’t privy to whatever’s happening is a popular way to appeal to a younger audience because that’s legitimately how kids think. Adults are unknowable to kids. They’re distinct and different; excluded from that short and beardless community. I remember feeling like that about all kinds of things when I was young. So even though I don’t – can’t, really – feel that way about It, I do understand where you’re coming from.
If I liked anything about this movie, it’s the idea that “It” manifests as whatever the individual kid most fears, and I think that part of why I like that is that it’s one of the very few things that isn’t dependent on nostalgia or a childlike point of view. I can enjoy that aspect without associating it with how I felt as a kid, because adults have fears and anxieties too. Which is why I was disappointed that there seemed to be a lot less of that specificity in favour of a lot more Pennywise. Scenes like the one you mentioned with Haystack, or the one in the Chinese restaurant, which I really liked but felt was totally hamstrung by technological limitations, are easily the strongest elements of the movie for me.
And, speaking of which, you’re absolutely right about how the movie plays with belief and imagination – that we didn’t go into that on the show is, in retrospect, a real oversight. The acid-inhaler is the most literal interpretation of it, but I do really like how the Loser’s Club as adults are actually more anxious than they were as children because they implicitly understand that they can’t think the same way as they used to – the way they need to in order to defeat It. Pennywise actually being aware of that is cool, too.
But I think this all speaks to my problems with IT, and really with a lot of adaptations of Stephen King’s work. The stories, broadly, are usually really good, but they’re just so difficult to translate because they’re so f*****g weird. Stuff like Bev having to sleep with all the boys to “unite” them is something that you could never include in a made-for-TV movie, and I imagine a lot of the darker, more horrific stuff (I haven’t read the novel, but I read the Wiki in preparation for the show) was discarded on those grounds too. But that’s what makes the story itself truly memorable. To adapt that, especially for TV, and especially-especially in the early 90s, is such an uphill struggle that whatever you end up with is never going to be as effective or memorable as the source material. That’s true of all adaptations to some extent (Game of Thrones is the obvious exception), but with such a long, unwieldy and profoundly strange novel, it’s a lot more noticeable.
So, to summarise, I feel like I just missed It when I was at the right age to truly appreciate what it’s doing, and also that it was so troubled from a technical and logistical standpoint that it couldn’t feel sustainable for those of us who weren’t there at the beginning. You’re right, though – if any movie did deserve a counterpoint in the discussion, this was the one. Hopefully we’ve managed to provide that here.