Monday, April 4, 2016
In one very specific way, this story is one reason this blog exists. A while back, I was researching online for a possible blog post about the top ten essential King books, and I came upon The Truth Inside the Lie and Bryant Burnette's ranking of all King's books in his preferred order. I kinda got hooked on his blog and got involved in a discussion about who should play Pennywise the Dancing Clown in an It remake that was being planned then but appears to have fallen apart.
This book is, much like The Stand and The Dark Tower series, one of the more "near and dear" works of Stephen King to my heart. It's one of the first books of his I read, and the one I've read through the most often. I was surprised at how little I'd forgotten during this trip through it.
Non-CR's likely think of this one as "the evil clown story". It's so much more than that, naturally. Yes, the nameless monster that serves as this book's antagonist uses the form of an evil clown to both lure and frighten (often both at the same time), but that's far from the only form It takes, nor is it anywhere near as frightening as the implications of It's true form and how long It's been around.
What really prompted the discussion I mentioned above, though, is that one of the replies made the declaration that Tim Curry, who played Pennywise in the 1990 mini-series, is "irreplaceable". And yes, I'm gonna talk about the mini-series a lot in this post, because unlike some other King movies, this one I've actually seen multiple times and it's one of the better known King adaptations.
Unlike The Running Man, Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, most viewers know this mini-series was based on a book, and unlike The Shining or The Dead Zone, they acknowledge that the book is better. But still, this mini-series is one of the more talked-about adaptations of King's works, and it's one that seems to still have its fans who remember it as one of the scariest things they'd ever seen.
There are also plenty of people who realize how cheesy and unintentionally funny the film was, but even these people seem to hold one caveat: Tim Curry as Pennywise/It. They still talk about how damn scary he was and how even to this day they have nightmares about Tim Curry coming to get them.
Ever feel like you're an X in a world of O's?
I just re-watched the mini-series recently in order to refresh my memory. I didn't remember Tim Curry being scary at all, and this latest re-watch confirmed it: Curry inspired far more unplanned laughs than scares. On paper, Curry seems like the perfect guy for the job. He has a naturally creepy face and seems to always play sinister people, and play them well. Here, I hardly recognized him. Seriously, if I didn't know better and you told me it was, say, Harvey Keitel, I'd likely have believed you. He's not really even wearing that much make-up, but I still can't see old Creepy Curry in Pennywise's face at all. He's also putting on this weird almost southern accent that rids him of any remaining creep factor.
There's not a piece of scenery left that he hasn't chewed all to hell by the time this thing is done. He's silly. He's also hampered by poor visual effects, and at one point you even see him duck his head out of frame so he can put in his scary monster teeth. Irreplaceable? Hell, he's in dire need of replacement. In fact, it won't be a matter of replacing him, just finding an actor who can do It justice.
I'm not sure that Will Poulter, the actor who was going to play Pennywise back when Cary Fukunaga was on board, is that guy. But we'll get to casting in a bit.
I think it's a shame that It is primarily remembered for the "evil clown". What really drew me in were the characters and setting. This is the novel that really introduces Derry, Maine, a setting King will return to frequently. Up until now his default setting was Castle Rock. Castle Rock is home to killer cops, killer dogs and white trash parents. Derry is the home of horror.
In fact, that last sentence is very literal. It's implied that Derry is in fact a haunted patch of land, and that weird, unexplained events have been happening since the first settlers got there. Just how long has It been there? Did It invade our territory or did we invade Its?
Every 26 or 27 years (every 30 years in the mini-series, because it's got to be round numbers in Hollywood, where viewers are assumed to be morons who would be thrown off by irregular patterns), the nameless abomination rises and feeds. It mostly feeds on children, and during one such feeding, in 1956, It murders a young boy named George Denbrough.
Bill, George's big brother, and six of his friends, later bond over the two things they have in common; they're all social outcasts and they've all had encounters with It and survived. Bill is called "Stuttering Bill" because, you guessed it, he's blind. Ben Hanscom is smart but quite overweight. Richie Tozier hides his insecurities with humor and attempts at funny voices. Eddie Kaspbrack is small for his age and babied by his overprotective mother, who is convinced that he's asthmatic and fragile. Beverly Marsh is from the wrong side of the tracks and is regularly beaten by her drunken father (and it's implied that he's working himself up to begin sexually abusing her as well). Stan Uris and Mike Hanlon's issues stem more from their racial background; Stan is Jewish and Mike is black in a time when open racism was still very prevalent.
Guided by a force they don't understand and only barely sense, the seven of them decide that it's up to them to take on and destroy It. This story is pretty much the poster child for the idea that adults are useless, as one of the ways It keeps successfully coming back to kill children is Its ability to ramp up adults' desire to ignore anything they can't explain. The mini-series tries to show us this, but ultimately it just makes our heroes seem quick to jump to conclusions about why adults in town don't seem willing to help.
While it seems like the losers' club's efforts have worked, they promise to come back to Derry if It returns for the next cycle. It does, and the kids, now 38 years old and scattered across the country, except for Mike, who purposefully stayed home and kept watch, each receive a phone call; It has returned, and it's time to make good on their promise.
The story skips around in time a lot, and I don't just mean hopping from 1985 back to 1958. It plays around with the order of events from the summer of '58, often mentioning events before we read about them, then later, sometimes much later, showing us the event as it happens. This is less confusing than it sounds, and somehow sucked me into the story even more.
Probably half the story, give or take, is set in the modern age as our heroes reconvene as adults and the other half takes place when they're 11-year-olds in the late 50's. I think I enjoyed the scenes from the the 50's more than I did the "present day" (read: thirty years ago) scenes, at least in the book. I recall enjoying the 50's scenes more in the movie, as well, but this last time I realized just how bad all the child actors are. They're really bad, especially when they're called upon to play up a big emotion. The adults, however, aren't especially good, either. They're played by a bunch of sitcom stars and a ponytail that looks like Richard Thomas. I don't have a problem with sitcom actors, but in a way that I've never experienced before, none of them became the characters in my eyes. This was especially true of John Ritter, who was just never Ben Hanscom to me.
Ever see a movie and really like it, then several years later see a play based on it? It's never really the same, and this is definitely the case here, even though these seven actors are the only ones who have ever played these characters. They're not all bad, really. Richard Thomas is a fine Stuttering Bill. But when he turns around, there's that ponytail again, and that just feels so wrong. Tim Reid, who to me will always be Venus Flytrap from WKRP in Cincinnati and no one else, did a fine job as Mike Hanlon, for that matter. Dennis Christopher was just sorta okay as Eddie, but Harry Anderson was genuinely awful as Richie. More on all these guys later. What really felt weird watching it this time around was how nearly all of them (Thomas and O'Toole being the exceptions) just looked too old to be 40. Yeah, even Dennis Christopher, who was only 34 at the time. The weirdest part is that only Tim Reid was genuinely older than his character was supposed to be by any real margin (he was 45 playing 40), but really, watch it again. Do Harry Anderson, John Ritter or Richard Masur look like they're in their late 30's, which they were, or verging on 50?
Let me tell you, the weirdest part of the casting process this time was realizing that in order to get the ages right, this time I had to choose actors that were around my age. Regular commenter Aaron talked about that in response to my post on Thinner, but nowhere has that hit home more than here, for some reason. I've been casting books I read for years now, and the first time I read this in full, I cast Nicolas Cage as Bill, Julianne Moore as Beverly, Bill Paxton as Ben, Blair Underwood as Mike, Hank Azaria as Richie and Michael J. Fox as Eddie. When you think about the fact that the characters are supposed to be 38 years old, that tells you how long ago I did that casting. Now I found myself considering and even casting actors that are in several cases younger than me, and for some reason, this really felt odd. Maybe it's because of how close I have always felt to this book. The first time I read this book, I resonated more with the Losers' Club when they were eleven. Now those parts are pure nostalgia, and the realities of being a grown man dangerously close to 40 got a bit too real.
Now we're gonna get to the casting, and before I start, I want to say that I didn't always follow the book's descriptions of every character to the letter. Two characters are described as going bald, and I could not find any actors of both appropriate age, acting skill and overall look that were losing their hair. Also, one minor character is described as having a beer gut, and my actor does not have one. I trust you'll see as we go that this really doesn't matter. Also, most of the actors playing the adult Losers are not 38 yet and the ones that are all look younger. This, again, is on purpose because I want them to remain age appropriate for several years. As always, I won't be casting the child characters, and in this case it's especially important to cast them based on how much they resemble the adult actors I'm choosing, so I'll leave that to a child casting director. All I ask is that they have real talent.
As far as format, there's really only two ways this can be done, as a a series of three films (not my preferred method at all) or as an 8- to 10-part mini-series akin to what 11/22/63 has gotten. I'd strongly prefer that option as it will help us get in as much of the town's and characters' histories (and yes, they are important) as possible. The book is over 1100 pages, and I'm hard pressed to think of a part I'd want cut in this adaptation. The mini-series took a hacksaw to the story, paring it down to three hours. Three. Hours. This book. Just one of many reasons why I can't stand the mini-series.
Also, just to answer the question of to modernize or not to modernize, I'm heavily in favor of not modernizing. So much of what happens is tied to the attitudes of the late 50's and would not at all work in the 80's, which is when it would have to be set if we modernized. The mini-series moves up the date to 1960 so that it can be exactly thirty years prior to 1990, the year it aired and the year the modern day scenes were set. But that wasn't a huge change. Moving the action to 1988 or 89 absolutely would be.
I'm starting with the Losers' club. We'll work our way up to Pennywise Itself because I'm a cruel bastard and I want to keep you in suspense as long as possible and let's face it, you just scrolled down the list looking for him, didn't you? Come on back up, I'll wait. No, seriously, I want to spend some time on the protagonists because I have this feeling that most people will read about who's playing Pennywise and skip the rest. The Losers' Club is the true heart of this story, and they're coming first.
William "Stuttering Bill" Denbrough is fairly close to the lead in this tale; he's the de facto leader of the losers and he's the Stephen King stand-in, being that he's a horror writer whose career seems, in many cases, to mirror King's. Bill isn't King, however, and it's clear that King has a lot more respect for Bill than he does for himself, as Bill is pretty much the ultimate good guy, the guy you can count on, the true soul. He's certainly the character I appreciated the most (Ben being a close second) and the others in the group naturally defer to him. Despite that, Bill is something of a nerd, bookish, bespectacled and, in the novel anyway, balding. Richard Thomas played him in the movie, and carried his John-Boy Walton likeability factor with him. It worked, mostly. He was one of the few casting choices I was more or less okay with. I still wonder what he was thinking with the ponytail, which seemed out of character and I found it very distracting. Jonathan Brandis played the young Bill, and while I appreciated that they put a matching mole on his face so as to be more convincing that he'd grow up to be Richard Thomas, the simple fact is that he had yet to develop as an actor. It's genuinely cringe-worthy to see him obviously focusing on getting the stutter right and shouting "You killed my brother, you bastard!" in a tone of voice that suggests Pennywise ate the last of the breakfast serial. As I said, a while back I picked Nic Cage for this role (this was well before he got a reputation for ludicrous overacting) and later I wondered about Anthony Edwards, who played the perfect "good guy" on ER, but both are far too old now, and I went with someone that might be a tad unconventional. Topher Grace is a very likeable actor who can easily be believed as just a very good guy, plus he's got red hair like Bill and in the past he's played characters who've stammered a lot, so I know he could pull off Bill's stutter when it returns years after he apparently beat it. And he may not look it, but he was born in 1978, which means he'll be 38 before this year is over.
Charles Halford for the role, with Ryan Hurst as a possible backup. Both men are physically large enough, but when I read the description of red-haired, flattopped Henry, I knew who his adult version would look like: Michael Cudlitz of The Walking Dead fame. He's 51 but could easily pass for a hard-living 43-year old.
And now to admit something: I'm not actually finished reading it. I felt comfortable casting it because I remember it so well, but I am going to finish it before moving on to the next one, which is thankfully much shorter. That said, I know exactly what post is coming next.
Next up: Eyes of the Dragon!