There seems to be a Stephen King revival of late – with many of his works getting a first time film or television adaptation and others getting a reboot or remake. Although I have seen a few of his book adaptations, others I hadn’t. I decided to look back on some of his earlier book to screen adaptations to see what all the fuss was about. Below are my reviews of IT and The Stand – two very long novels that ended up as television mini-series in order to better accommodate the length of the source material.
IT is probably one of the most iconic King novels and adaptations. I tried to read the book as a kid, but I got me nightmares just having the book with me in the same room (the cover art was scary) so returned it to the library. I fared no better with the television movie, only catching a few scenes here and there throughout the years but being so genuinely creeped out by Pennywise the Clown that I never gave it a go. So with the announcement of the IT movie later in the year, it felt like a perfect place to start and I was pumped to give the movie its due attention.
This movie tells these two parallel stories. One is of a group of kids in 1960 who are terrorized by a supernatural force dubbed IT, who most often manifests itself as a clown named Pennywise (played by the legendary Tim Curry to perfection). After realizing that IT feeds on their fears, these kids band together as The Losers Club to try to find a way to stop him – they also make a promise to themselves to go back to their hometown if IT is ever heard from again.
The other story is set thirty years later, in 1990, and follows these kids as adults. When they hear news that IT is on the prowl again, they hold true to their promise and travel back to their hometown for one more showdown with the creature. Although IT, seems like only a bad childhood memory, he still yields enough power to create fear among the group as adults.
The main problem with this movie is that the adult characters are not as endearing and the adult story not nearly as frightening or interesting as the 1960s storyline. The kid ensemble has better chemistry and we, the audience, are taken on a fearful ride alongside them as IT plays with their childhood phobias. Even if the movie effects may feel tame compared to current horror standards, we can still empathize with the children as we think back to those same things that may have scared us when we were young.
While the movie does try its best to reflect how Pennywise still affects each member of The Losers Club as adults, it’s uneven. It’s made clear to us that IT did strip them of their innocence, but the characters flit between playing child abuse survivors and a group of people who are simply on a revenge mission. Both sentiments may be true, but the motivation behind the two feelings isn’t always so well expressed in the writing, directing and acting. This lack of focus hurts the film because it removes any sense of suspense and eventually leads to an anti-climactic finale. In other words, the adult plotline is clear from the start and since they already know who IT is (due to the 1960s storyline) we as an audience are left to go with the motions along with each of them.
The kids, on the other hand, represented a bit more of what we would feel, at any age, if confronted with an out-worldly force who fed off our fears. These parts of the movie provided The Losers Club (and us) the natural and logical steps from paranoia and fear to the eventual courage that they would need to face the boogeyman. It´s much more natural to invest in this story. The set pieces and fright-scenes are also set up on each character’s back story which makes them much more chilling. In contrast, the adults are given very little development outside of what we already know happened to them as youths.
Tim Curry is this movie’s true saving grace though. As Pennywise he is menacing without seeming to have to work hard for it. His voice and eyes are enough to conjure up all sorts of nasty thoughts – and perhaps he was the cause of a whole generation’s fear of clowns. There is little, if anything to fault, about his performance but that can be said about nearly every role he has ever stepped into – especially when it calls for him to play out-of-this-world characters. Check out my review of Legend here if you want to find out about another great Curry performance.
Despite some lulls in the suspense and an uneven performance from the adult actors, IT is definitely worth watching. Fans of the source material do complain that the television movie watered down a lot of what makes the book great, but I speak for the audience that never read the book (and certainly every book adaptation has to keep both readers and non-readers in mind) when I say that it both entertained me and gave me some slight creeps. IT may not be “hide under the sofa” scary (remember this was 1990 pre-X Files or Twin Peaks network television) but the story certainly stays in your head for a while after the end.
Speaking of the end, this is where the movie does fall apart completely. After hours of build-up and suspense, we are given a rather unsatisfying finale. After a laborious meditation on the fear that resides in the recesses of our minds, we are given an ending which centers around killing the very real creature that lives in the sewers. This diminishes most of what the film was working towards up to that point. It would have been great if IT had been something The Losers Club couldn’t really pin down as an actual physical form, making IT harder to kill. It’s a big problem that perhaps the remake will resolve – but we will have to wait until part two of those movies to find out.
The movie did interest me enough to pick up the book and take a very long read, though. If another task of a movie adaptation is to be good enough to get people to pick up the source material than IT succeeded.
The Stand (1994)
Another Stephen King project that is constantly up for a possible remake is The Stand. Because of its considerable length it was also made into a television mini-series and again, having never read the book, I am giving my opinions solely based on what I saw on screen.
This story deals with an end of the world (or just America) plague which leaves a group of survivors behind who begin to have visions. In these visions they see an old lady named Mother Abagail playing guitar on her porch and a man named Flagg embroiled in fire. Both these characters ask the survivors to go to them – and the fate of the rest of humanity holds in the balance depending on which way the people go.
The Stand was definitely more even throughout than IT – as there wasn’t any distracting difference in quality between two parallel storylines – but that isn’t to say it’s better or worse than the previous film. In fact, they are both at about the same level of made-for-TV movie quality. The Stand benefits from a slightly better cast (including Gary Sinise and Ruby Dee, who do their best with dialogue which can get pretty trite at times) and a character-driven story which doesn’t really rely too heavily on horror tropes. The movie is about these people’s choices to go one way or the other and it works pretty well for a while – but only for a while.
The first two chapters, “The Plague” and, “The Dreams” I found to be very entertaining and imaginative. While there is a supernatural element which is slowly introduced, it doesn’t detract from the post-apocalyptic world where bodies are strewn across the street and where people are trying to sort the mess out. Their visions give them hope that there is an escape, though. It drives the plot at a steady rhythm as they travel either towards Mother Abagail in Nebraska or Flagg in Las Vegas.
The first two chapters of The Stand also feel very current, given how much we have been force fed apocalypse movies. A point that The Stand has in its advantage, though, is that while it certainly does show a world in ruin, it also tries to reinforce the idea that some people won’t go completely mad in a dead world. It reminded me of the underrated second season of The Walking Dead where, until Rick’s group arrived, Hershel and his farm seemed to be operating along just fine. The Stand delivers this more peaceful side of the story without making it boring or feel like we’ve been transported into a Disney movie.
The Stand begins to lose steam when the supernatural elements go from being a backdrop and take center stage in the story. We come to understand that there is a fight between good and evil that must play out, but it’s never really fully fleshed out as to why and to what end. We can surmise that God and The Devil want to take the opportunity to start the world anew with their “flock,” but this theme is only a spark that never truly burns into a satisfying flame. Mother Abagail seems to be unsure of how to go about explaining the importance of stopping Flagg and the only threatening thing about Flagg is whether or not he will force everyone to wear jeans as tight as his.
The third part of the mini-series, “The Betrayal,” was the most boring, and it only half kept my attention. As each person chooses his or her side in this final “Stand” (the name of the movie is repeated quite a few times in dialogue in case we don’t get it) there isn’t any real explanation as to why they want to be aligned with good or evil other than just “I’m a good guy and I’m a bad guy.” Not including this greater study of the two-dimensional scope of something as thematically powerful as the thin line which divides good and evil is where the movie fails. It becomes a simple adventure story where Mother Abagail sends out some of her men to go take Flagg down while Flagg tries to stop her from foiling his plans.
The last chapter, “The Stand,” is anti-climatic but well produced. It leads up to the final confrontation between Mother Abagail’s group and Flagg’s group. The conclusion to this face-off, for reasons I just mentioned, is lackluster and falls flat, though. Without giving us any hints as to the importance of the act of killing off Flagg or the reasons why any of the characters would choose either side of the battle, there is no investment in wanting to see him die other than knowing he is the bad guy and bad guys don’t win. Much like in IT, the supernatural force which can lead us into the hell inside our minds is reduced to a physical element that can be struck down with a good wack from a hand.
That said, The Stand didn’t bore me. I finished it rather quickly and recommend it to anyone who has some extra hours to spare. It’s not embarrassingly bad, even at its worst. It’s a great story which one can only imagine had many more layers in the source material – and that may benefit from someone remaking it for today’s audience. For what it’s worth, this is yet another success story for an adaptation which made me want to pick up yet another very long Stephen King novel.
Long live the King.
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