Brow Beat

The Parts of Stephen King’s Unfilmable It I Missed the Most in the Movie

Bill Skarsgård in the new It movie
It was probably a good idea to leave out the child sex orgy, though.

Warner Bros.

The first time I read Stephen King’s It, I was 12 years old, just a year older than the members of the “Losers’ Club” when they first venture into the sewers of Derry, Maine. It was the longest book I’d ever read: The mass-market paperback I’d borrowed from a neighbor spanned 1,092 pages, a number I still remember. It was also, I strongly believed, the best book I’d ever read—upon finishing it I actually flipped back to the beginning and started reading the entire thing again. I don’t know how many hours and days and months of my seventh-grade year I spent reading and rereading It, but it was certainly a welcome respite from the all-too-real terrors of middle school—just one reason I’ll always be grateful for Stephen King. I’ve read the book at least four more times since then, the last time being only a few years ago, when I’d just moved to a new place where I didn’t know anyone and needed a friend, which is oddly how I’ve come to think of this enormous book about a clown who murders children. I’d no longer say that It is the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s probably still my favorite, and it’s almost certainly the one I’ve spent the most time with.  

Like many, many other people, I saw Andy Muschietti’s new big-screen adaptation of It this past weekend, and I went in with a mix of excitement and trepidation. I’ve long believed It to be an unfilmable novel, partly due to its sheer scope—the book is split between time periods, one set in 1957-1958, and the other in 1984-1985—and partly because its conceit is so fundamentally psychological that making it visual can only undermine its terror. In the book, the various shapes of the monster—clown, leper, werewolf, to name just a few—are imaginative projections of the characters’ own fears, and as readers they in turn take the shape of ours. The 1990 TV miniseries, released four years after the novel’s publication, was a game attempt but ultimately failed at both sprawl and scares: Even though it’s three hours long, its attempt to tackle both storylines inevitably left it both truncated and undeveloped, and the dictates of network TV rendered its frights a little zipless. (A notable exception is Tim Curry’s fantastic, scenery-devouring portrayal of Pennywise.)  

I was happy to see that Muschietti’s film mostly works. The screenwriters’ decision to remove the adulthood narrative completely allows them a way around the novel’s girth (as the closing Chapter One title card suggests, a sequel is planned), and the film’s R rating allows them to preserve the novel’s chilling violence, as well as the true-to-life banter of F-word–obsessed pre-teens. Muschietti is a terrific horror filmmaker, and It is reliably scary while never verging into exploitation, its frights never diminishing from its surprisingly wholesome core.

That said, as Slate’s resident It superfan, I couldn’t help but take issue with a few of the adaptation’s inevitable omissions and alterations, which I will now insufferably outline below. (And to get this out of the way as soon as possible: You will not find a lament over the film’s excision of the novel’s notorious orgy sequence, a scene that makes absolutely no more sense to me today than it did when I was 12.)

The new and unimproved chronology

While I understand that the late 1980s (the film’s setting) are roughly equidistant from our current moment as the late 1950s were from the book’s original publication date, I can’t help but feel like the film’s chronological revision loses something. King’s novel, published in 1986, was released into a moment when the country awash in Reagan-era nostalgia for that post-War, pre-Sixties decade: By the mid-1980s, large swaths of Americans had become convinced that the 1950s were as blandly agreeable as they’d appeared in Reagan’s own movies. It’s vision of the 1950s punctured that illusion and then some, with its small-town New England setting stalked by poverty, racism, all manner of abuse, and, of course, serial child murder. The late 1980s setting of the film, with its winking references to Street Fighter and New Kids on the Block, just doesn’t have the same bite. Also, if it’s ’80s nostalgia the filmmakers were specifically after, why not just save it for the sequel, which will now presumably be set in the present day?

Be more scary, Derry

In King’s novel, the town of Derry itself is essentially one of the book’s main characters, its history and geography lavishly brought to life along with all the evil that lurks within it. The film touches on this at a few points, such as Ben Hanscom’s adorable wall of crazy and Mike Hanlon’s unexpectedly interactive slide show, but the town’s bloody history and Its periodic cycles of feeding are foundational to the book, so much that certain past events—the Black Spot fire of 1930, the Silver Dollar massacre of 1905—are afforded their own “interlude” sections of the novel. The novel also creates a chilling indifference that borders on complicity among the adults of Derry, a quality that the film only hints at in the scene where Ben is being assaulted by Henry Bowers and a car of adults passes by, failing to help him, a lone balloon floating in their backseat. It’s attention to world-building makes it stand out among King’s horror oeuvre, and puts the novel more in line with his seven-volume (at present) Dark Tower fantasy series.

I miss the grown-ups

My biggest complaint with Muschietti’s film is an admittedly unfair one, as the partitioning of the novel’s two narratives into separate films was probably necessary. But it sacrifices the real emotional power that’s achieved through King’s deft intertwining of timeframes, which he sometimes breaks into separate sections, and other times strings together more directly as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It is a genuinely terrifying book, among King’s scariest, and even the mere titles of certain chapters still give me chills (“Another One of the Missing: The Death of Patrick Hockstetter”). But it’s also his most affecting book in other ways, particularly its moving and unsparing portrayal of childhood, and of aging out of it. The members of the Losers’ Club are great characters, good and warm people full of flaws, and by the time we reach the novel’s end, it feels like we’ve gone through something like a lifetime with them.

As a 12-year-old reader of It I was more drawn to the stories of the kids than those of the adults, and I think most King fans would agree that the 1957-58 portions of the book are its strongest. Still, even though I’m not (quite) 27 years older than my 12-year-old self now, over the years my appreciation for the book’s depiction of adulthood, and the losses that come with it, has deepened. Without revealing too much about It’s forthcoming sequel, in the intervening 27 years between the childhood and adulthood portions of the novel, the Losers have forgotten nearly everything about that summer. This is, of course, due in part to the peculiar brand of amnesia that Derry and its terrors inflict on those who experience them. But it’s also simply due to the fact that people grow and grow apart, and that many of the people and things that matter most to you when you’re a kid—people and things that seem to matter more than anything else in the world—won’t be there when you’re in your late thirties, and worse than that, most of the time you won’t even really miss them. Thinking back to how your 12-year-old self would have greeted that news is both sad and a little scary in its own right. Through its interlocking timeframes, King’s book manages to capture this complex and bittersweet sensation as effectively as any work of literature I’ve read.

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Still, the movie’s shortcomings, such as they are, only heighten the novel’s accomplishments. More than 30 years after its publication, It remains an unfilmable book, and probably always will. Judging from the book’s recent sales, a whole new generation of readers is about to figure that out. On their behalf, and in advance: Thanks, Mr. King.