It’s been twenty-seven years since we first saw Pennywise in the television adaptation of Stephen King’s It by Tommy Lee Wallace and to this day some people still shiver at the sight or mere thought of clowns. Bill Skarsgård has now been given the hard task to fill in the shoes of Tim Curry in the remake by Andre Muschietti, the acclaimed director behind “Mama”, and, according to the first reviews, it seems he’ll do a brilliant work at keeping the tradition of scaring thousands of kids for life.
In the film, we follow a group of kids who become friends by having the same enemy, a gang led by the dangerous Henry Bowers, who involuntarily gives them a great group name: The Losers’ Club. At the same time, they’re confronted with a strange creature disguised as a clown that, they soon realize, is the responsible for the disappearance and death of several kids of their hometown. The 1990 adaptation revolves around their strong bond and how they end up defeating Pennywise (or so they thought). After thirty years, they receive the news that the creature has returned. According to the promise they made as kids, they go back to finish the job despite their trauma and, most importantly, see each other for the first time in the several years that followed that horrible event.
How is it possible that It can be such a terrifying film according to so many people? To answer that, we’ll have to take a brief look at the source material and King’s very own approach to creating fiction.
After the publication of Carrie in 1974, Stephen King has had more than 30 books become no.1 best sellers and over fifty films and television shows have been made from his writings, making him an unusual author, one whose books seem to fight their cinematic adaptations for a lasting spot in pop culture. The reason why can go deeper than the fantastic and menacing creatures, situations and worlds he creates. As King says: “To me, it’s all about character. If you like the characters, you care, and then the scares generally work. (…) One of the things that I want to do in all of my novels is to create characters that are fundamentally decent by and large and that way you don’t want them to be spam in a cabin, you don’t want them wiped out, you want them to live and you want them to win”.
Take one of his most deliciously horrible stories Survivor Type, for example. This is a short story that follows a doctor who smuggles heroin by boat and who gets stranded on a desert island after a shipwreck. Since there’s nothing to eat on his new imposed home and he happens to be a skilful surgeon, he decides to cut off his limbs one by one for food while using the drug as an anaesthetic. While he’s not a fairly decent character, his nature and incredibly strong survival instinct make him someone who we root for. Pet Sematary, one of King’s most shocking works, is born from grief and from a parent’s understandable desire to bring back his child from the grave and it shows how even his most terrible stories generally have a really relatable situation and/or characters.
This way, we’re able to realize that, unlike what we may think at first, it’s not the monster that drives the story, but the main characters of the book, with their flaws and qualities, and how they react to the adversities that they find in their way.
After making us sympathize with his characters, however, Stephen King brings in the menace and it’s interesting to see how he frequently chooses to present something that is apparently not that menacing at a first naïve look. Just think about it: a mist, a clown, a lovely nurse… This way, he manages to slowly introduce the horror so that when you feel its cold finger grazing the back of your neck, it’s already too late.
It’s important to state that King never considered himself a horror novelist but simply a novelist who wants to tell the stories he wants to tell. He believes that “fiction is a lie but good fiction is the truth inside the lie”, and maybe this is the reason why his tales have always attracted top-notch talent for their adaptations.
In horror, Brian De Palma decided to adapt King’s first work Carrie into a legendary film that follows an outcast girl who is constantly taunted by her colleagues and an extremely religious mother. Her telekinetic powers give her the ability to fight them back and it is understandable that she does so after getting humiliated beyond her breaking point.
Rob Reiner directed the adaptation of Misery that granted an Academy Award to Kathy Bates due to her fantastic performance as a deranged nurse who imprisons her favourite author to her home under the pretext of healing him after he suffers a horrible car accident. The stalker fan is extremely upset that he killed Misery, the main character of his books, in the latest release and she won’t rest until he brings her back.
Stanley Kubrick famously depicted cabin fever in the iconic and polemic adaptation of The Shining and, despite the clash between author and director, this film has become a reference for viewers who search for enigmatic and eerie viewing experiences.
Still, some of King’s best work falls far from the horror label to a point where many become surprised when they learn some of their favourite films were based on his stories.
The Shawshank Redemption by Frank Darabont happens to be for several years the highest rated film on IMDB and it depicts the relationship between the two prisoners Andy Dufresne and Red during their stay at the Shawshank penitentiary. This film serves as a beautiful reflection on freedom, friendship, redemption and resilience and there are many moments when it’s possible to realize that there’s no more horrible and forgiving creature than man himself.
Undeniably one of the best coming-of-age films of all time is Stand By Me, again directed by Rob Reiner. Stephen King decided to use the search of a dead body by a group of teenagers as an excuse to show how the challenges of growing up can seem daunting if we put ourselves in that place once more.
Even in more surreal circumstances, Stephen King never loses sight of the humanity of the people he’s trying to depict. In 11.22.63, Jake Epping, a high school teacher is given the chance to go back in time to save J.F.K. from being murdered. There’s a rule, however. When he goes back to the present, the changes he made in the past will be reflected in the world of the day, as predicted, but if he decides to return, the world will be reset. He has the chance to go back to the same day as before and he’ll have a new chance to try again. This seems to work perfectly until he falls in love. Each time he has to go back, the girl he loves ends up forgetting him, leaving him no choice but to make her fall in love with him all over again. The adaptation by J.J. Abrams and King, featuring James Franco, resulted in a powerful mini-series that I can’t praise enough.
It’s also possible to see the impact King’s style still has on many films and TV shows. Child’s Play and Annabelle, for example, are two well-known horror films that are obviously influenced by the apparently harmless creatures King creates, having as their monsters deceptively innocent dolls. Stranger Things is another show that borrowed from his style and displays the group of outcasts King frequently likes to portray in his stories. Even the most watched series of today, Game of Thrones, is admittedly influenced by his work, as George R. R. Martin has stated.
Steven King’s undeniably fertile imagination for horror may be one of the main reasons why he has been able to leave a mark on the genre but his belief in good, hope and friendship prove that it’s not the monster that drives the story and lures us into it, it’s the main characters and how they choose to fight, freeze or run away. He knows what it’s like to be human and, by portraying that, we’re able to enter a body and mind that could be our own, of a person with dreams, fears and nightmares who is unfortunate enough to be a part of his deranged universe where clowns can lure kids into sewers, an invisible dome can fall on top of a city, a possessed car can chase you in a murderous spree and, where a simple article, such as this one, could have the power to make you go insane.