Last month, before I saw the latest film version of Stephen King’s It, I watched the 1990 miniseries version.
This was my first time to watch the It miniseries, though I had certainly heard about it. Most of the reviews that I had read seemed to be mixed. Everyone seemed to agree that Tim Curry was the perfect choice for the role of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. However, many other reviewers complained that the program’s television origins kept It from being as effective as it could be. “Not as scary as the book,” everyone seemed to agree. The actors who played the members of the Loser Clubs as children all seemed to receive general acclaim but not everyone seemed to be as enamored with the adult cast. And everyone, even those who liked the miniseries as a whole, complained about the show’s finale, in which Pennywise took the form of a giant spider.
Well, I have to agree about the giant spider. That spider looked painfully fake, even by the standards of 1990s television. Not only does the spider look too fake to truly be scary but, once that spider showed up, that meant that Tim Curry disappeared from the film. Curry deserved every bit of acclaim that he received for playing the role of Pennywise.
All that said, the miniseries was still a lot better than I had been led to believe.
Certainly, it’s not as frightening as the book or the movie. Considering that the It miniseries was produced for network television, that’s not surprising. As opposed to the movie, the miniseries attempts to cover King’s entire novel. That’s a lot of material, even when you have a five hour running time. Obviously, a good deal of the story had to be cut and there are a few scenes in the miniseries that feel a bit rushed. Characters like Audrey Denbrough and Stanley Uris, who were compelling in the novel, are reduced to being mere bystanders. Some of the novel’s most horrific scenes — like Henry Bowers cutting Ben — are either excised or heavily toned down. If the novel was as much about the hypocrisy of the adults of Derry as the paranormal horror of Pennywise, that theme is largely left out of the miniseries.
That said, It still had its share of memorable moments. The image of a clown standing on the side of the road, holding balloons, and waving is going to be creepy, regardless of whether it’s found in a R-rated film or on ABC. The death of little George Denbrough is horrific, regardless of whether you actually the bone sticking out of his wound or not. Even the library scene, in which a grown-up Richie Tozier deals with a balloon filled with blood, was effectively surreal.
As for the actors who played the members of the Losers Club, the results were occasionally uneven. The actors who played them as children were all believable and had a credible group chemistry. You could imagine all of them actually being friends. As for the adults, some of them I liked more than others. Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher, and Tim Reid gave the best performances out of the group. John Ritter and Annette O’Toole were somewhere in the middle. Richard Thomas was absolutely awful and I found myself snickering whenever he was filmed from behind and I saw his pony tail. Richard Masur, unfortunately, wasn’t around long enough to make much of an impression one way or the other.
Ultimately, though, the miniseries (much like the book) suffers because the adults are never as interesting as Pennywise. Tim Curry dominates the entire movie and, when he’s not onscreen, his absence is definitely felt. Watching the miniseries made me appreciate why the film version kept Pennywise’s screen time to a minimum. Pennywise is such a flamboyant and dominant character that, if not used sparingly, he can throw the entire production out of balance.
Despite its flaws, I liked the miniseries. Yes, it’s uneven. Yes, it’s toned down. Yes, it works better in pieces than as a whole. But, taken on its own terms, It was effective. Director Tommy Lee Wallace creates a suitably ominous atmosphere and the child actors are all properly compelling. And, finally, that damn clown is always going to freak me out.
Just for fun, here’s a trailer for It, recut as a family film: