Halfway through Stephen King’s It, I realized that I find neither clowns nor balloons scary, and since they’re the principle devices King use to suggest the supernatural, that aspect of the novel failed to scare me. But It isn’t about clowns or balloons. It is about childhood fears, both real and imagined, and how we grow to overcome them. It’s a massive book, over 1,400 pages in my Kindle, but it has always been on my mean to read list. Since there is now a new movie adaptation out, I felt the time to read it was now. By rights, I should be reviewing the movie with this post, but the novel took me longer to read than I expected. Despite its length, I found the story compelling and the characters interesting. I was never bored. And I was always anxious to learn what happens next.
Since I can remember, Stephen King had been the GIANT writer of my time. Since he published Carrie, his first novel, in 1974, when I was fourteen, the proceeding statement isn’t factually true. But memory is fluid, and I don’t remember a time when the name Stephen King wasn’t a household name. I haven’t read everything he’s written, not even close, but others have. Collectively as a nation, we have made Stephen King one of the most successful writers who had ever lived. I liked Carrie, the novel and both movie adaptations, but I found The Shining a more interesting novel. The Stanley Kubrick movie was fascinating, though I hear King loathed it. With that statement, I’m hinting at a fact about my relationship with King’s work–I tend to know his work more as a movie goer than as a reader. King adapts well to film, and in contrast to my natural preference for the written work, I tend to prefer Stephen King movies more than his novels. Though that’s not true of Carrie or The Shining, it has been true of other works like Pet Cemetary, Firestarter, and Dolores Clairborne.
Though I have yet to see the movie It, I doubt that I’m going to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the novel. In fact, since reading the novel, I’m less excited to see the movie. How do you condense a 1,400-page novel into a 2 hour movie?
It tells the story of seven friends who, at age 11, became aware of a monster living in the sewers of Derry, Maine. They banded together to destroy the beast, but they only managed to wound it. They drove it deeper into the ground to lick its wounds and to hibernate. Twenty-seven years later, the monster returns from that hibernation, and the friends, now adults, must band together again. This time, they vowed to kill it. King intermix the two time periods throughout the novel, creating parallel plots, but also comparing and contrasting the lives of children with those of adult. “Big Bill” Denbrough leads the Losers’ Club, as they call themselves. He’s a stutterer, but he’s also the tallest member of the club, and he has the distinction of having suffered personally from It. His brother George was Its first victim in the 1957-1958 attacks.
A list of other members of the Losers’ Club stand to symbolize the types of fears and hardships children can face. Ben Hanscom, being the fat kid in school, suffers bullying, Beverly Marsh’s father is abusive, both physically and verbally, and Eddie Kaspbrak has an over-protective mother, who has convinced him he suffers from asthma. Mike Hanlon, a black kid, and Stan Uris, a Jewish kid, experience racism. Through them, King levers the childhood problem of bullying into the natural crisis of racial and religious persecution. Richie Tozier, the final member of the Losers’ Club, doesn’t seem to suffer any quirks other than a being a jokester. He’s like Batman’s archenemy The Joker, only a good guy rather than a villain. He seems to be guilty by association, a member of the Losers’ because he likes and sympathsizes with the other members.
Pennywise the Clown, a form It takes, serves as the chief antagonist, but It also inspires other to work on Its bidding. Most noteworthy is Henry Bowers, the school’s chief bully and the son of a verbal and violent racist. Bowers joins with other bullies to form the Bowers Gang, who harrasses and attacks the various members of the Losers’ Club. Through Pennywise, King explores the supernatural fears we face, but he uses Bowers and his cohorts to ground those fears into the everyday and common horrors children face. In the contest between the Losers’ Club and the joint venture between Pennywise and the Bowers Gang, Stephen King builds his theme of childhood fears and how we overcome them.
It is not a perfect novel. The multiple protagonists denies it the tightness of Carrie or the depth of The Shining. The multiple antagonists further dilutes the focus. There were a few off-page deaths that I wish I had been present for. It had a long denoument that made me think that King, having lived with these characters for 1,400 pages, didn’t want to say goodbye to them. The novel required a longer denoument than most, because we needed to see what changed, but the length of the final denoument began to feel self-endulgent. And then there’s an orgy scene that makes no sense to me. My objection to it isn’t puritan disgust of eleven-year-olds having sex, but it’s a literary criticism against a scene that felt superfluous. Like any other scene in a work of fiction, a sex scene must advance the plot, reveal something about the characters, or help develop the theme. This scene did none of the above. It read like a sex scene merely for the sake of having a sex scene.
Despite these flaws, It is an excellent novel that’s well-worth your time. The characters are well-rounded and believable, the plot is compelling and complex, and the themes it explore are important themes for both individuals and society. It’s not as good as Carrie or The Shining, but like them, I think it is a story best told in writing rather than in film. Now that I’ve read the novel and reviewed it, I can see the movie, but–though it’s unjust to prejudge a work of art–I can’t imagine preferring it to this novel.