To call It a box office success would be an enormous understatement. The film shattered records upon its release and has grossed over $650 million worldwide — $320 million of which came domestically — against a very modest $35 million budget.
As the film’s release date approached, interest in the epic Stephen King novel on which it is based was rekindled. I was only six when It was released, but even I knew it was an event, a sensation, a thing:
“I was too young to read It when it was a phenomenon in the mid-1980s. It was for older boys, potent symbol indeed for their very being older. It belonged to a category of books…that I never saw anyone actually read: all I saw was evidence of them having been read, but that evidence was everywhere. Badly used copies could be found in friends’ rumpus rooms or squeezed in among their older brothers’ Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets; others materialized in rental cottages at the beach, their covers mutilated by house pets, their spines furrowed like old skin.”
I know that I watched the original 1990 miniseries — the first adaptation of the book — but all I could remember was Tim Curry’s terrific performance. The book has long been near the top of my “Want to Read” list, so before seeing the new iteration I wanted to finally conquer it. Though King has been a master of the craft for forty years and his book On Writing had a profound impact on me, I hadn’t read any of his work until I was in the my twenties and even then, I started slowly with The Green Mile and The Long Walk before finally plowing through the complete and uncut version of The Stand. In recent years, I’ve read most of his newer stuff, including the Bill Hodges trilogy, but It somehow always eluded me.
King referred to it as his “final exam on horror”:
“I wanted to examine a little bit, horror itself. And I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t you write a final exam on horror, and put in all the monsters that everyone was afraid of as a kid? Put in Frankenstein, the werewolf, the vampire, the mummy, the giant creatures that ate up New York in the old B movies. Put ’em all in there.’ And I thought, ‘How are you going to do that?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it like a fairy tale. I’m going to make up a town where these things happen and everybody ignores them.’”
And he did put everything in it. There are historical anecdotes; there are pop culture references; there are homages to literature; there are fairy tale references; there is symbolism; there is wordplay; there are rarely used words; there are chase scenes; most of all, there is longing for a simpler time and an underlying belief that it really wasn’t simpler, but just felt that way.
The novel’s two time periods — 1958 and ’85 — form a palindromic structure, one that occurs in mid-sentence as the book approaches its conclusion, one that acts as a balancing scale, sometimes teetering one way or another but never tipping it completely. It’s a damn impressive feat:
“Looking at it as a writer, it’s incredible: a structural marvel, an author at the height of his powers, and he’s showing off. Juggling dual narratives, historical interludes, an astonishing number of characters, King somehow makes it all seem effortless.”
In On Writing, King says that, as a reader, he prefers a slower build and he certainly takes his time here, going to great pains to set the stage, a nightmarish city planner obsessing over each and every square inch. A great chunk could have been cut, but it all is in service of not only creating a locale that feels real and lived-in, but the slow parts help to enhance the heightened periods of suspense.
Much of the early part of the novel is about the town in which it is set — Derry, Maine — and King puts so much time into describing it, from its history to its topography, because it slowly becomes a character, one that, at times, seems to control events even more than It. While it would be impressive just keeping all of the characters and their backstories straight and being able to foreshadow something that pays off five-hundred pages later, King goes far deeper, like the symbolism of how the glass walkway connecting the two parts of the library is a bridge just as there is bridge connecting the two sides of town, just as our lives are a bridge from the past to the present.
One of King’s greatest skills is his concepts for his stories, the situations in which the characters find themselves in at the start of a novel. So many of his books have fantastic hooks. Unfortunately, that genius that does not always translate to endings. For me, far too many of his works (and, in fairness, I’ve read fewer than half of them) leave me feeling unsatisfied or, at the very least, puzzled, upon reading their conclusions. Revival has a fantastic setup that goes nowhere and Under the Dome suffers from a pretty heavy deus ex machina.
While the climax of It doesn’t feel equal to the thousand-plus pages that led to it (then again, what could?), the actual ending — excluding the epilogue — is a wonderful, powerful piece of commentary on how we adults so often minimize or ignore our childhood even though that childhood was an enormous reason we became the adults we are. Much of King’s oeuvre is about a lost sense of childhood and it’s explored in great depth here, with lines like, “The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you.” Then, as Mike Hanlon writes on the final page (before the epilogue), “My heart is with all of them, and I think, even if we forget each other, we’ll remember in our dreams.” You may forget the details, but you never forget the feeling.
And while it is a towering work, an epic, truly a milestone of fiction, it is certainly not without its faults.
There are several typos/mistakes and while that’s understandable for such an enormous book (and could be the issue with my copy), it’s also surprising given how long the book has been around and how popular it was. As someone that has published something only to see a mistake immediately after, I’m sure it’s frustrating and to King’s credit, his website does have a form in which you can report a typo or error, something most writers would never consider.
Beyond that, there are some minor yet important holes (unless I just missed them). For example, the Losers refer to It as Pennywise even though he never actually introduced himself in that way. He did with George, but it’s not like George could relay that information to anyone else. Similarly, there is no scene in which they decide to call themselves “the Losers” — they just say it one day.
Another problem is the humor. It’s not as funny as King thinks it is, especially considering the reactions the jokes get from other characters. How many times in your life have you laughed so hard you cried? A few? This happens upwards of a dozen times in this book, which mostly takes place over the course of one summer and another week or so years later. Multiple times, characters — both as kids and adults — laugh so hard that they cry. Tears either run down their cheeks or squirt from their eyes. I’m sure King would say that he was trying to illustrate the fine line between laughing and crying and even writes as much — “…hadn’t they, the seven of them, spent most of this, the longest, scariest summer of their lives, laughing like loons? You laugh because what’s fearful and unknown is also what’s funny, you laugh the way a small child will sometimes laugh and cry at the same time when a capering circus clown approaches…” — but it still (and this is weird to write about a book with a shape-shifting killer alien) came off as unrealistic and took me out of the story.
In that vein, King has a tendency to repeat certain phrases over and over and while that may be understandable over the course of more than eleven-hundred pages, it is still a bit annoying every time you read “his lips pulled back from his teeth” or “the cords of his neck stood out.” Similarly, the “beep-beep” gag was played out early on.
And then there are the real problems.
First, is the way in which many of the females are portrayed: “Gender in the novel is a problem, clearly. In interviews, King has expressed some regret over the way It demonizes women, and specifically mothers.” It’s important to remember that it is a novel that was published thirty years ago and while that doesn’t excuse it, it may help to explain it. There is misogyny present throughout, and at times it is rampant, but unlike some others, I didn’t feel like the characters’ realization that It was female terrified them because women are evil, but because that meant the entity could reproduce. Maybe I only read it that way because I’m a man.
The biggest issue, of course, is the sex scene. I’ve heard it referred to as an orgy, but, in reality, it’s actually a gang bang, one that ends with the lone girl not wanting to know whether the sticky stuff on her leg is blood or something else. It’s a weird scene, one that King has defended, saying:
“The sexual act connected childhood and adulthood. It’s another version of the glass tunnel that connects the children’s library and the adult library. Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues.”
He later added:
“…it’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders. That must mean something, but I’m not sure what.”
King is the author, so ultimately it’s his decision, of course, and I’m sure he had his reasons for including the scene, ones that in his mind were literary and representative. The problem, aside from the basic one of an 11-year-old losing her virginity by having sex with six other boys in a sewer, is that it doesn’t make much sense even within the story. It is incredibly gratuitous, coming out of nowhere, yet it somehow provides the power that allows the kids to find their way out. Eddie, their navigator, thinks much more clearly afterwards and immediately leads them to safety after being lost for hours. He just needed to get one off and then he could focus better? Yeah, this book was written by a dude.
Those are problems, but It has endured for so long for a reason: the rest of the work overcomes these weaknesses. The book really does offer a fully formed small town that is cursed but whose residents have, for the most part, made peace with that fact. It didn’t frighten me as much as I was expecting (hoping?), but that could have been due to my age or having been desensitized over the past thirty years; or perhaps it was because it took me nearly two months to read it, most of that in short clips in daylight hours because I can’t prioritize a book over family and career, no matter how much I wanted to. If I could have sat with it for only a few days with no distractions and really lost myself in the story, in the characters, in the town, I think it may have had an even greater impact.
It may not be a perfect book, but it is a damn fine one.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.