Not Quite “IT”: The Difficulty in Adapting Stephen King to Film and What It Says About the Prolific Writer

Pennywise from the original IT film adaptation.

Photo: IT/Warner Bros

I was about thirteen years old when I first read Stephen King’s IT — more than 25 years ago now. At more than a thousand pages, spanning two separate time frames and incorporating massive amounts of historical information, background and flashbacks, IT was the very definition of a book that had to be read. It was, in a word, unfilmable.

Having just watched IT: Chapter Two, the second half of the novel’s film adaptation, I feel comfortable in saying I was right: IT is unfilmable.

Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with the two-part adaptation. The movies are well-written, well-paced, jump-out-of-your-skin scary in places, and they feature fantastic performances from their ensemble casts (though Bill Hader as a grown-up Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier, Sophia Lillis as the young Beverly Marsh and Bill Skarsgard as the terrifying Pennywise deserve special attention). They address some of the concerns readers have had about the novel’s ending, and the second removes that scene (you either know the one I’m referring to, or you’re better off not knowing). There are some fantastic set pieces (Bev’s visit to her old apartment, and the woman who now lives there, is a master class in suspense) and some wonderful notes (Richie’s collapse late in the film is breathtaking, and a credit to Hader). And that’s enough.

Both movies are terrific.

But they’re not quite IT.

It’s not a problem with the films, and it’s not even a problem with the book, though the issue lies squarely at the feet of King himself.

One of our most celebrated, popular and prolific authors, King is also one of the writers with the most adaptations for film and television. A quick glance at IMDB shows King’s name attached to more than 300 productions.

Many of them — this is no secret — are terrible.

When we think of King on film, we tend to default to the triumphant adaptations, not the regrettable misfires. We think of Carrie, rather than The Lawnmower Man. We think of Stand by Me (based on the novella The Body) instead of Thinner. We think of The Shawshank Redemption (based on the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption) and not the other major King-related release of 2017 (the same year the first half of IT came out). It’s hard to believe that you could actually make a film as bad as The Dark Tower by accident. Despite the presence of Idris Elba, The Dark Tower is catastrophically terrible.

But that’s one of the things we have to accept as Stephen King fans. Along with the fact that King sometimes — often — fails to stick his endings (which makes for a terrific running joke in IT: Chapter Two regarding the terrible endings of Bill Denbrough’s novels, a gag that pays off handsomely when King gets to play along at his own expense), we have to acknowledge that much of the time we’re going to be disappointed by adaptations of his work.

Watch the trailer for IT: Chapter 2

That this isn’t always the case simply underscores the central issue: for all their boogeymen, there’s a lot more happening under the surface than King is often given credit for. King is a better writer than many people — including filmmakers — realize, and one can see that most clearly on the screen: the screenwriter, director and actors might nail the surface events, the creepy comings-and-goings, but something is missing. It’s no accident that the most successful adaptations of King works are often based on novellas or shorter, more structurally limited novels. Misery, for example, is basically a chamber play exploring the depths of two characters trapped together in a small room. Sure, there’s some foot smashing and a whole lot of tension, but there’s also a lot of room for character development and intricacy. Similarly, Stand by Me works because it is a small, intimate story about friendship, mortality and loss.

Once you get into the longer novels, something has to be sacrificed to bring the books to the big screen, and more often than not it’s the nuance, the subtlety, the fine-crafting of characters, that is the first to go. As scary as it is, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of King’s least favoured adaptations of his work, lacking the significant development (and deterioration) of Jack Torrance’s character that made the book so compelling.

It’s no accident that among the most successful King adaptations in recent years was the eight episode television adaptation of 11.22.63, a time-travel horror story rooted around the Kennedy assassination. It wasn’t perfect, but eight hours allowed the filmmakers a lot of room to do justice to the source material.

Which brings me back to IT: Chapter Two. Sure, the second movie is almost three hours long, (after the more-than two hours of the first film), but it’s not enough. Yes, the movie hit the right notes, and I was rapt for its entire length, but by the end, I wasn’t enthusing about what I had seen so much as I was mentally tallying what I was missing. We lost, for example, Bill’s actress wife (who, in the novel, travels to Derry after him) and Bev’s abusive husband (who pursues her to Derry in the book), each of those characters reduced to cameos. This might not sound like a big deal, but it removes several different sources of conflict and tension, while at the same time reducing the emotional weight of the film overall. Similarly, no mention is made in the film of how successful each of the characters has become after leaving Derry: Richie a successful stand-up comedian, Bev a big-name designer, Ben a noted architect, Bill a bestselling author, etc. Their careers are given passing mention, but — and this is the part where people tend to get frustrated with me saying ‘but in the book…” — in the book, it is more-than-suggested that they owe their success, in part, to their conflict with IT; that they are, in some way, beneficiaries of IT’s violence. As the saying goes, ‘the devil is in the details.’ No one knows that better than Stephen King; the unfilmable quality of his books is a feature, not a bug.

And the book is still there, right on my shelf. I’ll continue to re-read IT every few years. Because, as King proves, time and again, no matter how good movies are, there are some things that only novels can achieve. And we’re all the better for that.