Stephen King is one of the most famous living authors today, and whose bibliography feels like it’s never not being adapted by a streamer or film company. Throughout the decades, those many adaptations have run the gamut of being good, with some caveats, or bad despite the glimpses of potential you can see in the finished product. In the higher tier of King adaptations sits the 2017 adaptation of his 1986 horror novel, It.
It—or It Chapter One, as it would come to be called—released on September 8, 2017. Helmed by Mama (and eventually The Flash) director Andy Muschietti, the film had been in development hell for nearly a full decade beforehand, with one of the previous attempted directors being Cary Joji Fukunaga. (Fukunaga also wrote his version of the film with Chase Palmer, which was later rewritten by Annabelle director Gary Dauberman.) Initially, It would’ve had an even balance between the kid and adult versions of its main cast, dubbed the Losers Club, but it was eventually decided to split the book in two and have the first film focus on the kid portion of the novel.
Previously, It the novel was brought to life by WB via a two-night ABC miniseries in 1990 from director Tommy Lee Wallace starring Annette O’Toole, Dennis Christopher, and Tims Reid and Curry. Despite airing around the same time as the broadcasts of then-president George H. W. Bush’s foreign trips, the miniseries was ABC’s biggest ratings success of 1990, and won an Emmy for music composition. Over the years, the miniseries has been fondly remembered...or rather, Tim Curry’s memorable portrayal of the book’s demonic clown Pennywise was so good that it served as an asterisk for a miniseries that may otherwise have not been terribly good without it.
That wasn’t the case with It Chapter One. With a cast of mostly unknown actors like Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard and Chosen Jacobs as the kids, plus Bill Skarsgård (of the very prolific acting family) as Pennywise, the film was a critical and commercial success. At a $701.8 million global box office, it became the third highest-grossing rated R film ever, and is one of the highest-grossing films in the horror genre. While the film received acclaim across the board, particular praise was heaped onto Skarsgård’s version of Pennywise, who became an internet sensation for the rest of 2017. Folks went nuts for Pennywise’s still pretty creepy smile and dogged determination to chow down on those kids that a prequel show was reportedly in the works for HBO Max earlier this year. Coin toss on whether or not it actually comes into existence, but the billion dollar success of both the original film and its 2019 sequel show how much of a revelation that It was.
With the way that It was breaking box office records and so high with audiences and critics, ourselves included, the film was basically the second coming of bringing King’s works to life. His books are popular, but his adaptations have arguably held their own niche pockets, while It hit it big with general audiences. There’s a long list of his books or short stories being adapted, and there likely won’t be a year in the 2020s where one of those adaptations won’t be released—he’s had two adaptations each for this year and 2021, and has two set to release in 2023.
That said, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Maine Man. As Polygon recently wrote about, complications come with taking King’s work off the page and onto the screen, something that’s just always going to be a part of whatever’s being adapted. 2019's Pet Sematary remake film was a mixed bag, and not an It-sized success that Warner Bros. likely wanted, making only $113.1 million at the box office. Meanwhile, shows based on books such as The Outsider or The Stand were either miniseries or killed after a a season or two. Even It had something of a rough period: while still a box office success, It Chapter Two was considered the weaker of the duology and not being quite as scary as the first installment.
All that aside, and taking its status as yet another King thing into account, the original It film deserves its crown as one of the stronger King adaptations and the catalyst for turning the eye onto its assorted cast. Both It films and the 1990 miniseries are on HBO Max if you want to watch them. Just make sure not to do it while any clowns are nearby.
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