Once upon a time, long before streaming platforms and specialty channels, network television movies were kind of a big deal. Yes, made-for-television movies and two-part special event movies that premiered on a Sunday or Monday night meant something in the day. And in those days, there was a clear distinction between a television movie and a theatrically-released movie. Not surprisingly, Stephen King adaptations were just as popular on the small screen as the big screen. From Salem’s Lot to Sometimes They Come Back to The Stand, King’s work made for big-time television ratings. When Stephen King’s IT premiered on television in 1990, horror fans raved about Tim Curry’s Pennywise the Clown. Twenty-seven years later, IT got a big-screen re-imaging that made big box office dollars.
In the small town of Derry, a group of young outsiders discover that an ancient evil has preyed on children for decades. The entity takes the shape of your greatest fears. When they realize that the town’s adult can’t help, The Loser’s Club resolve to putting an end to the evil once and for all.
It (1990) An Achievement for 90s Made-for-Television Movies, If Nothing Else
At the time of its release, the 1990 two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s IT was something of a big deal. One one hand, Kind was arguably at both his creative peak and the height of his literary output. Throw in the fact that Stephen King’s IT was one of the author’s more epic novels and the ABC movie event inevitably translated into big ratings for the network. And for a made-for-television movie, the 1990 IT stands out as one of the better TV King adaptations. Though it never approaches the same level of overall creepiness as Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, writer and director Tommy Lee Wallace (Amityville II: The Possession) finds plenty of PG-friendly scares. Most notably, Wallace does justice to that pivotal opening scene from King’s novel. Furthermore, the 1990 version of IT feels creepy and confident when it’s dealing with the younger cast and childhood nightmares.
However, the biggest problem emerging from the 1990 Stephen King’s IT comes from casting issues.
Not surprisingly, budgetary constraints and scope somewhat limit this made-for-television adaptation. Simply put, Wallace had to work with the budget – which was big for a television movie at the time – to which he was allotted. For a movie with the ideas interwoven in its story, IT can’t occasionally help but feel small. However, the biggest problem emerging from the 1990 Stephen King’s IT comes from casting issues. Yes, Tim Curry gives horror fans a definitive take on Pennywise the Clown. And all of the child actors – particularly Seth Green as Richie Tozier – are perfectly cast. Unfortunately, in 1990, television actors and movie stars were two different things. As a result, the adult cast feels wholly miscast. Richard Thomas, Annette O’Toole, John Ritter, Harry Anderson, and Tim Reid – all good actors – are just completely wrong for their parts.
It (2017) the Rare Case of a Horror Remake That Feels Justified
If ever there was a movie deserving of a remake, Stephen King’s IT stands out chief among the options. In fact, King’s novel almost demands the kind of budget that gets handed to big theatrical releases. And in almost every way, Andy Muschietti’s (Mama) 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT improves on the 1990 made-for-television movie. On one hand, the big screen version clearly benefits from a budget that allows Muschietti to craft big scares. The scene set in a garage where ‘The Loser’s Club’ meets Pennywise the Clown while looking at old photographs contains one of horror better jump scares. Like the 1990 adaptation, the 2017 Stephen King’s IT wisely avoids the novel’s finale. But there’s not denying that the 2017 version is more consistently scary.
And in almost every way, Andy Muschietti’s (Mama) 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT improves on the 1990 made-for-television movie.
Where the modern update diverge significantly from its predecessor, is its casting choices. And yes, the adult casting for Stephen King’s IT largely diverges in IT Chapter Two as New Line Cinema and Muschietti wisely separated the childhood and adult timelines into two separate movies. Similar issues emerge in both version. Neither Wallace nor Muschietti figured out how how to make the adult timeline as compelling as the idea of children confronting an unthinkable evil. Nevertheless, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, and James Ransone are all upgrades over the 1990 cast. While no one will dispute Tim Curry’s masterful take on Pennywise the Clown, Bill Skarsgård makes for a strong replacement in the role
Stephen King’s IT Benefits From the Kind of Budget a Theatrical Release Gets
In some regards, it’s unfair to compare the 1990 television mini-series to the 2017 feature-length movie. Though it’s hard to understand now, in 1990, a television movie was a very different thing from movies that earned a theatrical release. Budgetary constraints and content restrictions clearly loom over the ABC two-part movie event. And there was a big difference between television stars and movie stars back in the day. But the 1990 IT can lay claim to Tim Curry’s stellar turn as Pennywise the Clown. And there’s a nostalgic value to the television movie for horror fans of a certain age. Nevertheless, the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT clearly stands out as the better version.