Coming-of-age horror with Stephen King's 'It'

11 Sep 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

5 mins
It (Group shot)
It (Group shot)

Arriving to scare a whole new generation of film goers is the latest adaptation of Stephen King's classic horror, It. With the unforgettable clown Pennywise at its centre, the story has already left its mark on countless readers and audience members, through millions of book sales and a 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry. Set in the fictional small town of Derry, Maine, the film (the first of two parts) tells the story of a community being terrorised over a long, hazy summer by a demented and immoral evil that has been picking off local residents one-by-one. With the adults seemingly under its curse and oblivious, it falls to a group of outcast children on their school holidays to try and stop the terrifying clown.

One of the biggest selling authors in history, Stephen King has been writing novels and short stories for over forty years. From very early on, he attracted the attention of Hollywood, beginning with Brian De Palma's shocking high-school horror Carrie. Since then, some of the most iconic films of modern times have had their origins in King's writing: from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (a film King actually disowned) to The Shawshank Redemption, MiseryStand By Me and countless more. With his seemingly unique insight into what frightens us, as well as his ability to tap into universal emotions and memories, generations have grown up surrounded by his stories and he has come to define a certain period in post-war American popular culture similar to the likes of Steven Spielberg.

For this film version of one of his best-known stories, the time period was changed from the 1950s to the decade perhaps most associated with King, the 1980s. The town of Derry will feel instantly familiar to fans of the likes of Back To The FutureET, TV's Stranger Things and King's own Stand By Me, complete with trips into the woods on BMX bikes and posters for Gremlins on childhood bedrooms. This feels appropriate, because as much as being a horror film, It is also very much a coming-of-age story.

The self-titled Losers Club are a group of children on the verge of adolescence who are being badly bullied at school and in the community. Rather than allowing themselves to become victims, they join forces and form their own gang. From a stutterer trying to come to terms with the death of his younger brother, an overweight new kid in town and a home-educated boy who feels outcast on account of his race, to a girl fighting off false accusations of sexual promiscuity, they are an eclectic group, but recognise a kindred spirit in one another. Many of them are also dealing with serious issues at home, ranging from neglect to implied abuse from a parent. 

Pennywise is not actually a clown at all. Rather It is an ancient trans-dimensional evil that visits the town every 27 years to prey on its young population, unnoticed by adults. The character appears as a clown, because, according to King, they are what scare children more than anything else in the world.

But when the group are together, they never feel like outsiders. Far from being clichés, the characters are bright, witty, adventurous, articulate and complex. Like Stand By Me, the film is able to capture a child's perspective on the world around them with great insight, but never in a way that patronises its young protagonists. The film has a wonderful ear for the dialogue of young people and the ways in which they converse with and tease one another. Of course, it also understands what it is that frightens children, be that lepers, or hypochondriac elders, or creepy portraits hung up in a parents office. And, of course, clowns.

Making the character consistently frightening on screen was a challenge. Many of the most effective horror films, such as Jaws, work in part because the audience rarely sees the evil that is threatening them. Consequently, the threat exists in their imagination and becomes ever more scary. With It, the character is very visible, wanting to be the centre of attention, often appearing in broad day-light on residential streets as the children play outside. But what makes him truly scary is his ability to enter the imagination as well: there is no escaping Pennywise; he could be anywhere and show up in any form.

As the film develops, the Losers Club become ever stronger and more mature. Realising that the clown feeds on fear and feasts on the flesh, and as they grow up over the summer, they learn not to be frightened any more. This is the only thing that can stop Pennywise, and the group - the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable individuals in town - work together to become stronger than anyone can imagine and put the clown back in its box. For now

Scary movies are a part of most people's lives as they grow up, and one of the most intense collective audience experiences film can provide, both in cinemas and on the small screen in each other's houses, surreptitiously watching a film away from the prying eyes of the adult world. With an understanding of that universal experience, and authentic portrayal of a group of pre-teenagers, It effectively blends the horror and coming-of-age genres, and the Stephen King of The Shining with that of Stand By Me. One of the defining stories of modern popular culture, King's tale has an understanding of what it is that frightens young people and how they view the world. But it is also a story of bravery and loyalty, and learning that if you stop being afraid, the clown (or the bully) cant really hurt you.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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