ABC’s 1990 It miniseries was the first adaption of Stephen King’s classic novel of the same name and has since become an enduring cult classic. The miniseries put a face to the horrific Pennywise the Clown and a setting to the cursed town of Derry, Maine. Despite airing on network television, It (1990) still managed to scare a generation and left us with a timeless performance by Tim Curry as Pennywise. Yet looking back on the miniseries and comparing it to the recent remake It (2017) and It Chapter Two, the miniseries has its charm but lacks the raw horror appeal that keeps it from becoming a great adaptation.
For the most part, It (1990) stays faithful to the book’s nonlinear storytelling. The first half of the miniseries is told entirely through flashbacks, allowing the adult versions to remember and reflect on their past as they embark on their return to Derry. The remakes have a linear storytelling structure, focusing the entirety of the first movie on the child versions of the Loser’s club as they grow closer amidst the danger of Pennywise the Clown.
Both styles have their pros and cons. I prefer the remake’s decision to follow a linear structure and splitting the story between their adolescence and their return to Derry 27 years later. Part of the appeal of seeing the adult versions of the Loser’s club is seeing how they have moved on and grown up and apart after the events of Derry. And after seeing It Chapter Two, this works for the most part, although certain pacing issues hinder the narrative as well. The miniseries removes this sense of intrigue by placing the reunion of the Loser’s Club front and center. These seven people are supposed to reunite and face their past, but we barely know them and have at this point, no emotional attachment to them. Adult Beverly’s abusive relationship with her husband loses some of its impact when shown before revealing her past abuse from her father. When she fights back from her husband, she is finally fighting back the years of abuse from her childhood, but this is not readily apparent to the viewer at this point in the film.
Pennywise and the Visual Effects
The most iconic part of It (1990) is, of course, Tim Curry’s enduring performance as Pennywise. Curry effortlessly transforms into the maniacal clown that terrorizes the children of Derry. Curry’s Pennywise is easily the best and most memorable performance of the miniseries. Pennywise is creepy, deadly, and most importantly scary. Although limited by the visual effects of the 90’s and network television guidelines, the miniseries still manages to make a Pennywise a creepy killer clown.
The makeup and Curry’s performance sell Pennywise as a harmless clown from a distance but when the shot cuts to an extreme close-up of Pennywise’s sharp jagged teeth, he becomes the frightening killer clown that has scarred and scared so many. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is immediately disconcerting, with its sinister smile and eerie eyes. While Curry’s Pennywise seems friendly and delightful from a distance until it gets closer and its true intentions are revealed. Curry’s appearance and betrayal of trust is the reason why I think so many were frightened by Pennywise and clowns as children, and the miniseries masterfully exploits this.
That being said, when compared to the remake, Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise is scarier and more horrific than the miniseries. The films’ have the advantage of an R rating and modern CGI and can concoct scares and visual effects that more accurately reflect the spine-chilling visuals of the novel.
In retrospect, the scares in the miniseries seem less frightening or threatening when compared to the remake. While this can mainly be attributed to content restrictions of network television and the visual effects technology of the 90s, let’s not forget that David Lynch’s seminal TV show Twin Peaks (1990-1991) aired the same year as the It miniseries, and on the same network. Twin Peaks managed to expertly blend horror and comedy and provided frightening scares that make the It miniseries seem tame in comparison.
In the 1990 miniseries, Georgie’s bloody photo album, which frightens the guilt-stricken Bill, is tame in comparison to the film’s scene of Bill confronting his guilt to a demonic Georgie in their flooded basement. The miniseries’ scariest moments seem lackluster in comparison to both the 2017 remake and other horror films and shows at the time, and time has not aged these scenes well. That being said, I commend the miniseries’ refrain from relying heavily on jump scares, something that the remake used far too frequently. A criticism of the film was that the Skarsgård’s Pennywise appeared excessively, while the miniseries spaced Curry’s Pennywise perfectly. Curry’s, Pennywise is omnipresent without being overly present.
Tim Curry’s Pennywise is undeniably the most memorable performance of the miniseries, but what about the other performances? The miniseries also boasts an impressive cast of John Ritter (Three’s Company), Jonathan Brandis (SeaQuest), Seth Green (Austin Powers), and Annette O’Toole (Smallville), and yet, only Ritter seems to be the standout. O’Toole’s performance plays off as melodramatic, Ritter and most of the adult cast just seems bored and unenthused.
Brandis, Green, and the rest of the child actors are better than the adult cast. They feel like a group of friends, like an actual Loser’s Club. As adults, even when they rekindle their friendships and remember the past, it lacks the chemistry that the child actors had.
That Chinese Restaurant Scene
I would like to point out that the camerawork in the Chinese restaurant scene is one of the worst and most dizzying shots I have ever seen in a film. The camera incessantly revolves around the group like a satellite lost in orbit. It refuses to focus on a particular person or the person talking, but rather continues to circle the group aimlessly. What makes matters worse is that the group is seated at a rectangular table when a circular table would have better suited this bizarre camera choice.
So, Does the It Miniseries Hold Up?
Despite the miniseries’ cult status and its inherent nostalgia, the remake offers a better overall adaptation of King’s novel. It, like most of King’s works, is meant to be R-rated with captivating and horrifying visuals. While both It (2017) and It Chapter Two are far from perfect films, I prefer the overall storytelling changes and improvements that these films have made over the miniseries and even the novel. Aside from Tim Curry’s performance, the It miniseries has unfortunately failed to withstand the test of time, especially when compared to the film remake.
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