It the mini-series was a directorial outing for Tommy Lee Wallace, a John Carpenter associate who had moved from working as production designer on Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980) to making his directorial debut with Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). He went onto direct Fright Night Part 2 (1989) and another sequel for Carpenter with Vampires: Los Muertos (2002), as well as the upcoming Helleversity (2016). Wallace also wrote the screenplay for Amityville II: The Possession (1982) and produced The Fields (2011).
It (1986) hails in as Stephen Kings second longest novel 1138 pages, just fifteen pages shorter than The Stand (1977). I have no information about what Kings source of inspiration for the book was and can only speculate. The most obvious of these would seem to be in tapping his own youth growing up in the late 1950s and bringing together some of the experiences as a kid. He also pays homage to the monsters from the films he enjoyed back then although Its other form are greatly minimised in the tv version, they can be seen briefly, including appearances of the werewolf from I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), the mummy and (not seen here) the Frankenstein monster. Rob Reiner has just had an enormous hit with Stand By Me (1986) adapted from a King novella its improbable that King could have composed and published a 1138 page book in the two months following the films release, nevertheless there is the sense of It almost acting as a dark version of Stand By Me. Both works tap the Great American Coming of Age story and emphasise the nature of childhood camaraderie.
It also essentially created the image of the Killer Clown, which has become a staple trope of the horror genre since, particularly at Halloween haunted houses. There were some precedents to this such as (arguably) The Joker of Batman comics and in particular the excellent slasher film Clownhouse (1989), however the Killer Clown was popularised here. The one thing that almost certain to have inspired King was the then-recent arrest of Illinois serial killer John Wayne Gacy in 1978. One of the more ghoulish aspects of the Gacy story that came out is how he liked to dress up in a clown suit for childrens parties not to mention painted dozens of quite sinister pictures of clowns while he was in jail. In the mini-series, Tim Curry provides Pennywise with his own life in ways that King never intended. His performance gives the figure a sinister and demoniacal nature that quite unsettles.
The script is co-written by Lawrence D. Cohen who also wrote the very first King film adaptation Carrie (1976) and the subsequent The Tommyknockers. The book has been trimmed to the screen. What we end up with on screen is generally faithful to the book, its just that both major and minor characters get much more in the way of backstory on the written page, while incidents and the appearance of It happen in a great deal more detail. (What is wisely omitted is the scene where Beverly gangbangs the entire group down in the sewers). The mini-series certainly inherits much of the greater nuance of the characters and subtle interplay between reality and illusion. It is these things that make It work far better than some of the later disastrously tone-deaf King mini-series such as The Tommyknockers, The Stand and Bag of Bones.
One of the best handled aspects of the mini-series is the constant vying between illusory terrors and reality. This kind of game playing has become tedious in horror films but I have rarely seen it handled in a more unsettling and effective way than it is by Tommy Lee Wallace here. This is where the mini-series gets all of its best shocks from of books, an entire hand basin in Emily Perkins bathroom burbling with blood that the children can see but the adults dont, or the scene where Harry Anderson sits in the library having to deal with balloons of exploding blood and Tim Currys maniacal clown-suited antics amid the unnoticing adults all around him. Some of the best and creepiest scenes are the ones where Pennywise starts to invade the reality of the adults as they return to town the Chinese restaurant scene where they are having to deal with fortune cookies that metamorphose into bugs, develop eyes or start spouting blood; where Annette OToole comes to John Ritters room and starts kissing him only for him to see that she is wearing clown makeup in the mirror; or where OToole goes to her former home and is invited in by the old lady who now lives there and makes her a cup of tea and then starts talking in Tm Currys voice as she is bent over picking up pieces of a broken cup from the floor. The climactic payoff is let down by the weak stop-motion animated creature that represents the natural form of It, otherwise the show remains uncommonly effective.
The film has an amazing cast line-up including John Ritter, then best known for comedy roles in tv series like Threes Company (1976-84) and Hooperman (1987-9), in a straight dramatic role; Richard Thomas who always be remembered as John-Boy in The Waltons (1971-9) as another of Kings writer heroes where it must be said that Thomas does not suit the whole ponytail look at all. Harry Anderson was a stage magician who gained some fame as the lead in the sitcom Night Court (1984-92), although his name has faded since. The same can be said for Dennis Christopher who was seen as a promising name back in the 1970s on the basis of Breaking Away (1979) but has since slipped into a series of supporting parts where he always plays highly introverted characters. As the children we have Jonathan Brandis, caught between The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990) and seaQuest DSV (1993-6); a young and unknown Seth Green; and a young unknown Emily Perkins, the Canadian actress best known for the Ginger Snaps films. The childhood sections are cast with an uncommonly good ensemble, including standout work from the very likeable Brandon Crane and a hyperactive Seth Green. You can also spot William B. Davis, the Cigarette Smoking Man from The X Files (1993-2002, 2016 ), in a small role as a school teacher.
The idea of a theatrical remake of It has been floated in the 2010s under Cory Fukunaga, best known for the first season of tvs True Detective (2014 ). Fukunaga wanted to mount It was a two-part film the first part taking place in the 1980s, the second in the present. However, Fukunaga departed over differences with the studio concerning budget and their wanting to push the film towards being a more standard horror film. The film finally went ahead as a single film It (2017) under director Andres Muschietti with Bill Skarsgaard as Pennywise. An appealing fan rumour that circulated the internet was that the adults in this version would be played by the grown-up kid actors from the mini-series here, although one should point out that this is merely fanciful fan thinking that had no basis in casting actuality.
Other Stephen King genre adaptations include:- Carrie (1976), Salems Lot (1979), The Shining (1980), Christine (1983), Cujo (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), Children of the Corn (1984), Firestarter (1984), Cats Eye (1985), Silver Bullet (1985), The Running Man (1987), Pet Semetary (1989), Graveyard Shift (1990), Misery (1990), a segment of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), Sometimes They Come Back (1991), The Lawnmower Man (1992), The Dark Half (1993), Needful Things (1993), The Tommyknockers (tv mini-series, 1993), The Stand (tv mini-series, 1994), The Langoliers (tv mini-series, 1995), The Mangler (1995), Thinner (1996), The Night Flier (1997), Quicksilver Highway (1997), The Shining (tv mini-series, 1997), Trucks (1997), Apt Pupil (1998), The Green Mile (1999), The Dead Zone (tv series, 2001-2), Hearts in Atlantis (2001), Carrie (tv mini-series, 2002), Dreamcatcher (2003), Riding the Bullet (2004), Salems Lot (tv mini-series, 2004), Secret Window (2004), Desperation (tv mini-series, 2006), Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (tv mini-series, 2006), 1408 (2007), The Mist (2007), Children of the Corn (2009), Everythings Eventual (2009), the tv series Haven (2010-5), Bag of Bones (tv mini-series, 2011), Carrie (2013), Under the Dome (tv series, 2013-5), Big Driver (2014), A Good Marriage (2014), Mercy (2014), Cell (2016), 11.22.63 (tv mini-series, 2016), The Dark Tower (2017), Geralds Game (2017), It (2017), The Mist (tv series, 2017), Mr. Mercedes (tv series, 2017 ) and 1922 (2017). Stephen King had also written a number of original screen works with Creepshow (1982), Golden Years (tv mini-series, 1991), Sleepwalkers (1992), Storm of the Century (tv mini-series, 1999), Rose Red (tv mini-series, 2002) and the tv series Kingdom Hospital (2004), as well as adapted his own works with the screenplays for Cats Eye, Silver Bullet, Pet Semetary, The Stand, The Shining, Desperation, Children of the Corn 2009, A Good Marriage and Cell. King also directed one film with Maximum Overdrive (1986).