The movie adaptation of Stephen King‘s “IT” (the one with Tim Curry; haven’t seen Bill in action yet) scared me breathless. Yet when I got my dirty little fingers on the novel, much to my surprise I was bored to tears!
How on Earth did that happen?
Of course, movies and books speak with their audience in very different ways. While movies have the advantage of the “1 picture = 1000 words” equation, they lack time and opportunity for extensive characters and background development. And while books have ample opportunity to explore the concepts at the foundation of the plot, anything that isn’t described or at least hinted at, does not exist to the reader.
As such, the first scene the movie adaptation is a classic: the little boy playing in the gutter with his toy boat. The toy boat disappears down the drain and when the boy wants to look for it, there is a clown in the drain. A clown with a white face, red nose, red hair and sharp teeth. It’s called Pennywise, it says, just before it lures the boy closer and kills it.
They took this scene directly from the novel. A good start for both versions!
But from there, the paths diverge. The story of the ‘Loser’s Club’ remains more or less the same, but where the movie – by necessity – stays on this plot, the novel digresses. By miles.
Typically, horror stories have a slow build. They use plenty of exposition about the assorted creepy stuff before climbing a quick crescendo to an explosive. This kind of suspense requires careful pacing on the part of the writer: how much exposition is too much?
Quite early on, King treats us to extensive backstory, not all of which proves important to the plot. Such tangents were well-known feature in 19th century literature, but have been frowned upon since. Still, this is the King of Horror, literally, so he has more artistic leeway than we’d be willing to grant most authors.
Trilogy of Narratives
For me, however, this is where “IT” spirals out of control. A major part of the book is made up by the ‘trilogy of narratives’: Pennywise assaults in a recurring pattern, showing up every so often to claim its victims. King enthuses about this by recounting several of these events throughout time, and giving each of these sub-settings their own plots and subplots, like encapsulated short stories within the overall story.
This kind of story structure is an interesting concept in and of itself (one I have used, too), but a lot of its charm is lost when each sub-story is identical to the other: town is peaceful; along comes Pennywise; unsuspecting people becomes its victim one way or another; everyone is scared, until Pennywise goes again and people stop dying.
Every story confirms what the reader understands quite early on, namely that ‘it’ is terrifying. However, after several of such confirmations, none of them related to the main protagonists, the message dulls. “Yes, yes, ‘it’ is a scary monster. Get we get on with the story now?”
Not a question I want to be asking myself when reading a suspenseful horror story.
Too much of anything dulls the senses, even when that ‘anything’ is toe-curling horror. That’s how we manage to watch the most inhumane images on the 24/7 news channels and shrug.
Still, even the best of stories can fall into the trap of overexposing the audience to its chief ingredient. Like with the news feeds, at best it results in an audience that no longer cares. At worst, overexposure alienates the audience to the point of repulsion. (The Passion of the Christ, anyone?)
Luckily for people like me, “IT” comes in an abridged version, too.