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And a Little Child Shall Lead Them: Childhood Motifs in Stephen King’s It

I was sitting in a golf cart with Frank Darabont one day during the filming of The Green Mile, talking Stephen King with him while waiting for a shot to be set up. 

“What’s your favorite King novel?” he asked me. With no hesitation, I replied “This one,” meaning The Green Mile. I wasn’t being sycophantic; I’ve read the novel more times than any of King’s other books, and listened to the audio version even more times. Nothing else in King’s oeuvre comes close.

“Next in line,” I continued, “I’d probably have to say It.”

Darabont gave me a look.

“Really?” he asked.

I nodded, and then explained why I felt that way. That answer forms the bulk of this essay, although fleshed out more than I did that day on the Warner Hollywood Studio’s lot. To put it succinctly, the answer is — kid stuff.

King’s novel spins a story about a monstrous creature which has existed in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, since It landed in the Earth’s primordial past, and which lives on fear, which It generates by taking on the form of the things Its victims fear the most. It then takes the victims to Its subterranean lair, where they are stored and later eaten.

In order for the novel to succeed, King has to create an air of verisimilitude, to persuade his readers to willfully suspend their disbelief and accept the story as real, at least for the time it takes to read the book — a sizable investment in the case of this 1,192-page work. One of the primary ways King achieves this goal is to create characters that the readers like, that they care about, and one of the ways he does that is to place those characters in situations that are familiar to them, that resonate off things that are familiar to them, part of the common experience that is familiar to them. And he succeeds at this to great effect in It, primarily through the experiences of the children who are the main characters of the story, both as children and adults.

King also tells two stories at essentially the same time, following the adult members of the Losers Club as they begin coming back together to keep — with one exception — a promise they had made almost three decades earlier. At the same time, he tells the story of the Losers and how they came together, one summer in their childhood, largely due to their encounters with It

But it is what they do in between their encounters with the monster in the sewers that makes this book one of my favorites. Because it is what they do when they are just being kids that draws the reader in, that creates a sense of familiarity and having something in common with these characters, that gives us a familiar hammock to fall back into and enjoy the tale of wonder and horror that King unfolds. 

I can best illustrate what King does in the novel by explaining how it resonated with me. I grew up in Franklin, New Hampshire, a small city of about 5,000, best known as the birthplace of Daniel Webster, who went on to become a Congressman who at various times represented both New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and was considered the greatest orator of the pre-Civil War era, although he is largely unknown today outside of historical circles. When I was there, in the 1950’s and ’60’s, Franklin was a typical New England mill town, largely supported by a large textile mill  and other factories which made hosiery, needles and saw blades. These plants had grown up on the shores of the Winnepesaukee River, which flowed through the downtown area and provided power to run the machinery in the plants before merging with the Pemigewasset River just below the high school to form the mighty Merrimack River, which was in the 19th Century the most industrialized river in the world. 

Stephen King is five years older than me. Thus, the New England in which we both grew up was essentially the same. Both Maine and New Hampshire were — and are — states full of small mill towns, surrounded by sprawling evergreen forests. Poverty is widespread, and the people were — and are — hardy and hard-working for the most part. For entertainment, there was AM radio and black-and-white television from dimly-seen stations in Boston and WMTW, whose antenna was perched atop Mount Washington and got out farther than most. Aside from a smattering of local stations whose signals didn’t get out too far due to the hilly terrain, there wasn’t much else beyond the second-run movies that came to town. 

In those days, when school let out for the summer, parents would basically thrown open their doors and say “See you in September!” Kids would play outdoors largely unsupervised, from morning until it became too dark to see, with breaks for meals. And sometimes there were more games under streetlights until parents began calling them in at bedtime. 

As I have said on many occasions in similar essays, if you want to know what my childhood was like, read It. We ran around town, often to places where weren’t supposed to be — places like the Boston & Maine railroad trestle over the Winnepesaukee, which we would cross  (if we dared) to head on up the tracks to look for adventures only kids can enjoy, much like the four boys in King’s novella “The Body”, which was the basis for the classic Rob Reiner film Stand By Me

We also made occasional trips to the town dump, poking around in the old cars and trailers and other detritus for things we could make some use of, also avoiding the watchman, who had no idea what a treasure-trove he was guarding, but thought only of one of us cutting himself on a rusty piece of metal and needing to have a tetanus shot, or worse. He didn’t have a junkyard dog, like Chopper in “The Body”, but when I read the story, I knew what it was like to sneak into a dump, again because I had done it myself, which made it easier to feel for the boys in the novella. 

I remember one time when three or four of us found a small stream which followed into the Winny, as we called the river, and spent most of a day damming it up, much like some of the Losers did in It. We used two boards to make a framework, then filled it with rocks, gravel and dirt, in order to make it as sturdy as possible.This is a significant technique, because when I read about it in the novel, I knew exactly what it felt like, sounded like, smelled like, because I had done it, and the actions of the boys in the story resonated with my own experience to create an instant and subliminal connection between myself as reader and the Losers as characters which made me side with them in the adventures which followed. 

There had been a paper mill farther up the river, which had burned down around the turn of the 20th Century, and the ruins of the buildings had been largely overgrown by weeds and wild grasses and vines, all of which combined to make them a perfect place for boys to explore and play in. Sure they’re not safe, not structurally sound, and parents would have a stroke if they knew their kids were playing in them, but all that really means is that boys are drawn to them like iron filings to a magnet. 

This is similar to the ruins of the Iron Works in Derry in the novel, where Mike Hanlon encounters It in the form of a gigantic, Rodan-like bird. 

We were largely left to our own devices back then, and the games we played were ones we made up on the spot. A favorite game of ours was “guns” — that was the name of it; not army, not cowboys, but “guns”. It accommodated any kind of cap pistol or pop-gun rifle we had, whether it was Western, or military, it didn’t matter. We’d hide in the trees or among the ruins of the old mill, waiting for a victim to come by and firing away, with accompanying sound effects. If we had caps, there was a sharp popping sound, with a puff of smoke and the smell of powder; if not, the sounds were vocalized. 

We also played in a wooded area with streams running through it, dotted with large, cone-shaped wells that led down to the sewers that carried waste from the houses atop the hill to the east of where we played, before it was ultimately dumped into the waters of the Merrimack. I’m not sure what those wells were actually for, but they reminded me of nothing so much as the wells leading to the lair of the Morlocks in the 1959 version of The Time Machine, directed by the great George Pal. And decades later, when King described the wells which dotted the Barrens in Derry, I knew exactly what they looked like.

A short distance away from these wells, up a small hill, we had an underground hideout, its roof made of logs covered with leaves to make it invisible from above, much like the one King would create in his novel for the Losers’ clubhouse, which also figures prominently in It: Chapter Two. In fact, the one in the film looks uncannily like the place we built.

We said things like “Jeezum Crow!”, an expression that is pretty much unique to New England (along with “Cool as a Moose”). We  drank vanilla Cokes at the soda fountain at the corner drug store, where we’d go to pick up prescriptions, much as Eddie Kaspbrak does in the novel. Sometimes, we’d drink Moxie (which figures more in 11/22/63 than it does in It, but they all go to show how King uses childhood cultural motifs to give his characters a shared experience that bonds the reader to them.)

Some of the experiences King uses to strike a familiar chord with his readers are not so pleasant. The most prominent is bullying. Several characters are bullied in one way or another, and that is an experience all too many readers can relate to. Most of the Losers are bullied in one way or another, primarily by Henry Bowers and his gang, particularly Ben Hanscom, who is picked on because he is overweight, and Bill Denbrough, because of his stutter. 

I had my own nemesis when I was younger, a kid named Randy. He never tried to carve his name in my stomach with a switchblade, but he would punch me in the face or kick me with his pointy-toed cowboy boots. I never fought back, and he got tired and went away fairly quickly. A quick funny aside: one evening, Randy was wailing on me on Central Street, Franklin’s main drag, and the principal of our school drove by and saw us. The next day, he called us both in and blessed us out, Randy for bullying me, and me for not fighting him. I may be the only person in the history of public education to get hauled into the principal’s office for not fighting!

I put up with Randy’s abuse until sixth grade, when his family and he finally moved away. I’m not sure who was happier, me or the teachers.

There were kid gangs at the school I attended — remember, despite their violent behavior, Bowers and his gang are still kids, roughly the same age as the Losers — but for some reason, they never bothered me. As a result, I never experienced anything like the Apocalyptic Rockfight, one of the highlights of the novel. We never got in rockfights — you could get really hurt that way. I did, however, take part in an Apocalyptic Snowball Fight that spread across the campus of Syracuse University in 1971, ultimately involving hundreds of people, so when I read about the rockfight in King’s novel years later, I had some idea of what that was like.

Everyone knows someone, whether a classmate or a friend, or both, who was poor, overweight, black, Jewish, gawky, nerdy, sickly, who was a girl with a bad reputation or kids who just plain didn’t fit in.

During the aforementioned snowball fight, a man got out of his car, infuriated that his car had been hit by a snowball, and he was looking for someone to beat up over it (this was before we called it “road rage”). All of a sudden, the mood turned deadly serious. If this guy got his hands on anyone, someone was going to get hurt. So we all started making snowballs and throwing them at him as hard and fast as we could. Riddled by dozens of snowballs, the man finally retreated back to his car and drove away, and we all resumed pelting each other in good fun. 

This is why King’s technique works as well as it does. Even if you’ve never been in a life-or-death rockfight with someone, there’s some example you can draw on. In my case, it was the Apocalyptic Snowball Fight, which truly became dangerous for a few seconds. And when the reader finds that incident from their own experience, or even that of someone they know, the incident in the book resonates, and makes them feel a kinship with the characters. 

Beverly Marsh, one of my favorite of all King’s characters, is a particularly abused character. As a girl from the bad side of the tracks, she is harassed by Bowers and his gang, and is constantly the object of creepily prurient attention from her father. And when she grows up, she enters into an abusive relationship from which, oddly enough, the quest for It ultimately rescues her.

There is, it seems, one girl in every small town who ends up pregnant by a relative, be it father, brother, uncle, etc. — we had at least one in Franklin. And is there anyone who doesn’t suffer from abuse at the hands of a paramour, be it male or female, or know someone who does? These are both situations which are, unfortunately all too prevalent in our society, and are thus all too easy to identify with. They may be part of the reason Beverly is such a strong character.

Even the members of the Losers Club can resonate with readers to some degree. Everyone knows someone, whether a classmate or a friend, or both, who was poor, overweight, black, Jewish, gawky, nerdy, sickly, who was a girl with a bad reputation or kids who just plain didn’t fit in. There’s always the wiseguy, ready with a sardonic one-liner, and who really wasn’t as funny as he thought he was. And reading about characters who fall into these categories, so familiar to most if not all readers makes it that much easier to be drawn to them. And when bad things happen to these kids, the reader feels like he or she already knows them, and it’s that much easier for the reader to get in it for the long haul, to find out how the story turns out, for better or worse. 

In the novel, King switches back and forth between the two timelines, staying with the Losers in the ’50’s for awhile, then switching to the present and the adult Losers. The intervals between the two get shorter and shorter, until the climax, when both confrontations with It in its lair are told at essentially the same time. 

This is a storytelling technique which works fine in print, but would be horribly confusing in a visual medium. For this reason, the story is told much differently in the 1990 television and 2017 film adaptations of the novel. However, King’s technique remains surprisingly present in both, and is a great contributor to the success of  both adaptations.

The 1990 television adaptation separates two timelines, taking the story in chronological order, starting with the Losers as children and finishing with them as adults. While this works well for a visual media adaptation, and is in fact the best way to go, it has the unfortunate consequence of placing all of the “kid stuff” in the first two hours of the miniseries, with all of the adult section in the last half. This results in the first half being more engaging than the second half, as most if not all of the material with which viewers, like readers, can identify, is at the beginning. 

In its place, however, there is an interesting parallelism between the childhood and adult portions of the miniseries. In both, we are individually introduced to the Losers, they come together, discuss the problem of It, then descend into the sewers to confront the creature and destroy it (the first time temporarily; the second time, well, readers of King’s subsequent work are left to wonder, while the miniseries has a more definite conclusion). 

Which is not to say that the 1990 version is not good. Indeed, Tim Curry’s Pennywise hits just the right combination of humor and menace, resulting in a performance that has become iconic over the years. The rest of the casting is excellent, too, especially the choice of Annette O’Toole to play the adult Beverly Marsh, at least from my standpoint (I tend to “cast” novels in my head, and O’Toole was Beverly in my mind-movie when I read the novel). 

Henry Bowers and his gang are played by young kids, not the typical movie teen gang of twenty-somethings playing teenagers, and this works well.

Vancouver, British Columbia fills in well as Derry, since it has the requisite steep hills and wooded areas the story requires, although the downtown area might be a little too urban.

As for the story, King’s technique still works, so far as introducing us to the Losers and hitting all the marks to make the characters come to life for viewers, and drawing them in much the same as readers are with the novel. Hopefully, getting to know the kids over the first two hours of the series gets viewers sufficiently invested that they will hang around for the second half to see how it all turns out. Given the miniseries’ legendary status, it seems most of them did.

This problem may be addressed in the 21st-Century remake, which is was done as two feature films. As with the miniseries, the first film would deal with the adventures of the young Losers, and the second film with both the young Losers and their adult counterparts. By bringing the young Losers into the second film, director Andy Muschietti avoids some of the complaints about the miniseries. The young Losers have almost equal time with their adult counterparts in the film, and the parallels between the two generations makes the adults a bit more interesting.

While a number of changes were made between the novel and the 2017 film, the basic story remains essentially the same — bullies are still bullies, victims are victims, high schools are still full of winners and losers, popular kids and everyone else. What really changes are hair and clothing styles and films on the theater marquee.

[T]he theme of strength in unity becomes more and more important as the second film reaches its conclusion. The more the Losers join their forces, the more they concentrate on acting as a unit, the more able they are to defeat It.

The film used locations in Port Hope, Ontario, about an hour east of Toronto, to stand in for Derry, which is itself a combination of Bangor, Maine  and Stamford, Connecticut (mostly Bangor). Port Hope is completely convincing as a mid-sized New England city, aided in no small part by the inclusion of such Bangor references as the Paul Bunyan statue and the Thomas Hill Standpipe, a Bangor landmark which figures prominently in the novel’s climax, but, sadly, appears in a single scene in the first film, and does not appear at all in the second.  Having grown up in a small New England city, I can tell you that the look and feel of a small New England city is perfectly recreated.

The first film focuses, as did the first part of the miniseries, on the Losers Club and their ostracism from Derry society, or rather Derry school society.  

Muschietti has assembled a fantastic cast of young actors to portray the Losers, and all of them do a spectacular job. In the new version, the Losers come together in much the same way as in the novel and television versions, but at a more accelerated pace. The characters are introduced with sufficient attention paid to their backstories to allow the audience to root for them, and then they are brought together in the Barrens as Ben flees from Bowers and his gang. 

Things are compressed more in the film. Instead of entering Its realm through the sewers, in the film the Losers go through a well in the cellar of the house on Niebolt Street, an abandoned house which, although it figured prominently in the novel, did not serve as an entrance to Its domain. This serves to get them to where they are going more quickly, without sacrificing the classic moments from the novel or the earlier adaptation. This allows the “kid stuff” to work its magic with viewers.

The film places more emphasis on the power the Losers have when they work together. This element is present in the novel, and in the miniseries, but is highlighted more in the film. And in the second film, it is highlighted even more. It is only when the Losers come together that they are able to piece together what they have seen and begin to get a picture of the cycle of child death that has plagued Derry since its creation. They also intuit the way the adults in the town turn a blind eye to the situation, and realize that anything that gets done about It will have to be done by them.

At one point, It drives a wedge through the group, causing them to separate, and during this time is able to fight them off. It takes Beverly and descends with her to Its lair. In their attempt to rescue her, they become separated once more and fall prey to It again. 

Bill is led astray by an image of his dead brother, Georgie. Mike is attacked and injured by Bowers, who has tracked him down after murdering his father with a knife. Stan is attacked by It, whose huge, tooth-bedizened mouth battens on him and threatens to eat him. 

It is important to note that this is not Its true form — only Beverly sees the creature as it really is, sees what King called Its “deadlights” (also mentioned in the miniseries but not named until the second film.). The audience doesn’t see Its true form until the climactic moments of the second film.  

It is only when the Losers reunite, awaken Beverly, and once more join together, that they are able to overwhelm the creature, to send it crashing down the well, hopefully to its death. (Those who have read the novel or seen the miniseries know, of course, that It is not dead, but rather returns 27 years later to start anew, and the Losers must return to Derry to take up the fight again). This theme of strength through unity is also prevalent in the novel, as confirmed by King in a recent interview with Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene,  in which King referred to It as “[a] book about kids who are weak and helpless by themselves — but together can make something that is very strong.” 1

This emphasis on the Losers’ strength lying in their unity also helps the film to avoid one unpleasant consideration, the scene from the novel where the Losers, having triumphed over It, cannot find their way out of the sewers. Beverly’s solution is to have sex with all of the boys, which is supposed to focus them and bring them all together. The film’s emphasis on strength in unity gets the same point across without resorting to what may be the most cringe-inducing scene in King’s entire oeuvre, with the possible exception of the de-gloving scene in Gerald’s Game

As mentioned above, the theme of strength in unity becomes more and more important as the second film reaches its conclusion. The more the Losers join their forces, the more they concentrate on acting as a unit, the more able they are to defeat It.

The novel and both adaptations end with a long coda, wherein the Losers, their promise kept, their task accomplished, go their separate ways. The novel and the miniseries include the scene where Bill Denbrough races his old bicycle down a steep street in order to snap his wife out of a Pennywise-induced coma. In Chapter Two, Beverly’s brutal, abusive husband and Bill’s actress wife are not seen again after their initial introduction near the film’s beginning. Bill’s race to “beat the devil”, although hinted at earlier in the film, is not included in the second film at all. 

But the one thing that is clear from examining the novel, the miniseries and the two films, is that it is the childhood sequences, the poignant moments illustrating the experiences common to almost everyone, that lead us into the film and give the story, no matter the medium, a power, a depth, and a resonance it would otherwise not have had. It is, in essence,  the kid stuff that makes It my favorite of King’s horror novels. 

Citation

Greene, Andy “Stephen King on His New Horror Novel, the ‘Nightmare’ of Trump, and “Needful Things” Rolling Stone, 1 September 2019.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Tyson Blue

Tyson Blue has written thousands of reviews, interviews and essays for a number of newspapers and magazines worldwide. He is perhaps best known for his 1,500-plus pieces on the work of Stephen King and the various media projects derived therefrom. He served as Contributing Editor for Castle Rock: The Stephen King Newsletter from 1985-1989, and his work has also appeared in Cemetery Dance, 2 A.M., Twilight Zone Magazine, and a number of publications published in eight languages around the globe. He has also published a number of short stories in various anthologies. He is also the author of the forthcoming Walking the Mile: The Making of ‘The Green Mile’. He is also the editor of the forthcoming book Hope and Miracles: The Shawshank Rememption and The Green Mile.

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