Both adaptations of Stephen King’s IT feature very different interpretations of the titular threat, but is there a secret reason that Tim Curry’s Pennywise the Clown is so much funnier than Bill Skarsgård’s later movie iteration? Released in 1986, the sprawling multi-generational horror story IT is a massive fantasy horror doorstopper considered by many genre aficionados to be the magnum opus of literary legend Stephen King. IT certainly isn’t lacking in ambition, clocking in at over a thousand pages and set across two periods decades apart.
The unconventional structure of IT, as well as the novel’s occasionally shocking content, meant that many readers considered a faithful adaptation impossible. Despite this, there are not one, but two, adaptations of Stephen King’s It, both of which boast sizeable fanbases. The 1990 miniseries famously featured Tim Curry in the title role, and the cult actor’s legendary take on Pennywise the Dancing Clown papered over some corny characterization and inconsistent performances to make IT one of the most beloved of the’90s miniseries adapted from Stephen King’s work. The more recent two-part blockbuster, IT and IT: Chapter Two, was released between 2017 and 2019 and offered a darker take on the novel’s story.
Both the blockbuster movie version of IT and the earlier miniseries have their ardent defenders, with fans of the films noting the consistently strong performances and impressive production values, while lovers of the miniseries claim the story has more room to breathe in a slower-paced medium. However, no matter which version of Stephen King’s bestseller fans prefer, there’s no denying that there is a world of difference between Curry and Skarsgård’s interpretations of Pennywise. The creepy clown is a central figure in both versions of the story, as he is the default form of the shapeless titular monster, cropping up in every second scene to scar the story’s stars. Curry famously plays the character as a campy, surprisingly funny fourth-wall breaker. In contrast, the movie adaptation’s star Bill Skarsgård (whose brother Alexander recently played another one of King’s most famous monsters) opts to instead play the part terrifyingly dead straight. Each iteration has its fans, but one fan theory posits that there’s a reason Curry’s creepy clown is so much funnier.
Curry’s It stays in character (as it were) by cracking wise even when scaring the kids, but why does the monster choose to act as a genuinely amusing clown when he could be focusing on traumatizing victims? While this element remains one of the most memorable parts of the miniseries, it is genuinely difficult to fathom the reason behind Curry’s goofy demeanor while watching the series. In numerous infamous scenes, Pennywise terrifies the stars of the series by taking the form of a werewolf, a monster, and numerous classic fears, only to turn back into his clown form and leave them with a quip instead of killing them. This approach, which turns the clown into something akin to Stephen King’s version of Freddy Krueger, allows the shapeshifting Curry to voice some of Pennywise’s most memorable lines, but it also defangs the monster’s terrifying potential somewhat as the killer clown effectively acts as a Boggart, taking the form of the kid’s worst fears, scaring them senseless, and then throwing off a one-liner instead of inflicting any physical damage.
However, there is a reason for this strange approach. According to one theory backed up by the original novel, It shares the weaknesses in whatever form it takes. As such, when acting as Pennywise, the monster literally can’t resist joking around (hence the “Prince Albert in a can” zingers missing from 2017’s adaptation). It may be able to lure younger children like poor Georgie into its gaping toothy maw when acting like a clown, but the older kids are smart enough to avoid the creepy entertainer, and the fact that the villain of Stephen King’s IT is limited by the form of a clown means Pennywise can’t stop himself from goofing off when he could be killing them.
In contrast with the miniseries’ many scenes of the kids being terrified by Pennywise but escaping unscathed, the movie adaptation of IT makes it clear that the kids need to escape the monster’s clutches and are in immediate danger whenever they encounter him. Stanley must bolt from the creepy painting that is trying to attack him for fear of death, and Eddie’s unforgettable encounter with the leper makes it clear that the kid would have been dead meat if he hadn’t had his running shoes on. Bill Skarsgård’s iteration of It, in contrast with Curry’s, is emphatically not weakened by or even connected to the form it takes.
The leprous, shambling zombie form that It takes in both movies, for example, can withstand all manner of beatings despite its seemingly feeble form. Furthermore, in the movie’s adaptation, Its clown form Pennywise is in no way funny and can survive a poker through the skull (unlike most real-life clowns). In direct contrast with Curry’s It turning from a ferocious werewolf into a grinning clown, Skarsgård’s It even transforms from a harmless elderly woman into a monstrous witch, making it clear that the monster isn’t tied to any form or limited in its powers.
It seems obvious to suggest that the movie’s approach to embodying Pennywise is more effective than the miniseries since it makes Pennywise more powerful and less easy to defeat. However, as much as the blockbuster movies are generally well regarded critically, some reviewers and fans felt that Pennywise’s eventual defeat fell flat, giving another Stephen King adaptation a disappointing ending. The reason for this disappointment is directly tied to the movie’s decision to make Pennywise’s forms have no specific direct effect on his abilities. Part of what grounded the miniseries’ original death of Spider-Monster It was the physicality of the Loser’s Club finding its weak spot and tearing its heart out, a gruesome fate that offered audiences some cathartic release after It claimed so many victims.
In comparison, the fact that the movie adaptations of IT made Pennywise harder to defeat meant that the villain’s destruction was more conceptual and less grounded. As a result, although the movie’s scary scenes may be more effective than their television counterparts, the film adaptation’s solution of simply jeering the monster to death was a touch too conceptual and not visceral enough to have the same effective impact as the miniseries’ violent tearing apart of Its Spider Monster form, in another case where breaking from Stephen King’s original novel was the wrong call.