Some spoilers ahead.
Stephen King is known as a horror writer, and he certainly has written much in this genre. Like many prolific writers, he has also voraciously read pretty much everything from classics to pulp. Author H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on him is often brought up for obvious reasons, besides his own acknowledgment of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos. Both are well-known writers of horror and weird tales set in New England.
King’s massive Dark Tower series, which has come to create and encompass King’s entire literary universe, is basically Sergio Leone combined with “Lord of the Rings.” There are always eldritch tendrils crawling all over (and under) King’s writing, but in many ways J.R.R. Tolkien’s work has influenced him more than any horror writer has.
In the introduction to a reissue of “Salem’s Lot” King expresses that Tolkien became the lens through which he saw story. When reading “Dracula,” King realized that basically all the major elements of Tolkien were there. Van Helsing is Gandalf, Count Dracula is Sauron, London is the Shire, Castle Dracula is Mordor, etc. In other words, much of King’s work may wear the skin of Bram Stoker or Arthur Machen, but the skeleton and muscles come from Middle Earth.
Stephen King Is Hope with Horror’s Clothes On
This makes sense of his immense popularity. Horror is a perennial money-maker, but King is a literary economic phenomenon, and has been for a long time. That kind of success can’t be explained simply by subject matter. There’s also the fact that his writing is often too long, overly (and randomly) sexual, and clearly tends toward bleak subject matter. He is so astronomically successful because while indulging in the base side of humanity his writing also turns towards hopefulness.
In fact, he can be eucatastrophic from time to time. His horror isn’t designed to scare as much as simply tell a story. Some of those stories happen to be very scary. This is why he can write intimate novellas like “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “Apt Pupil,” and why he produces extremely long works like “The Stand” and “It.” In almost every case he is simply spinning a yarn, essentially according to the platonic plot graph: the archetypal progression from inciting incident to action to climax and finally resolution. These elements he clearly got from the Shire, not Myskatonic University.
King’s worldview is best understood at his intersection between Tolkien and Lovecraft. King uses Tolkien to fix Lovecraft. He presents a sort of hopeful re-envisioning of the Cthulhu mythos. For Lovecraft, there were no happy endings. Life had no meaning and insanity was its most truthful outcome.
Of course, in his works this insanity was brought on by cosmic transcendental horror. Nothing protects humans from the ancient alien terrors to be found throughout and behind the universe. Ignorance is always the best protection because the elder gods cannot be comprehended. Learning about them causes madness, for which there is no cure.
King takes this universe and places at its center the Dark Tower. The Dark Tower creates a barrier between us and the “Todash Darkness” outside. This is where the “It” villain Pennywise comes from. He is a Lovecraftian horror. “The Dark Tower” film, although far inferior to “It,” is actually quite enjoyable and makes Pennywise’s origin relatively explicit.
At one point the characters encounter a theme park named after the monster in a blatant attempt at franchise-making. Near there King’s main protagonist, Roland, a mystical gunslinger, draws a diagram of the universe in dirt and explains the outer dark cosmology. The Dark Tower projects six beams that hold up a shield keeping the darkness out.
Roland then picks up a large tarantula and places it on his diagram. It walks across the beams toward the tower. This represents evil invading our world from beyond. Whether Roland realizes it or not, it is also clearly Pennywise. Pennywise is a great spider, the “eater of worlds.” This is similar to Ungoliant in Tolkien’s legendarium, the mother of all the great spiders (the last of which is Shelob) who helped Melkor kill the great trees of Valinor, plunging the world into darkness.
A Shield to Protect Us from Evil
The difference of course for Lovecraft is that there is no Dark Tower that holds the universe together. There is only It, the dark elder things that hide in the shadows. But in true manichean fashion, King gives It a nemesis: Maturin, the great turtle. He is one of the ancient guardians of the Dark Tower. It and Maturin have been fighting each other since before the creation of the universe, and now the children of Derry have become soldiers in that cosmic war. Maturin’s aid is only hinted at a few times in the film, but he is there.
The depth of this mythology is one of the many reasons “It: Chapter One” will become the most successful horror film of all time. Horror always makes money, and at the time of this writing “It” is already about halfway to “The Exorcist’s” intake after only a week. Horror often does not have broad appeal, so the numbers are usually consistent, but true horror blockbusters are rare.
“It” is not just any horror film. It is as much a piece of dark fantasy as horror. Andy Muschietti and his team have drunk deep from “It’s” wells and crafted a perfect cinematic story. That requires a great villain, great heroes, and a path for the heroes to follow toward the final climatic confrontation. This may sound simple, but truly great villains are rare. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is one of the great celluloid villains, the equal of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger’s Joker.
For some, Tim Curry’s Pennywise was like Nicholson’s Joker: an indelible icon. Whatever the case may be, Skarsgard has done to Curry’s performance exactly what Ledger did to Nicholson: complete obliteration. And the lovable Losers club that is called to fight the clown are almost his equal. Each member of the motley crew brings a different essential element. The standouts are “Stranger Things’” Fin Wolfhard and Sophia Lillis. Wolfhard proves he can do much more than the naive suburban nerd, but Lillis really steals the show. She has an extremely bright future. In many ways she’s just a younger version of Amy Adams in waiting. The casting was perfect all around.
The “It” miniseries will always have fans, just like “Batman 89,” but unless “It: Chapter 2” is rubbish this will become the definitive cinematic King adaptation. In almost every way, “It” the novel is King at his most Kingy. It has all the things that make him a great storyteller and a remarkably self-indulgent writer. “It” also gets his worldview across so clearly, his Manichean “dark Christianity” about the duel between good and evil.
And the film adaptation is one of those times where all the fat has been cut away to reveal the best part of the author whose mind created the story. What shines through here is the purest human struggle of all: growing up. The filmmakers took a fairly radical step by splitting the flashback-heavy narrative in the novel into a linear story. But it was the right decision.
This film has all the appeal of “Stranger Things” without that show’s innocence. The sequel has a very strong foundation to build on.