Book Review | It
Book summary: They were seven teenagers when they first stumbled upon the horror. Now they are grown-up men and women who have gone out into the big world to gain success and happiness. But none of them can withstand the force that has drawn them back to Derry to face the nightmare without an end, and the evil without a name. (Goodreads)
I hadn't read It before seeing the 2017 movie, having not seen the Tim Curry version of Pennywise either, although I was aware of its existence. This wasn't due to me avoiding it, but it just never really caught my attention until the recent movie duology - which also helped give me a rough idea of what the characters looked like and would prove helpful picturing events.
This isn't just an It thing either, as I read The Shining before seeing the Kubrick adaptation despite being aware of the movie years earlier and knowing what the characters all looked like in the movie, giving me an easier mental image to form of what everything and everyone looked like. And like The Shining, I much prefer the book version of It to the movies.
The book version of It has the advantage of giving us events from the perspective of the characters involved in the story, letting us hear their thoughts and forming a stronger bond than possible as an outside observer watching a movie. There's also room to develop the characters, spending more time with them - although King pushes this freedom to the breaking point and beyond.
It is a long book - and I mean really, really, really long. There are moments of repetition where we are told something about the characters that we'd already learned previously; a couple of subplots involving tertiary characters that feel wholly unnecessary to the story being told; and stretches of over-detailed descriptions - credit to King for showing he'd done his research, but did we really need to read so many details that add nothing to the story or characters?
As for the characters, I do think that King bit off a bit more than he could chew with the seven kids being trimmed down to five adults for the final showdown with the creature terrorising the town of Derry. I say 'creature' because, while It most famously appears as Pennywise the clown, it's true nature is almost Lovecraftian.
That isn't a spoiler, as It keeps shape-shifting into whatever form most terrifies the children it (mainly) preys upon, tapping into their worst fears to make them more delicious to devour. This shape-shifting does play into the climax, but I will say that it's in a completely different manner to how It Chapter 2 portrayed it on the big screen.
The book benefits from not having to visualise everything, as I don't think you could accurately depict the events of the final part of the book on-screen without losing something. The closest movies have come is honestly when the Ancient One sends Stephen Strange through various dimensions in Doctor Strange - and even that is nowhere near how bizarre proceedings get in It.
But, being a book, your imagination can fill in the blanks with an unlimited budget. This is a good thing most of the time, but it feels like King wrote this thinking the same thing with how long it goes on, which unfortunately lends the climax an anticlimactic feeling. There was simply too much build-up for any ending to have a chance of living up to my expectations, despite how creative it got.
The length aside, the other main issue I had is with how the women were depicted in It. Or, to be more accurate, their bodies. Hell, to be more accurate still, their breasts. Holy crap, was King obsessed with describing tits or what? Genuinely, there are more lines of description for Audra (Bill's wife) and Beverly's chests than any other complete physical description for any other character.
As if that wasn't bad enough, this detail extends to 12-year old Bev and her developing breasts as she goes through puberty. I will concede that there are occasions when a particular part of the story is from the boys/men's point of view and can be understood that they might think about the women's boobs, but it happens a little too often and even outside of a character's point of view - as if King just felt he needed to talk about boobs some more.
This, of course, leads to an infamous scene from near the end of the story that ups the WTF level to the top of the scale. I won't spoil it here, as it's pretty easy to google (although you might want to clear your search history afterwards!), but I will say that Bev comes up with a 'unique' way of bonding the group and King describes her reaction to it in an uncomfortable level of detail.
It could be argued that scene is intended to be disturbing, blurring the lines between childhood and adulthood in a very unsettling way that is a theme throughout the book, but I still feel that a different solution could've been found if King really tried. Let's just say this: it's really easy to see why this scene never came close to making it into the recent movies.
Despite this scene being a little gross, and which even King has admitted is a result of writing at a different time culturally, it's not really that bad when compared to the multiple brutal murders of children that take place. It's a little creepy what happens between Bev and the boys, but at least they're alive! And wow does King excel at showing how very not alive some of the children of Derry are.
I'll admit that I didn't think It was scary in the slightest, but King is a world class master of describing gruesome sights and scenes that my imagination was all to happy to bring to life in my head - again, going further than any movie could possibly hope to without earning an adults-only rating. I criticised King above for over-describing certain things, but I concede that this level of detail works perfectly when he wants to make you queasy and unsettled.
One last point to make is to praise how the story is broken up to make It an easier read than its length would normally suggest. Each chapter is broken down into 'sub-chapters' that provide nice stopping points when needed, although some sections do transition straight into the next, but it's easy enough to pick up where you left off regardless.
I did enjoy It despite the gargantuan length and some of the more disturbing elements, even if it wasn't as scary as I'd hoped - certainly nowhere near as haunting as I found The Shining, at least. The only real criticism I'd have is that the length is padded out by some subplots that feel pointless and I believe could have been left out without harming the story.
It is great fun from start to finish, although more gruesome than scary. It has its issues, which even King has admitted to - mainly due to serious personal issues at the time. They may put some off, but are only occasional gripes and the super-long story is more of a problem than anything else. None of this changes the fact that it's a great story written well by someone with a masterful gift for the macabre.