When it comes to creepy clowns, there are perhaps none as iconic as Pennywise from Stephen King’s “It”. Often credited (or blamed) with making clowns scary, King’s creation has had a lasting effect on horror media. Not just because of the best-selling novel, but because of not one, but two popular movie adaptations.
The It TV movie from 1990 was the definitive adaptation until another was made (with a much bigger budget) in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Ever since the more modern adaptation, the two of them have been endlessly compared. So we thought we would take the bait, observe the evidence, and try to determine as objectively as possible which is the definitive It movie!
Round I – The Losers Club
We begin of course with the ensemble of main characters that are both the heart and soul of “It” the novel, as well as every adaptation. Both adaptations faced the unique challenge of having to cast two sets of actors, one child, one adult to play the same characters years apart.
In the 1990 TV movie, the kids are solidly cast and have a genuine sense of realism to them, feeling like they’re really just kids you might see around the neighborhood. Even when it came out, the child actors and their scenes were hailed as the highlight of the movie. And while the older actors portraying the Losers Club as adults weren’t necessarily bad, they were just a bit forgettable and failed to live up to expectations.
If we’re just judging the kid actors, the 1990 ones feel more real and less “theatrical” than the 2017 ones. But we have to give massive credit to 2019’s It: Chapter Two for absolutely nailing the casting of the Losers Club as adults.
To be fair, it was a big budget Hollywood film and thus Warner Bros. had bigger names at their disposal. Thus, they were able to bring on the likes of James McAvoy (Split), Bill Hader (SNL), Jessica Chastain (Mama), James Ransone (Sinister), among others. It’s genuinely creepy how much Ransone looks and feels exactly like an older version of Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie.
Another standout is Bill Hader’s adult version of Richie. Finn Wolfhard reportedly suggested Hader be cast as his adult counterpart since the two look alike, and share a similar comedic energy. This was Hader’s first horror film, and while he does tap into his comedic chops we all know and love him for, he also shows a tremendous range by going to some darker and dramatic places.
So the kid actors in 1990 get a slight edge, but the adult actors in 2019 get a massive edge, thus they take the round.
Winner – 2017/2019
Round II – Pennywise
Along with the first round, this is probably the topic that most people talk about when comparing both versions. Pennywise is such a terrifying and effective villain, who has joined the annals of iconic horror villains in the genre itself. Thus we’ve saved the best for last and it’s Bill Skarsgård vs. Tim Curry.
Firstly, let’s give both actors the recognition they deserve, because honestly they both turn in amazing performances that remain creepy as hell. Between his actual ability to move just one of his eyes, and his overall chaotic manic energy, Skarsgård is probably the scarier of the two. But it’s not all about scares.
Tim Curry’s take on the character does an excellent job of switching between a fun clown who’s admittedly goofy and downright sinister and monstrous. But that approach really works because the whole point of Pennywise taking the form of a clown was always to lure children in. Skarsgård is definitely creepy, but most children would run away from him terrified while Curry’s could genuinely bring them in with his charm, then turn on them.
Bill Skarsgård gave a grand performance and deserves accolades for it, but Curry’s is just iconic and remains so over 30 years later.
Winner – 1990
Round III – Story
This is going to be another very close round and both adaptations take very different but effective approaches to trying to adapt a mammoth of a novel. Turning in at roughly 1200 pages, “It” was Stephen King’s 2nd longest book (behind “The Stand”).
The novel itself features both the children and adult storylines running concurrently with each other. It’s an effective approach in a novel and the 1990 adaptation tries to make it work, but still only uses the back and forth timelines in its first half, leaving it out of the entire second half.
But this robs the concurrent timelines of their effectiveness because it really only works when you see the kids defeat Pennywise right before you see them face him as adults. It’s just odd that it tries to emulate the same narrative style, but then abandons it halfway through.
The 2017 and 2019 films take the opposite approach, giong for a chronological method of storytelling. Everything with the Losers Clubs as adults is essentially just a sequel to the story about them as kids. It’s more consistent across the board and makes for a great double feature (assuming you have nearly 6 hours to spare).
Had the 1990 committed fully to the dual stories, it might have played out more faithful to the book and thus captured what made it so effective. But its half measure is what really holds it back. Plus the newer movies just have a lot more runtime and as a result, we get much more detail and time to let the story flesh out.
Winner – 2017/2019
Round IV – Style/Tone
Now here’s a category where the older and newer versions are vastly different. The 1990 version definitely feels like a TV movie from its time. This comes with some admittedly hokey and hammy scenes and acting choices that seemed dramatic at the time, but just come off as humorous now.
The 2017/2019 movies definitely have humor in them, and while it’s much more intentional, it does run into some issues of tonal inconsistency. Parts of 2017’s It want to be a creepy supernatural horror movie, but then other parts want to be an 80s comedy. In particular the cleaning montage and rock fight go to some strange places that feel like they’re from a completely different movie.
Campy as it is, the 1990 TV movie always knows the kind of movie it’s trying to be. It aims to be scary, and even if its scares are cheesy here and there, it never goes fully off the rails the same way the newer movies do with their derailments into slapstick comedy at times.
Winner – 1990
Round V – Technical Specs
Ultimately, this contest comes down to which movie is put together better, from a cinematography, effects, editing standpoint. Right off the bat, let’s address the fact that the 1990 version was subject to the special/visual effects of its time and that the later movies benefited from CGI that wasn’t available 27 years earlier.
However this may actually be a benefit to the older adaptation. Every effect had to be done in camera and thus it relied more on practical monster design and a bit of claymation here and there. Granted, the spider at the end that Pennywise turns into looked pretty terrible, even for 1990 standards. But a lot of the CGI in 2017/2019 looks like obvious CGI and already kind of ages the movies.
But, we have to give credit to the newer movies for utilizing genuinely great practical effects much more frequently that modern blockbusters (which use way too much CGI). Plus it makes a really creepy and cool creative choice to put Pennywise in the background of random scenes in different forms to increase the scares.
For example, there’s a scene with a clown on stage actually played by Bill Skarsgård, and the librarian creepily stalks behind Ben in the library, demonstrating that Pennywise is truly everywhere. In addition, rather than use all different colors of balloons, they double down on just red ones to make it more consistent.
It also goes without saying, the musical score in the 2017/2019 films is much more scary and effective. Again, to be fair, the 1990 version was working on a TV budget and thus didn’t have all the resources. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t admit the newer movies are much more polished all around.
Round V (and overall) Winner – 2017/2019
It was a close contest, and even though the 1990 version “lost”, the takeaway should be that it’s a very close contender and worthy of all the praise it’s gotten over the years.
Which one do you like better? Let us know in the comments!