With the release of the new box office-crashing reimagining of the best-selling Stephen King novel IT, we’ve all been pondering a big question. Who wore it better? In 1990, Tim Curry took up the mantle of what has become an iconic character in the world of horror ever since Stephen King’s novel was published in 1986. Tim Curry portrayed Pennywise in the original miniseries and brought the interstellar devourer of souls to the screen for the first time and terrorized audiences playing on the fear of clowns for a generation.
That’s the story those of us who saw the original tell ourselves. For the 90s this telling of Stephen King’s grotesque masterpiece, was an unsettling journey that for many ended in disappointment with the appearance of IT’s final form. Last week, we were given another reimagining of Pennywise complete with a fresh, young talent in Bill Skarsgård, who came under scrutiny immediately.
Skarsgård was quickly met with skepticism, he was pretty and young. He wasn’t seasoned like Curry, who many saw haunt their nightmares in the original telling. So, my night kin, let us delay no longer we shall be looking at the two portrayals side by side and charting the evolution of everyone’s favorite eater of worlds to truly determine who wore it better. We’ll look at the mannerisms of both portrayals in comparison to the literature to see who captured the essence of IT and their interaction with the rest of their respective casts.
Since Curry was the first to don the paint we shall begin with him as he is of course the original eater of worlds and of children. Curry took on the role despite facing the challenge of playing a murderous being from out of this world on television and for that he deserves respect. His take on Pennywise centered more on the comedic side as he often smiled and laughed, dancing and cracking jokes at the expense of his soon-to-be prey. He took on a frightful appearance to get under the skin of the main cast, but for the most part Curry played up the persona of IT in its clown form.
Most of his mannerisms were that of a bad birthday clown, corny jokes and only when confronted by the courage of does Curry’s Pennywise show his darker side, declaring himself the “eater of world’s and of children” before snatching young Stan from the group to devour him. Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise however, has been profoundly impactful as his scene with Georgie in the original miniseries has been made into an internet meme and a funny gif shared among the internet community. Curry’s portrayal was entertaining, but if we look closer at the literary representation of Pennywise, Curry’s representation of the character is rather tame.
Some will argue that the reason for that is because Curry was in a television miniseries rather than a theater motion picture where he might have been helped more by the film rating system, but the crux of the problem is that Curry’s portrayal is simply not all that intimidating when compared to the literary figure. He captures the humor of the creature and in some instances the malice, but the hunger is not quite as palpable.
We don’t get that predatory feel with Curry apart from a few scenes. Curry’s ability to tap into his humor does entertain us and we do find him off-putting, but apart from those who suffer from the phobia of clowns it’s safe to say that for many Curry’s Pennywise isn’t all that scary.
The true strength of Curry’s Pennywise lies not in his action, but in what he says and how he interacts with his young cast. Arguably, the two most iconic scenes from the original miniseries involve Curry’s interaction with young Georgie, and his invasion of Eddie’s school shower. We are more terrified by what Curry says to the children than when he makes attempts to kill them.
Now if we look to the most recent representation of Pennywise portrayed by Bill Skarsgård, we can see a much darker representation of King’s monster. From the first appearance of Skarsgård in the sewer drain, we can tell that this Pennywise is darker. His eyes betray his hunger for flesh, blood, and souls. We immediately feel uncomfortable for little Georgie in-part because we know that he is going to die, but also because Skarsgård’s voice grates on our psyche. It sounds like the voice every creepy or sketchy person that mommy and daddy said to avoid when we were children.
Throughout the film, Skarsgård appears before his victims suddenly and swiftly kills them, the main characters escape him, but until the final fight scene between the children and Pennywise it feels like his shark-like teeth are always inches from sinking into their tender little hearts. Move to the first confrontation in the house on Neibolt Street, when Skarsgård contorts his body and creeps from an old refrigerator, and advances upon a downed Eddie. In this moment, we see Skarsgård’s Pennywise delights in mocking Eddie and terrifying him. It’s clear that this Pennywise not only wants to devour children he absolutely despises them. With each of his steps we are unsettled. One of the most scenes from the film involves Skarsgård and our fearless, young Beverly. Beverly is exhausted after confronting her father’s abuse and suddenly Pennywise appears behind her and seizes her by the throat. She will be the bait that lures the others to their doom.
The strength of Skarsgård’s Pennywise doesn’t lie in his speech, because he rarely speaks. The strength of his performance is his presence and his haunting movements. Skarsgård’s movements betray a being that clearly isn’t of this world. Each move by Skarsgård is smooth, strange, and calculated. He seems so foreign to the eye and his mannerisms unnerve us not because we know he isn’t really a clown, but because it appears he doesn’t even want to hide. Gone are the campy little jokes, Skarsgård’s portrayal is cerebral and he quite literally, salivates at the prospect of devouring our heroes. The final confrontation between the reimagined Pennywise is a desperate and physical brawl between the forces of light and darkness with a conclusion that leaves us frightened at the prospect of what is to come.
Side by side Curry and Skarsgård’s portrayals of this iconic devourer of creation, are both phenomenal. Each carries their own unique strengths into their performance, with Curry it’s his ability to add an air of mystique to his every word. Each word that falls from his lips, shakes us at our core, whether it’s his declaration to Georgie “You’ll float too”, or his attempts to lure Ben to his death by telling him that if he joins him he’ll “never grow up”, Curry’s ability to make the audience afraid of the weight of his words is incredible. His portrayal captures some of the original novel’s essence, but the ferocity of the creature eludes Curry.
On the other hand, the strength of Skarsgård’s performance is in the bestial mannerisms he carries beneath the veneer of his clown paint. His taunting, contorting, and his swift pursuits of the children stopping just short of touching them has us anxious throughout the film. When Skarsgård kills his victims, we aren’t as shocked as we are when they escape and each time one of the Losers evade him it feels like luck. Ultimately, the question we ought to ask ourselves is not who wore it better, but how did the character evolve. Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise is one that makes our skin crawl from what he doesn’t do, we fear the implications of his words more than what he does. Skarsgård takes the character of Pennywise to new depths.
His Pennywise is dark, depraved and his every movement betrays his otherworldly nature. Skarsgård captures the predatory nature of the novel’s monster and the otherworldly aspects that it possesses.We truly feel sorry for the children in this film, we are anxious for them and terrified of his interactions with the children because from the outset of the film we know that Pennywise has every intention of devouring them body and soul. The reimagined Pennywise, does Curry’s original portrayal due justice and moreover it feels like a passing of the torch. It’s safe to say that Curry can rest easy knowing that Skarsgård will carry the banner of fear forward. Skarsgård’s performance brings Pennywise back to life and this time it’s clear that there is no haven from him.