Listen to the Horror: How 2017's IT adapted the sound of the book
80s nostalgia has been a hit for a long time. But especially in the last decade, it seems that a lot of popular culture from the era of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dungeons & Dragons, Pac-Man and Journey has found its way into the mainstream. Think Stranger Things, Ready Player One or even musicians like The Weeknd or Bruno Mars, whose styles are heavily influenced by the 80s. Our infatuation goes as far as popular 80s-TV-Shows being revived for new seasons. There is no decade that's more en vogue right now than the 80s. So it comes as no surprise that one of the big literary horror-hits of that time was adapted into a film last year: Stephen King's IT.
Published in 1986, IT went on to become a best-selling novel. It tells the story of a group of friends in Derry, Maine, who get terrorised by a demonic entity that feasts on their fear. As kids, they find a way to defeat IT but are called back to their hometown as adults when it seems that IT hadn't been finished after all. While this sounds concise enough, depending on the edition you buy IT brings around 1166 pages of horror to the table. That's a lot - probably the biggest piece of literature I've ever read. And King doesn't make it easy to follow his novel: while the members of The Losers' Club, as the kids call themselves, grow up in the 50s and later have to come back to face IT as adults in the 80s, King doesn't tell his story chronologically. He jumps between timelines, interweaves them and often switches around before finishing a sentence. The book creates a stream of consciousness that sometimes can be demanding to follow and makes you combine fragments of information from different timelines into a comprehensible puzzle.
Sound as a fear-factory
One of the things that really stood out to me while reading IT, was how particular Stephen King's descriptions of fear were. When the Losers face IT in one of its many forms that sometimes cause hallucinations and dream-like states, they don't simply see those things. The protagonists smell, taste and feel those things. But most important to me: they hear ITs evil. In many places throughout the book Stephen King uses sounds to describe the mood and feel of a moment. This procedure is not only effective in terms of comprehensive storytelling but addresses readers on a deeper level.
Hearing is one of the most important senses when it comes to self-protection. Imagine you're back in the stone age out in a forest or jungle, hunting for prey to feed your family. You had to be cautious not to end up as a meal yourself. As you were making your way through the wild you had to look out for predators, but even more importantly: you had to listen out for them. A single obvious crackle in the underbrush could mean an attack is imminent, even before you could see, feel or smell any signs of it. Sound helped us to be aware of potential sources of danger and evil and still retains the power to address some of our most deeply grounded fears today. Which is why sound plays such an important role in the suspense and horror film genre.
With so many particular descriptions of sound to illustrate fear in the book and seeing how effectively this worked for me, I started to wonder whether an adaptation for the screen would take advantage of those characterisations. I wanted to see if those words would be translated into the film - or whether the team behind the adaptation would decide to take a completely different approach.
An Adaptation Nightmare
Deriving a chronological timeline of the events taking place in IT certainly isn't an easy task - just like adapting this literary beast for the screen. Two directors gave it a shot anyway: Tommy Lee Wallace with his 1990 TV adaptation and Andy Muschietti with his 2017 feature film adaptation (which to date is the most successful R-rated horror film with a gross of $327,481,748). Both decided to split the material of the book into two films - but with two different approaches:
Wallace's TV adaptation famously featured Tim Curry in one of his most memorable roles as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (the most common shapeshift form of IT) and follows the narrative pattern of the book. It jumps between timelines and lets the audience piece together the clues - all the while staying relatively close to the book. The TV adaptation of IT aired in 1990 over two nights with a total runtime of about 3 hours - and although with 30 million viewers during its premiere it was a success, the films haven't aged well and seem dated.
2017's It chose a different way: while in the book (and the TV adaptation) the Losers grow up in the 50s, Muschietti transports their childhood into the late 80s and tells their story in chronological order. No jumping around between childhood and adulthood - just the (young) Losers as they learn about the evil entity that haunts their hometown and the beauty that is first love. And while Muschietti's IT can be enjoyed as a standalone film, at the end of the credits audiences learn that they watched Part 1. In this case, it's not because sequels seem to be fashionable these days - but because only half of the book's material has been told. Part 2 is currently scheduled to be released in 2019.
Because of the relevance of Andy Muschietti's film today, I will focus on examples of how he, Supervising Sound Editor Victor Ray Ennis and his team adapted King's descriptions of sound into the film's sound design. But first, here's the trailer:
Listening to the Clown
The first instance audiences encounter IT both in the book and in the film, is when George Denbrough goes outside his parents' house on a rainy day to test the paper boat his brother Bill made for him. George places his boat on a stream at a curb and follows until it gets sucked into a storm drain. As George approaches the drain to retrieve his boat, he shrinks back.
There were yellow eyes in there: the sort of eyes he had always imagined but never actually seen down in the basement. It’s an animal, he thought incoherently, that’s all it is, some animal, maybe a housecat that got stuck down in there — [...] He saw himself getting up and backing away, and that was when a voice—a perfectly reasonable and rather pleasant voice—spoke to him from inside the stormdrain. “Hi, Georgie,” it said. [...] „Want your boat, Georgie? [...] And a balloon? I’ve got red and green and yellow and blue. . . .”
“Do they float?” “Float?” The clown’s grin widened. “Oh yes, indeed they do. They float! And there’s cotton candy. . . .” George reached. The clown seized his arm. And George saw the clown’s face change. What he saw then was terrible enough to make his worst imaginings of the thing in the cellar look like sweet dreams; what he saw destroyed his sanity in one clawing stroke. “They float,” the thing in the drain crooned in a clotted, chuckling voice.
From: Stephen King's IT pp. 13–15
The first time we meet Pennywise the Dancing Clown, we don't know about its true intentions yet. Just like in the book, Bill Skarsgård's voice performance as Pennywise first conveys a sense of politeness and kindness. A subtle dark undertone - and of course the fact that why on earth would someone suddenly show up in a storm drain - goes unnoticed by Georgie, but foreshadows the maniacal agenda the clown follows. King describes Pennywise's voice as reasonable and pleasant when the Clown tries to gain the young boy's trust. Skarsgård's Pennywise plays around and gets all excited when it talks about the circus that is supposedly down there in the sewer with it. Just after it jokes about popcorn, Pennywise starts to act weird as it suddenly stops all action and only lets out a guttural grumble that has an animalistic quality to it. Pennywise then goes on to remind Georgie to retrieve his boat - again in a playful, but this time more openly sinister voice. In the novel, Stephen King presents Pennywise's voice as crooning with a clotted, chuckling quality. And although in an interview with Paul Hackner and Kris Fenske, the sound designers reveal how they experimented with different approaches to their version of Pennywise's voice, they kept close to the book's template in this opening scene. There is a shift in the Clown's voice, though, especially in moments where the film frees itself from the novel and creates scenes that weren't in the book (like the film's version of the encounter in the Well House in Neibolt Street). Those moments open up possibilities to approach Pennywise's tone colour completely originally. Hackner and Fenske mention playing around with all sorts of sounds associated with the circus, e.g. bells, popcorn and children's voices, and layering those on top of Pennywise's voice. The opposition of the deceiving Pennywise to the demonic version of the Clown is most apparent later in the film when Eddie gets separated from his friends in the Well House and Pennywise closes in on him, drooling with hungry anticipation and murmurs in a rough, deep voice: "Tasty, tasty beautiful fear." A moment later when two of Eddie's friends arrive to help him, the Clown switches back to a soft, vulnerable, almost child-like register to deceive the boys. Altogether, the example of Pennywise's voice shows that Muschietti, Skarsgård and the sound team decided to stay fairly close to the book in their adaptation.
Deceit down the drain
Throughout the book and film audiences learn more about what IT is, its mythology and what rules it follows. There are small snippets of information that IT lives in the sewers of Derry and can travel unseen to practically any place within the city boundaries and adjacent properties connected through the sewer system. And early on, readers learn that IT likes to communicate and beguile through sinks in people's homes:
An old man told me about how his wife had heard voices speaking to her from the drain of her kitchen sink in the three weeks before their daughter died [...] “A whole slew of voices, all of em babblin together,” he told me. [...] “Said she spoke back once, even though she was ascairt. Leaned right over the drain, she did, and hollered down into it. ‘Who the hell are you?’ she calls. ‘What’s your name?’ And all these voices answered back, she said—grunts and babbles and howls and yips, screams and laughin, don’t you know.
From: Stephen King's IT p. 158
This already foreshadows one of the most memorable scenes in the book that also got adapted into the film: Beverly Marsh's first confrontation with IT.
She looked around. The bathroom door was firmly closed. She could hear the TV faintly, Cheyenne Bodie warning the bad guy to put the gun down before someone got hurt. She was alone. Except, of course, for that voice.
“Who are you?” she called into the basin, pitching her voice low.
“Matthew Clements,” the voice whispered. “The clown took me down here in the pipes and I died and pretty soon he’ll come and take you, Beverly, and Ben Hanscom, and Bill Denbrough and Eddie—” Her hands flew to her cheeks and clutched them. Her eyes widened, widened, widened. She felt her body growing cold. Now the voice sounded choked and ancient . . . and still it crawled with corrupted glee.
“You’ll float down here with your friends, Beverly, we all float down here, tell Bill that Georgie says hello, tell Bill that Georgie misses him but he’ll see him soon, tell him Georgie will be in the closet some night with a piece of piano wire to stick in his eye, tell him—”
The voice broke up in a series of choking hiccups and suddenly a bright red bubble backed up the drain and popped, spraying beads of blood on the distained porcelain. The choking voice spoke rapidly now, and as it spoke it changed: now it was the young voice of the child that she had first heard, now it was a teenaged girl’s voice, now—horribly—it became the voice of a girl Beverly had known . . . Veronica Grogan. But Veronica was dead, she had been found dead in a sewer-drain — “I’m Matthew . . . I’m Betty . . . I’m Veronica . . . we’re down here . . . down here with the clown [...] . . . and you, Beverly, we’re down here with you, and we float, we change . . .“
From: Stephen King's IT pp. 404 - 405
In this example, the film is again keeping close to the book, although changing the order of things a little bit. While some elements are left out (like the open threats towards Beverly and her friends), Pennywise's insidiousness is still translated into the film. The scene starts off with a relaxed Beverly, lost in thoughts about her secret admirer, and with a 'real' soundscape. Suddenly a whispering voice is introduced, coming from the drain asking Beverly for help, along with sounds of trickling water that doesn't seem to have any source in the room. Beverly leans over the sink to investigate as the voices start to change from female to male, from child to teenager. There are continuous and still unexplained water trickles as the camera moves closer towards the drain and the voices start to sound more metallic and tubular. When the voices join in a chorus of "we float" and a male voice whispers "we change", the sound designers seem to have used King's description from the novel as a roadmap for their sound in the film. King presents the voices coming from the drain as suddenly choked, ancient and crawling with corrupted glee. The pitch shift on the line "we change" ticks all those elements and leaves us with an eery foreboding that something bad is about to happen. The scream-like laughter from a baby added at the very end of that line is a nice little nod to a scene earlier in the book. There, King chose very drastic words to describe what Pennywise uses to play on its victims through the drain: runts, babbles, howls, yips, screams and laughs. Because Muschietti broke up the scene, the voices don't continue "in a series of choking hiccups", but Beverly leaves the bathroom to get a measuring tape. When she's back, another little child laughter is added as she reaches the bottom of the drain with the tape and the scene goes on to its climax - a bloody slime-spray that would make Nickelodeon proud.
Georgie, the Dog and a Clown
The last example I'd like to talk about is yet another drastic and explicit instance of Stephen King's writing. After a lot of hassle, deduction and gathering courage, the Losers come to the conclusion they have to face IT and destroy it. Without going into too much detail and giving away the exciting bits of the story: after his long, long suffering and trying to come to terms with his brother's unexplained disappearance and death, all the way down in the sewer system of Derry, Bill Denbrough (who is a stutterer, by the way) finally gets a reunion with his little brother Georgie - or so it seems.
It was George wavering up the tunnel toward him, George, still dressed in his blood-spattered yellow rainslicker. One sleeve dangled limp and useless. George’s face was white as cheese and his eyes were shiny silver. They fixed on Bill’s own. “My boat!” Georgie’s lost voice rose, wavering, in the tunnel. “I can’t find it, Bill, I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find it and now I’m dead and it’s your fault your fault YOUR FAULT—” [...] “Nuh-Nuh-No, Juh Juh-Georgie!” Bill cried. “I dih-dih-didn’t nuh-hun-nuh-know—“ “Kill you!” George cried, and a mixture of doglike sounds came out of that fanged mouth: yips, yelps, howls. A kind of laughter. Bill could smell him now, could smell George rotting. It was a cellar-smell, squirmy, the smell of some final monster standing slumped and yellow-eyed in the corner, waiting to unzip some small boy’s guts. George’s teeth gnashed together. The sound was like billiard balls clicking off one another. Yellow pus began to leak from his eyes and dribble down his face . . . and the match went out. [...] The George-thing recoiled, hissing, Its hand going to Its face in a warding-off gesture. “That’s it!” Richie screamed deliriously. “You got It, Bill! Get It! Get It! Get It!” [...] The George-thing abruptly turned, squealing like a rat. It began to run and ripple under the yellow slicker. The slicker itself seemed to be dripping, running in bright blots of yellow. It was losing Its shape, becoming amorphous.
From: Stephen King's IT pp. 1065 - 1068
As laid out in the beginning, the novel IT is difficult to get into chronological order, as it switches back and forth between the two main timelines, sprinkling historic anecdotes and even visions here and there. Consequently, in order to make the material more comprehensible Muschietti had to completely change the final confrontation between IT and the Losers from what it is in the book to the film's version. Which makes it seem somewhat pointless to compare each other - but taking a look at the sound design, the toe-to-toe between Bill and his brother George offers some interesting adaptation observations.
In the book, Georgie's transformation towards a cadaverous creature happens during the conversation with his brother. Here, Georgie is very threatening and not really trying to hide that he is not what he's pretending to be. His voice gets interrupted by doglike sounds and laughter. Teeth gnashing, hissing, squealing. In the film, however, Georgie remains intact until Bill summons up all his courage and decides to let go of him. After some heartwarming dialogue, Bill drives a bolt through IT's head, which - still in the shape of Georgie - falls to the ground. After a short moment, the little body starts to rumble and shapeshift into Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The shift is accompanied by heavily layered sound design that combines the sounds mentioned in King's version of the confrontation. We hear Georgie's scream echoing through the chamber on top of wet, mushy, organic stirring sounds. Distorted breathing and choking give the transformation a very drastic and gut-wrenching quality. An animalistic note is added through grumbling, burbling yips, yelps and some sort of a howl. Another scream is added, as well as a quite abstracted hasty, voiced inhale. After IT's transformation all hell breaks loose and the sound design elements alternate between animalistic growls, grunts and human babbling, choking and gnarling.
Although in a very different setting, most of the sound elements King described in the scene in his book ultimately found their way into the 2017 adaptation.
Of words of fear and sounds of horror
Stephen King's IT is one of the most evil and scary books I have ever read. A lot of the effect it had on me stems from how IT manages to creep its way into the lives of the citizens of Derry, Maine, how it influences them and feasts on their fear. But what made the terror truly palpable were King's descriptions of fear using all senses, including sound. There is much more great sound design in the film than I could cover, and many more sound descriptions in the book than could have fit in one film. There's a lot of fascinating Derry background story from previous incidents in the city with IT, as well as the big climax when the members of the Losers' Club reunite as adults to face IT once more. There are plenty of interesting sonic themes in the book that might eventually make it into IT Part 2, such as the recurring theme of trains that only briefly appears in Part 1 in a shot after the "rock war" scene. Or the low rumble that seems to lurk in the sewers under the city, caused by Derry's pumping machinery, which King describes as a tuneless, soulless sound that echoes through the pipes and doesn't sound like machinery at all, but like something alive.
Stephen King's novel IT features plenty of detailed sound descriptions. Some of them show Derry as a lovable, quiet place to live a peaceful life - but most of them slowly build up anticipation and foreshadow the evil that lingers beneath the city. And when the evil bursts out, sound helps it to feel as threatening, vile and ancient as it does. While Muschietti's adaptation had to leave out or restructure certain threads of the story, a lot of King's descriptions of sound were translated into the film - which either shows how true Muschietti wanted to stay to the novel, or how good Stephen King's writing actually works for the screen. Either way, I was surprised how close Victor Ray Ennis and his team came to the novel and love how refreshing and efficient the sound design of 2017's IT really is.
What did you think about the use of sound in the novel - and how successful do you think the Victor Ray Ennis and his team were at translating them into the film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or contact me on social media.
All citations are from King, Stephen. IT. Hodder, 2017.