In a two-hour-plus episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror: Uncut that was released back in February, Quentin Tarantino displays an amazing breadth of cinematic erudition. But just before the closing of the interview (available as a podcast on iTunes), he opens up a can of verbal worms. While admitting to never having actually read IT, Tarantino asserts that “Stephen King saw A Nightmare on Elm Street and did his rip-off of it. […] He just replaces Freddy Krueger with Pennywise.” A bold claim, to say the least, and one that prompts a comparative look back at the Wes Craven film and the King novel.
No doubt there are some tempting parallels between the hit 1984 film and IT (published in 1986). Both works feature a quintessential American small town (Springwood and Derry, respectively) haunted by a shapeshifting, child-killing menace that adults don’t seem to notice. Freddy Krueger’s infernal boiler room hangout pairs with the subterranean industrial space that Pennywise calls home: the sewer system forming an abject labyrinth beneath Derry. The persistent lasciviousness of Freddy (whom critic Mark Edmundson describes in Nightmare on Main Street as “a dingy bum dressed in a broken fedora and a football hooligan’s cast-off sweater”) also anticipates the fellatio-proposing hobo/leper that stalks Eddie in King’s book. Just as bad boy Rod is collared for the bizarre slaughter of Tina in the film, mad bully Henry Bowers takes the rap for Pennywise’s widespread crimes in IT. The plots of both the movie and the novel unfold in a strikingly similar fashion: a group of youngsters realize they have been sharing the same nightmarish experiences, and band together to battle their monstrous adversary. Balinese dream skills aid the teens on Elm Street, while King’s kids range beyond their own culture when drawing on the Himalayan Ritual of Chüd. Less sophisticatedly, the array of booby traps that Nancy sets for Freddy in Nightmare links with Richie’s fending off of Pennywise-as-Teenage-Werewolf with sneezing powder (“Jesus,” Richie sardonically ponders, “if I had some itching powder and maybe a joy buzzer I might be able to kill it.“).
All that having been said, there are some salient differences between Craven’s and King’s works. The film presents high-school-age heroes, while the members of the Losers Club in the novel are all pre-teens. The conservative morality evinced by 80’s slasher films consistently punishes teenagers like Tina and Rod who engage in sex, whereas a group sex act in IT actually helps save the Losers when they foray into the sewers. Also, the Freddy-Pennywise equation grows more complicated when one attends carefully to chronology. In the first Nightmare film, Freddy is not the pun-slinger and groan-inducing jokester he would devolve into in later entries in the series, so he can hardly be cited here as a model for Pennywise’s macabre clowning. Likewise, Freddy really is not much of a shapeshifter in the 1984 film (impersonating a hall monitor and later poking his tongue from a telephone mouthpiece form about the extent of it); his wilder transformations would come in films released after the publication of King’s novel. Furthermore, the notion of a terribly metamorphic monster did not originate with Craven and is not unique to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Such creatures are featured in two other works that clearly influence IT: John Carpenter’s The Thing (in which a deadly alien trickster crash-lands on Earth) and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (in which a manitou-like femme fatale torments a group of friends over several generations).
Throughout his career, King has not been averse to engaging in pop cultural appropriation (e.g. the basic scenario of his novel Cell–a father traverses a post-apocalyptic, zombie-stocked wasteland in a quest to reach and rescue his son–sounds suspiciously similar to Brian Keene’s The Rising). I have little doubt that King was familiar with the original Nightmare on Elm Street and folded elements of the film into his monster opus, albeit in a less overt fashion than his references to various other horror genre properties throughout IT. When King writes that Richie (who is accosted by the animate statue of Paul Bunyan) “understood that this wasn’t a dream at all…and if it was, it was a dream that could kill,” he suggests a firm grasp of Craven’s basic conceit. Still, to posit Pennywise as a darkly carnivalesque stand-in for Freddy Krueger, and to call IT a blatant rip-off A Nightmare on Elm Street, is a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation by Tarantino.