There is perhaps not a scene in horror more iconic than Pennywise in the sewer. It’s the stuff of nightmares. For numerous reasons.
Nearly every part of Derry, Maine is given a twisted and macabre aura around it. From a bridge to a drugstore. But it is one of the first scenes of the book, later adapted twice to film, that takes a quiet street and a simple sewer drain and turns it into a masterful work of horror art.
The Scene in Movies
Pennywise in IT (1990)
Let’s take a look at what is the original version of the scene put to screen, and that is the miniseries. It’s not quite the first scene of the IT 1990 miniseries, but it’s one of the first. And it’s certainly most people’s true introduction to Pennywise the clown.
The music is reminiscent of early Disney… a child traipsing the outdoors like Christopher Robin, Mowgli in The Jungle Book, or even better, Peter and the Wolf (perhaps the best Disney comparison). The music that follows when Pennywise appears and continues throughout the miniseries is straight from a circus-like jingle, which is very fitting.
When Pennywise struggles to keep Georgie there, which is exactly what you would hope to happen with a level-headed child who has been taught to fear strangers, Pennywise coaxes him with the paper boat. Just like in the original Stephen King text.
And much of the rest is very similar to the book, with Pennywise also coaxing Georgie with more “surprises”… cotton candy and rides… and balloons too. Some of the imagery that is found in Stephen King’s book is difficult to depict exactly, such as white gloves “like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore,” yet at the same time when you read in the book “he looked like a cross between Bozo and Clarabell,” ultimately you feel like this adaptation came incredibly close to what was in the book. Just abbreviated in certain ways.
Pennywise in IT (2017)
In the IT movie that came out in 2017, every part had to reinvent what was done before at least in some small part. From the design of Pennywise to dialogue and what happens, just recreating what happened in the IT miniseries wasn’t a real option, even if this particular scene had become quite iconic.
There are some particular differences that were added that stray both from book and miniseries that, yes, make it less like Stephen King’s text. And yet some of them I find to be clever and very purposeful in order to draw out some additional meanings. For one, Georgie says “Bill is going to kill me” and later Pennywise repeats it… that line didn’t exist before, and of course is prophetic and sad.
And then there are the eyes. It isn’t something you would expect the miniseries to accomplish in the same way, given the year and budget. This is a case where a little CGI allowed IT 2017 to depict and highlight something that was fairly prominent in the book. Yellow eyes, turning to blue. In Stephen King’s IT: “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.”
You can see in that little detail, Pennywise is taking something Georgie has imagined, something he has feared, animal eyes peering at him in his basement, and turned it into eyes coming out of a sewer.
There is also the darkness. Pennywise in the sewer appears first as eyes in the darkness, then mostly covered in darkness for most of the scene. In 1990 I imagine leaving that much darkness on a person’s face, however sinister you wanted them to be, was considered more of a risk. Now with higher definition televisions and even darkness that can be manipulated in post-production, truly leaving a character like Pennywise in exactly the amount of darkness you want him to be in seems like a bold and interesting way of using modern technology.
There are a few other dialogue choices, especially since this scene does actually have more dialogue than the IT miniseries. Some choices are MORE like Stephen King’s book, while others are added with some thematic purpose. Pennywise asks whether Georgie has friends, and even exchanges words regarding his brother Bill. This was not in the book, but helps set in the ongoing theme of Pennywise preying on others when they are most alone, when they are most vulnerable.
In the sewer Pennywise also talks about the smells of the circus, which is something right out of the book but didn’t make it into the miniseries. Smell is often considered the most potent sense, especially for children. Coaxing Georgie with candy associates him with the stereotypical stranger with candy sweets, while the POP POP of the popcorn delights Georgie with a certain burst of excitement. These are wonderful choices that accomplish slightly different things with this particular version.
Finally there is where the scene leads, which is the most obvious difference between this version and the versions in both book and miniseries. The violence. Seeing Georgie bleed. For many, this difference overshadows the rest of the scene, while for others, it may seem like giving an R-rated version what was needed. In any case, it is a major choice.
That said, breaking down these two versions and giving a fresh read to the book (below), one can see that there were many decisions made in order to bring something creative and different to each version. IT (2017) actually was able to bring more of the book to life in some ways, while IT (1990) was in other ways more faithful in certain stylistic and visual components.
The Scene in the Book
Here is the scene the way Stephen King depicted it in his original book.
Take special note of the ending and many of the word choices. It is both horrific and “playful” in a way that expertly accompanies a scene of a colorful clown monster murdering its prey. The muddy water is “surfing over his face” while his screams “sound bubbly”… these are things that can’t be replicated on screen and make reading it particularly remarkable.
The Pennywise Sewer Memes
According to Know Your Meme, the use of Pennywise in the sewer as a meme started in 2010, or at least one of the earliest uses of it. Remember Demotivational Posters? It started as one of those, but of course, as memes tend to do, it grew into a life of its own. (And if you want to ever give him a call, you can even try Pennywise’s phone number.)
The most common meme involving the scene is having Pennywise offer something, and then either the person is crawling into the sewer for it, or alternatively we see crew pouring concrete over the sewer because it is something no one wants.
Buy a Pennywise Sewer Replica/Figure
NECA – IT (2017) – Deluxe Accessory Set
Description: “Based on the 2017 film IT. Accessory set includes: sewer diorama display base; Pennywise Jack in the Box; Pennywise Puppet; Georgie severed arm; SS Georgie boat; red balloon.”
Diamond Select Toys: It 1990 Classic Pennywise PVC Figure
Description: “Based on Tim Curry’s classic portrayal in the 1990 It miniseries. Stands approximately 9″ tall. Features detailed sculpting and paint applications.”
Last Updated on March 26, 2022.