From 'It' to 'The Stand': King's ABC miniseries still haunt us

Updated 9/8/2017 10:13 AM
  • This is Stephen King. He wrote a few books you might have heard of. Just a few.

    This is Stephen King. He wrote a few books you might have heard of. Just a few. Associated Press

Stephen King's books have been adapted into eight miniseries for the ABC network over the years, beginning in 1990 with the first filmed version of this week's much-anticipated theatrical release, "It."

Adapting the decidedly adult, 1,138-page novel about an evil being that kills children into a pair of commercial-friendly, two-hour TV episodes was a big risk for ABC, but director Tommy Lee Wallace delivered -- "It" endures 27 years later as a horror classic and as a landmark miniseries. (In fact, it's the only one of ABC's adaptations to warrant a Blu-ray release.)

Watched by a combined 30 million viewers, "It" was a hit. Tim Curry's over-the-top portrayal of the title creature's main manifestation, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, sets a high bar for Bill Skarsgard's interpretation in the new film. The heroes included TV favorites such as Richard Thomas ("The Waltons"), Harry Anderson ("Night Court"), Tim Reid ("WKRP in Cincinnati") and, most memorably, John Ritter ("Three's Company").

It's creepy, it's more than a bit corny, the music doesn't quite hold up and the final encounter with a stop-motion spider disappointed everyone -- even the director, if you listen to the DVD commentary -- but "It" is still worth revisiting. I was 11 when it first aired, and some of its images still haunt me. (That Chinese restaurant scene!)

The success of "It" yielded some not-so-great follow-ups. There was the cheesy Jimmy Smits alien yarn "The Tommyknockers," a new adaptation of "The Shining" that traded Jack Nicholson for Stephen Weber ("Wings"), and, worst of all, "The Langoliers," a laughably amateurish two-nighter that saw Bronson Pinchot ("Perfect Strangers") and a planeload of passengers being terrorized by creatures that looked like Pac-Man ... only Pac-Man had better graphics.

The best of "It's" TV progenitors is easily "The Stand," an eight-hour retelling of King's epic tale of a worldwide plague and the Biblical battle that follows it. Running for four nights in 1994, "The Stand" won two Emmys and about a million re-airings on Syfy.

The first episode grabs you with a montage set to Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" that shows the "Captain Trips" virus taking its hold; the performances of Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Ruby Dee, Rob Lowe and a devilish Jamey Sheridan keep you hooked, even when the production design and visual effects disappoint.

"It" and "The Stand" were '90s event television at its best: sprawling productions with likable casts and truly haunting moments. I hope Andy Muschietti, director of the new "It," can capture that same excitement.

All of the ABC Stephen King miniseries -- those mentioned above, plus "Storm of the Century," "Rose Red" and "Desperation" -- are available on DVD. "It" and "Desperation" are also available for rental and purchase on digital platforms.

• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald multiplatform editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.

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