The name “Pennywise” is enough to stir horror in the stoutest of people, and thanks to the depiction of the character by two exceptional actors, that horror has now spread across generations. Tim Curry scarred thousands of people with his portrayal of Stephen King’s Pennywise in the 1990 IT TV miniseries. Bill Skarsgård scarred thousands more with his Pennywise in the 2017 IT movie and its 2019 sequel. Two actors that brought different things to the character. Different, evil things that made each depiction unique and iconic. But there can only be one definitive portrayal, so who will it be – Curry, or Skarsgård? Let the Beatdown of the King Clown begin!
Appearance Compared To Novel
In King’s novel, Pennywise wears a baggy silk suit of silver with orange pompoms, a collar ruff, and white gloves. His face is white, his head bald save for red hair on each side. His mouth has a red clown smile, and he’s often holding a bunch of balloons. King reportedly based his appearance on Ronald McDonald, Bozo the Clown, Clarabell the Clown, and serial killer/occasional birthday clown John Wayne Gacy. This battle isn’t even close. Skarsgård’s Pennywise skews much closer to the appearance of the character in the novel than Curry’s.
Appearance On Screen
However, just because a character’s appearance is faithful to the book doesn’t mean it translates well to the screen. Skarsgård’s Pennywise looks menacing, but doesn’t have a comparable look in the real world, or at least not in this century. Curry has the advantage here. His Pennywise is the more traditional clown look: big red nose, red hair, and a big, poofy yellow suit adorned with orange pom-poms and a blue and purple jacket, it’s a look which does have roots in the real world. What’s scarier than a clown on screen? Seeing a clown at a circus or other event that looks eerily similar. So similar you pray that somehow Pennywise didn’t pull a Samara and walk out of the screen.
Another key difference between the two portrayals is how each voices the character. Curry’s take has a rasp, a growl, to it, and somewhat similar to his costume, it too is traditional, but in the vein of classic villains like Spider-Man‘s Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) or Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). Skarsgård’s is more varied, growly at one moment, eerily soothing the next, much like the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) assuring Luke (Mark Hamill) that the shield around the Death Star is fully operational in Return of the Jedi. It’s that variety that cements how Pennywise can lure children to him and then scare the living shit out of them the next.
Both actors play Pennywise’s creepiness factor different, but effectively. Curry’s Pennywise has dead, lifeless eyes that are almost indescribable, staring ahead almost vacantly, but not. This is most evident at the beginning, when Curry is talking to Georgie (Tony Dakota). Pennywise is staring at Georgie, but it almost looks like he’s not seeing anything at all… until the eyes turn red, and he goes in for the kill. Skarsgård’s eyes carry more menace behind them, but then he adds this super creepy ability to make his eyes go in different directions. Curry adds humor to horror in his portrayal, like asking Richie (Harry Anderson) “Say, do you have Prince Albert in a can?” while taunting him with a blood-filled library. He also has a penchant for being places one would not expect him to be, like in a graveyard gleefully digging holes. Skarsgård doesn’t use humor as much, but is constantly present in the background, in pictures and in people. His Pennywise also benefits from a larger budget, allowing for scenes like Beverly (Jessica Chastain) being attacked by Pennywise as the CGI Mrs. Kersh (Joan Gregson). Too tough to call… so we won’t.
As for who sticks around longer in your psyche after the credits roll? Truthfully, this may be a generational thing. Skarsgård is definitely scary, with that face, the ever-present red balloons, and the other forms he takes, like Mrs. Kersh and Paul Bunyan. But for those of us that were young when Curry’s Pennywise came around, there’s no room for Skarsgård’s version. Curry almost single-handedly gave that entire generation coulrophobia (fear of clowns), with the practical effects of the 1990 series arguably having aged better than the CGI in 2017/2019 and that real-life connection talked about above only keeping that fear alive. That said, it is likely also true that it is Skarsgård who has made that scarring impression on today’s youth, who look upon Curry’s Pennywise as dated. But, going to go with boomer-bias and make the call.
We’ll start with the fact that both renditions of the film have a better ending than the weird, giant cosmic turtle/Ritual of Chud ending of the book. Pennywise’s death in 2019’s IT Chapter Two, while better than the novel, is undeniably odd, with the grown Losers basically forcing a Pennywise-spider into a helpless baby Pennywise by hurling insults at it. Yes, words hurt, but seriously? The death of Curry’s Pennywise in 1990 is better than both, but still not great. IT is a part-puppet, part Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion animated giant spider, which the Losers rip apart after Beverly (Annette O’Toole) hurts IT by using her slingshot. More to the point, more visceral, but still meh. So we’re going to allow some outside interference from the Pennywise of The Simpsons Season 34 episode IT parody “Not IT”, Krusto D. Clown (Dan Castellaneta), with his limbs snapping loudly and painfully, one by one, into inhuman angles, a fittingly twisted death for a twisted character.
WINNER: Krusto D. Clown
And The Winner Is…
After tallying the results, it’s Skarsgård 2, Curry 2, one draw and one outsider spoiler vote for Krusto D. Clown, which oddly seems to be the most appropriate result in comparing the
two three depictions of King’s Pennywise. Check back in 27 years when Pennywise comes back, as he always has, for where the A.I. actor-bot playing the role stacks up against the rest.