The name “Pennywise” is enough to strike horror into the heartiest of hearts, and thanks to the portrayal of the character by two exceptional actors, that horror has now spread through generations. Tim Curry marked thousands of people with his portrait of Stephen Kingis Pennywise in the 1990s HE television mini-series. Bill Skarsgard tagged thousands more with his Pennywise in 2017 HE movie and its 2019 sequel. Two actors who brought different things to the character. Different and diabolical things that made each performance unique and iconic. But there can only be one definitive performance, so who will it be – Curry or Skarsgård? Let the Clown King Beatdown begin!
Appearance relative to novel
In King’s novel, Pennywise wears a baggy silver silk suit with orange pom poms, a ruff, and white gloves. His face is white, his head bald except for the red hair on either side. His mouth has a red clown smile and he often holds a bunch of balloons. King reportedly based his appearance on Ronald McDonald, Bozo the Clown, Clarabell the Clown, and occasional serial killer/birthday clown John Wayne Gacy. This battle is not even close. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is much closer to the character’s appearance in the novel than Curry’s.
Appearance on screen
However, just because a character’s appearance is true to the book doesn’t mean they translate 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. The curry has the advantage here. His Pennywise is the most 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 that has roots in the real world. What’s scarier than an on-screen clown? See a clown in a circus or other event that looks suspiciously like him. So similar that you pray Pennywise didn’t pull a Samara and go off-screen.
Another key difference between the two depictions is how each expresses the character. Curry’s take has a rasp, growl, and somewhat similar to his costume, it’s also traditional, but in the vein of classic villains like Spider Manthe green goblin (Willem Dafoe) or Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). Skarsgård’s is more varied, growling one moment, oddly soothing the next, much like the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) assuring Luke (Marc Hamil) that the shield around the Death Star is fully operational in Return of the Jedi. It’s this variety that cements how Pennywise can draw kids to him and then scare the living shit out of them the next day.
Both actors play the spooky factor of Pennywise differently, but effectively. Curry’s Pennywise has dead, lifeless eyes that are almost indescribable, staring ahead almost blankly, but not. It’s more obvious at the beginning, when Curry talks to Georgie (Tony Dakota). Pennywise looks at Georgie, but it almost looks like he can’t see anything at all…until the eyes turn red and he starts killing. Skarsgård’s eyes carry more menace behind them, but then he adds this super scary ability to make his eyes go in different directions. Curry adds humor to the horror in his portrayal, such as asking Richie (Harry Anderson) “Say, do you have any Prince Albert in a box?” while taunting him with a library filled with blood. He also has a penchant for places you wouldn’t expect him to be, like in a graveyard happily digging holes. Skarsgård does not use humor as much, but is constantly present in the background, in the images and in the people. His Pennywise also boasts a larger budget, allowing for scenes like Beverly (Jessica Chastain) attacked by Pennywise as CGI Ms. Kersh (Joan Gregson). Too hard to call…so we won’t.
As for who stays in your psyche longer after the credits roll? Truth be told, it may be a generational thing. Skarsgård is definitely creepy, with that face, the ubiquitous red balloons, and the other shapes he takes, like Mrs. Kersh and Paul Bunyan. But for those of us who were young when Curry’s Pennywise arrived, there’s no room for Skarsgård’s version. Curry almost single-handedly gave this entire generation coulrophobia (fear of clowns), with the practical effects of the 1990 series arguably aging better than the CGI in 2017/2019 and that real-life connection that’s been talked about above only keeps that fear alive. That said, it’s probably also true that it was Skarsgård who made that scarred impression on young people today, who view Curry’s Pennywise as dated. But, go with the boomer bias and make the call.
We’ll start with the fact that both interpretations of the movie have a better ending than the weird, giant Cosmic Turtle/Ritual of Chud ending from the book. Pennywise’s death in 2019 IT Chapter 2, while better than the novel, is undeniably weird, with the adult Losers essentially forcing a spider-like Pennywise into a helpless baby Pennywise by hurling insults at it. Yes, words hurt, but seriously? Curry’s 1990 Death of Pennywise is better than both, but still not great. IT is partly a puppet, partly Ray Harryhausen-esque giant stop-motion animated spider, which the Losers tear up after Beverly (Annette O’Toole) hurts IT using his slingshot. More to the point, more visceral, but still meh. So we’re going to allow outside interference from the Pennywise of The simpsons Season 34 episode HE “Not That” parody, Krusto D. Clown (Dan Castellaneta), with his limbs snapping loudly and painfully, one by one, at inhuman angles, a suitably twisted death for a twisted character.
WINNER: Crusty D. Clown
And the winner is…
After counting the results, it’s Skarsgård 2, Curry 2, a draw, and a spoiler underdog vote for Krusto D. Clown, which strangely seems like the most appropriate result to compare the
of them three performances of King’s Pennywise. Step back in 27 years when Pennywise returns, as he always has, to find out where the AI actor-bot playing the role compares to others.