Who was the better Pennywise in IT: Tim Curry or Bill Skarsgard? Stephen King's novel IT was first published in 1986, concerning a group of childhood friends known as "The Losers Club", who are terrorized by a supernatural force that takes the shape of a clown named Pennywise in order to prey on the unsuspecting population of Derry, Maine. After defeating the murderous clown as children, the return of Pennywise a few decades later leads The Loser's Club reunite as adults to destroy the otherworldly monster once and for all in IT Chapter Two.
As was the case at the time for most adaptation's of King's literary works, the novel was first brought to life as a two-part television miniseries in 1990, with Curry giving an iconic portrayal of the villainous clown. For 2017's IT, Bill Skarsgard would tackle the role of Pennywise in Andy Muschietti's big screen adaptation of the novel, along with reprising the role for the sequel. Both the miniseries and the theatrical films would also divide the story into two separate chapters, with the first devoted to The Loser's Club as children, and the second depicting the group returning to Derry as adults for a final showdown with Pennywise.
In the years since each actor stepped into the role of the carnivorous clown, both Curry and Skarsgard's respective performances as Pennywise are fondly remembered as highlights from the career of each. However, both would also take a very different approach to portraying the character and truly make the role his own in both adaptations of King's novel - but which one is better?
The Case For Tim Curry
In his performance as Pennywise, Tim Curry was a cackling, flamboyant cartoon, which by itself is hardly a detour from a typical Curry performance, but it was those very qualities that made him ideally suited for the role. Curry's Pennywise injects as much levity into the film as he does terror, and he could legitimately be mistaken for a genuine clown by the denizens of Derry, which is exactly what makes Curry's performance work.
His first scene in which he lures the young Georgie into a sewer is every parent's worst nightmare, a true "Don't take candy from strangers" moment, so much so that the film even directly addresses it, with Georgie commenting that he's not supposed to talk to strangers. Pennywise, in turn, commends the wisdom of the parental advice Georgie's been given, before introducing himself by name, thus circumventing Georgie's concerns on the grounds that "Now we know each other". Pennywise then proceeds to lure Georgie to his demise with his toy boat as bait, but its his ability to gain the trust of children and present himself as a friendly, affable clown that is his true deadliest weapon against those he preys upon. What's more, the design of Curry's Pennywise has a predatory edge on that of Skarsgard's, with the latter much more tailor made to frighten children (and adults), while Curry resembles the innocuous look of a clown seen at any carnival.
Elsewhere in the film, Curry is more haunting and antagonistic towards The Loser's Club, particularly once they encounter him again as adults. However, he still maintains his blend of dark humor and circus antics in a clear bid to drive them insane. This is particularly exemplified in the scene in the Derry library, with the adult Richie being the only person able to see or hear Pennywise and being left unnerved and panicked as the evil clown cracks jokes and blood-filled balloons pop all around him. By this point, Pennywise is a pure force of terror on The Loser's Club, but the film hasn't lost sight of his ability to lure his prey into his clutches either, as we see when he corners Bill's wife, Audra, with his "deadlights" and turns the group's old bully Henry Bowers into his own personal assassin against his returning enemies.
Scenes of Ben suddenly discovering he's kissing Pennywise rather than Beverly or of the clown aggressively asking "Don't you want it?" repeatedly after offering Audra a balloon work as well as they do because we've seen his skill at penetrating the defenses of anyone he targets, either by telepathic ability or offering them a bit of forbidden fruit. With his performance as Pennywise, Curry is able to embody everything a child would expect from a clown, while interweaving it with a subversive sense of humor and skill at pushing the right buttons to keep every member of The Loser's Club petrified and unprepared for when he finally chooses to pounce. The Pennywise portrayed by Tim Curry knew how to lay a trap for the children he hunts and lure them into his waiting claws, the hallmarks of what makes a killer clown scary.
The Case For Bill Skarsgard
There's no better word to describe Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise than monstrous. His clown look more resembles something one would expect to see in a Marilyn Manson music video than a pie-tossing, unicycle-riding clown, as Curry's Pennywise so convincingly embodied. However, it also works in Skarsgard's favor due to the how much it leaves the audience genuinely dreading what he's going to do to the unsuspecting children. His voice and body language make him that much more terrifying, with the latter carrying an especially nightmarish anti-rhythm to it.
Skarsgard's Pennywise also makes virtually no attempt to hide his own viciousness, something we see right away in the new film's version of his meeting with Georgie. While the plot device of Georgie's reluctance to talk to strangers is still present, Skarsgard's Pennywise can barely contain his obvious bloodlust, and the manner in which he offers Georgie his toy boat back is almost Faustian in his transparently wicked intent. The scene is also far more graphic in its depiction of Georgie's demise, owing to its wide theatrical release and R-rating, but it's the clear delight that Skarsgard's Pennywise takes in preying on his young victim without ever masking his evil intentions that makes the opening of IT possibly the most tragic scene in any Stephen King movie.
Pennywise continues to terrorize The Loser's Club throughout the film, and only grows more chilling with every encounter. If anything, there's much more of an arrogance to Skarsgard's portrayal of Pennywise, with how little effort he has to put into frightening his young enemies and how minimal a threat he perceives from them. Skarsgard has such command over his character's menacing qualities that his sinister grin would become of staple of the film's marketing campaign. Indeed, it's a facet of the character that Skarsgard has so perfected that it's often the only thing his Pennywise resorts to in order to send shivers down the collective spine of The Loser's Club and that of the audience.
Skarsgard's aforementioned body language as Pennywise is also disturbingly abnormal and erratic, something that he fully exploits in his battle with The Loser's Club in a dilapidated house and later in the final showdown in the sewers of Derry. The circus dance Pennywise does before a captive Beverly has inspired countless memes and YouTube parodies, but its undeniably unsettling in its subverting of such a seemingly innocent concept, the very goal of Pennywise himself as he terrorizes and hunts the children of Derry.
The Winner: Skarsgard
Both Curry and Skarsgard portray Pennywise splendidly, and each actor's interpretation of the character is uniquely his own. However, Skarsgard is ultimately the more horrifying movie monster of the two. Curry's Pennywise fits the profile of what a child would expect to see in a clown and has an advantage in being more adept at blinding children to his malevolence, as we see in his first scene with Georgie. Curry's performance is also far more outright comedic, albeit darkly so, with his Pennywise cracking one-liners and frequently engaging in a genuine circus act, while frightening his victims, in an all-around wacky performance not too far removed from Dr. Frankenfurter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
On the other hand, Skarsgard's turn as Pennywise is the embodiment of pure evil right from the start, more resembling Satan himself than a circus performer in his very first scene with Georgie. While Skarsgard's makeup is the more explicitly frightening look, and thus less easily equipped to mask his predatory intentions, that ends up being irrelevant due to his very straightforward methods of instilling unspeakable terror in the hearts of The Loser's Club. Skarsgard's voice and body movements are also more unsettling, with the latter especially having the disturbing dance-like feel, while Skarsgard's devilish smirk in the role would sear itself into the memories of moviegoers around the world.
The distinction between Curry and Skarsgard's respective performances as Pennywise is akin to the difference between how Lance Henriksen had been conceived for the title role in The Terminator and the mountainous killing machine Arnold Schwarzenegger would ultimately embody. One flies under the radar to ensnare his victims in the shadows, while the other jettisons with all stealth and goes straight for the kill. While neither actor's approach to Pennywise is lacking, it's ultimately Skarsgard who most effectively keeps the audience in a constant state of dread, after convincing viewers from his very first scene of just how sadistic a monster he really is. The respective performances of both Tim Curry and Bill Skarsgard as the murderous, supernatural clown Pennywise are among the personal best of each actor's filmography, but it's ultimately Skarsgard who floats a little higher.
- IT Chapter Two (2019) release date: Sep 06, 2019