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The Joker and Stephen King’s Pennywise are the two most iconic evil clowns in fiction — did one inspire the other? Here’s a look at the many inspirations behind the different versions of Pennywise, from a Norwegian fairy tale to a horror movie villain.

A screen projecting an image of Heath Ledger as the Joker
The Joker Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The kid-friendly origins of Stephen King’s ‘It’

Pennywise has his origin in King’s novel It. It might not feel much like a fairy tale, but it was directly inspired by one. Specifically, King said on his website he was influenced by the Norwegian fairy tale “The Three Billy-Goats Gruff.” The tale is about a group of goats who outsmart a troll so they can cross a bridge in peace. King decided he wanted to write about a troll who lived beneath a bridge. Later, he changed his mind and decided he wanted to write a novel about a troll who lived in a sewer. 

“I thought of how such a story might be cast,” King said, “how it might be possible to create a ricochet effect, interweaving the stories of children and the adults they become. Sometime in the summer of 1981, I realized that I had to write about the troll….” In the completed novel, the villain is an extraterrestrial who shapeshifts into a clown rather than a troll.

Stephen King wearing glasses
Stephen King | John Lamparski/WireImage

The inspirations behind Tim Curry’s Pennywise

So the Joker was not the inspiration for the novel It. The first adaptation of the novel was the 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry. The people behind the miniseries looked to a variety of sources for their version of Pennywise.

Did the Joker inspire the 1990s version of Pennywise? No, however, Yahoo! Entertainment reports another famous villain did influence Curry’s version of the character: the Phantom of the Opera. Though the most famous adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera is the 1980s musical, the film’s makeup artist, Barton Mixon, looked to Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the Phantom in a 1925 silent film for inspiration. Specifically, he modeled Pennywise’s face on that of Chaney’s balding, deformed Phantom. In addition, Mixon wanted his Pennywise design to resemble a cartoon. 

A yellow lobby card for the 1925 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera
Lobby card for The Phantom of the Opera | LMPC via Getty Images

Did Heath Ledger’s Joker inspire Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise?

What about the popular film It from 2017? Digital Spy reports Bill Skarsgård, the actor who portrayed Pennywise in the film, contrasted Pennywise with Heath Ledger’s Joker.

“I think that [the Joker is] far more based in reality,” Skarsgård said. “[The Joker] is sort of this social anarchist, crazy person, and I don’t think Pennywise is the same in that way. He’s not even human, he’s just pure evil.”

The trailer for the theatrical film It

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However, Skarsgård said he played the role in a way similar to how Ledger played the Joker. “You need to access parts of yourself where you’re thinking about what’s the most disturbing or horrifying [thing to do], and then you have to commit to that.” Clearly, many influences helped Pennywise become the horror icon he is today.