Truly memorable film adaptations of Stephen King’s work, as longtime fans know, are few and far between. Of the dozens of movies and TV projects based on his novels, novellas, short stories and other material, one can probably name five or perhaps 10 that stand out and can be called great: among those are Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), The Dead Zone (1983), Misery (1990) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). And now you can add It — director Andy Muschietti’s (Mama) take on King’s 1,100-page 1986 doorstop of a book — to that list.
The book was adapted before, as a 1990 ABC-TV miniseries, and while it hasn’t aged especially well in some ways the four-hour venture still has plenty of intense moments, as well as a fearsome performance by Tim Curry as the malevolent Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The new motion picture, however, is able to push the story cinematically in ways that simply could not be done 27 years ago on a broadcast television network. It (the movie) is suffused with a sense of suffocating dread and contains some particularly nasty violence, but also captures the heart and soul of the story: the relationship between seven young friends who bond together in what they come to call the Loser’s Club.
King’s novel is set in two different timelines — roughly 1958 and 1985 — in the town of Derry, Maine, a small city that every 27 years seems to see a spike in unexplained tragedies and child disappearances. The seven children on the cusp of adolescence who find their way toward each other — six boys and one girl — are linked by having all seen or felt horrifying manifestations of their worst fears, as well as visions or dreams of a hideously jovial yet somehow corrupt clown. Although he doesn’t know it as the story begins, group leader Bill Denbrough lost his little brother to the clown, who is known as Pennywise and is just one face of an ancient, evil entity that awakens beneath Derry at that 27-year mark and feeds off the fear it can generate, particularly in its youngest victims.
The book and miniseries had the Losers Club confront It both as children and again as adults, with the novel flashing back and forth between both timelines; at one point in the long development of this film, when Cary Fukunaga was slated to direct and was also co-writing the script (with Chase Palmer), it was decided that the story would be split into two movies, with the first film centering on the children alone. That concept was ported over when Muschietti took over as director and stayed through new drafts of the script (by Gary Dauberman), and is perhaps the best decision that the filmmakers could have made.
By focusing on the children, their relationships with each other and their parents, and the way each of them deals with both the encroachment of death and adulthood, It dives into the kind of character development rarely seen in modern horror fare. We care about each member of the Losers Club, we laugh with them (there is a surprising amount of humor in the movie) and perhaps even cry; their experiences together in that summer of 1988 (in another wise move, the writers and director have moved the story forward by 30 years, with minimal impact) — first love, finding real friends, getting terrorized by the neighborhood bullies — feel real and relatable, making the introduction of supernatural evil more believable and their suffering at Its hands more powerful.
Because Muschietti and the screenwriters understand that King’s work is most successful due to the empathy he creates for his characters — a point that so many adaptations fail to grasp — It is as much a coming-of-age movie as it is a horror story, and it’s filled with heart almost to overflowing. All seven of the young leads are pretty extraordinary, especially Jaeden Lieberher as the grief-stricken Bill, Sophia Lillis as the sophisticated, savvy Beverly and Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame as Richie, the wisecracking motormouth whose incessant tossing out of snark feels like someone randomly throwing bricks on the ground and hoping they eventually form a wall behind which he can hide.
The bonds these kids form feels natural, as does the salty language they use, which may raise some eyebrows but which we remember very clearly coming out of our own mouth at that age. While the book is notorious for its handling of budding sexuality — including an infamous climactic (no pun intended) scene in Its lair involving Beverly and the boys — the movie is much more sweet-natured and innocent: one scene in which the boys ogle Bev in a bathing suit in stupefied amazement is as gently funny as it is bittersweet. The contrast makes later scenes involving her abusive father (Stephen Bogeart) even more painful to watch.
Standing or crawling or oozing against them all is Pennywise, and as played by Bill Skarsgard this physical embodiment of the entity is malicious, cunning, feral and undeniably frightening. Skarsgard has a lanky, angular presence, and to the credit of the visual effects team it’s hard to see where he ends and some of the inevitable CG enhancements begin. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is leering and solicitous, but you can also sense there is a mind underneath the various shapes the shock tactics It employs — a mind utterly alien to human understanding. It’s a tremendous, unsettling and skillful performance, melding Heath Ledger’s Joker with something straight out of the mouth of hell (it will be interesting to see how the sequel handles Pennywise’s true form; there are quick Easter eggs of that and the “deadlights” in this movie).
The movie may not adapt the book page-for-page, but it is faithful in both tone and overall structure: indelible setpieces like Georgie’s grisly encounter with Pennywise, the rock fight in the Barrens with the sadistic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his friends, Beverly’s bloody bathroom and the confrontation in the house at Neibolt Street are all in there. There’s also a subtle undertone of decay in the town of Derry itself; as in the book, its residents are desperate to avoid the truth about the reign of terror in the town rather than root out its source.
It does suffer from a few drawbacks. While Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is quite good and even lyrical at times, there’s too much of it; the movie didn’t need to score every scene to tell us it’s time to be scared. There are also one too many scenes of the Losers’ Club splitting up and running off in different directions, either in the hallways of an abandoned house or the mazelike sewers below Derry. While the kids do grow and change in the course of the film, apparently learning to stick together in places that are rank with evil is apparently not a lesson that sticks.
But I’m pleased to say that the small flaws in It don’t take away from a remarkable genre accomplishment. A tale that both works as an adaptation and stands firmly on its own, It is one of the best horror films of the year — and might make more than a few general best-of-2017 lists. It’s a chilling, emotional, gripping and heartfelt experience. Move over Carrie and Jack Torrance, Pennywise is prancing over with his awful red balloons and child-eating grin to sit proudly next to you near the top of the King cinematic tower.
It is out in theaters this Friday (September 8).