After years of best laid plans, multiple filmmakers, and an endless stream of herky jerk starts and stops, a big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel, It, finally arrives in theaters. Maybe the best-loved book by one of the world’s best-loved authors, fans have been on edge about this—King adaptations haven’t always been…good. But It stands at or at least near the top of heap in terms of quality. Eerie, atmospheric, and true to the book in the best ways, despite large-scale changers, It should satisfy both extant fans and horror enthusiasts alike.
Topping 10100 pages, King’s 1986 novel is a massive tome, the kind that doubles as a doorstop or blunt weapon in a pinch. Mama director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation—working from a script by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, and previous director Cary Fukunaga (the saga of getting It to the screen could fill a book in itself)—only tackles half. The story follows “The Losers’ Club,” a group of friends in a small Maine town at two periods of their lives. It begins with them as kids—in the book, it’s the 1950s, though this iteration transports them to the 1980s—and picks up with them 27 years later as adults. While a second part is in the works, It, as it appears on screen, delivers the childhood years.
The Losers’ Club is composed of seven friends: Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and their hometown of Derry is full of monsters. They contend with bullies; parents who are, at best, disinterested, at worst, skin-crawling; and, of course, It, an ancient, shape-shifting evil that resurfaces every 27 years to terrorize the children of Derry, most often taking the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard).
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, that’s because there most certainly is. Sometimes Muschietti keeps all the balls in the air in admirable fashion; other times, it gets away from him.
Across the board, the young cast is fantastic—Lillis, especially, should be well on her way to being a huge star after this. The story hinges on them, and that, more than any other facet, the production needed to nail, and it does. But even while the kids all turn in strong performances, especially given the often grisly, trying subject matter, not everyone has as much to do. There’s simply not enough space, even at 135 minutes.
At it’s core, It is about kids dealing with trauma and confronting fear. King has no compunction with putting younger characters through hell, and every one of these Losers goes through the ringer. More central figures, like Mike and Beverly, have well-defined characters. A chronic stutterer, the disappearance of Bill’s kid brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), haunts him and serves as the impetus for the action. At school, Beverly contends with mean girls and swirling gossip, though she puts up a tough front. While at home, she faces things no kid should ever face.
Other characters, however, don’t get the same treatment. They all have their own shit to deal with, but it’s less fleshed out, and most of them have a single defining trait, little more. Eddie’s the hypochondriac, Mike saw his parents die in a fire, and Ben’s the chubby new kid with a crush. Stanley draws the shortest straw. He’s Jewish and afraid of a painting and that’s really all there is to him. Even Richie, probably the most memorable character with all the best lines—he’s the foul-mouthed little shit of the gang—doesn’t have much going on outside of playing the metaphorical clown. There’s no reason, he just is how he is.
The overall pace suffers from similar issues. There’s so much going on that threads disappear for extended periods, to the point where it’s easy to wonder why we saw them in the first place. On a piece by piece basis, the individual segments generally work well, but there’s not always a natural flow and a few holes pop up in the narrative.
But what It does best, and what carries the movie, is capture the feeling of childhood, both good and bad—especially for white kids who grew up weird in a small or smallish town. Moments of wonder, awe, and joy mix with abject terror and dread. This nostalgic, externally idyllic place hides unfathomable darkness. And I’m not even talking about Pennywise and the overt supernatural horror elements.
For the most part, those are fine and even incredibly inventive on occasion—there’s one scene in particular with a slide projector that I wish hadn’t been ruined in the trailers, because it’s creepy as all hell. Muschietti certainly knows how to craft tension and pay it off with a jump scare.
But it’s also in the supernatural, where Pennywise dances in flames or a sink spews waves of blood all over a bathroom (King certainly has a penchant for that particular flourish), that It feels least remarkable. There’s nothing wrong with these scenes, but this is where it practically screams, “This is a horror movie!” complete with a room full of clowns and intrusively odd camera angles. How much mileage you get out of that varies wildly, and at times it becomes overly familiar.
The truly harrowing parts of It have little to do with the supernatural. They happen when bullies corner Ben and carve into his belly or when Georgie goes into the basement alone. Working with frequent Park Chan-wook cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (The Handmaiden, Oldboy, Stoker), Muschietti creates a mood and atmosphere that mirrors childhood eyes. Storms are apocalyptic, cellars are places of terror where monsters dwell, and the decrepit house at the end of the block hides something more sinister than empty rooms. At the same time, swimming in the quarry is magical, the woods are another world, and friends mean everything.
It essentially takes all of these childhood hopes and fears and gives them life. It takes the metaphorical and gives it literal form. That’s why this story strikes a nerve with so many people. King tells a tale of growing up, of coming to terms with the reality of the world. Monsters surround us, but so do friends; we lose our innocence, but feel the first pangs of love. Muschietti’s translation captures these feelings and stays true to the spirit of the novel, and that’s what floats It, despite bumps and flaws and imperfections. [Grade: B+]