Stephen King film adaptations are a mixed bag, ranging from acclaimed (Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, The Shining), to abysmal (Maximum Overdrive, The Dark Tower.) Hollywood seems to have a burning obsession with the horror master's works of late, churning out three films this year alone. The most recent is It, directed by Andy Muschietti (Mama), and written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman.
Full disclaimer, I HATED the book. I respect King's place in literary history, but I find a lot of his stuff to be long winded and tiresome. I took four stabs at reading It before I finally forced myself to choke it down. I don't begrudge anyone their fandom of a property. It certainly has its legions of followers, but I cautiously approached the film expecting to come away underwhelmed. Yet, as far as adaptations go, this one mostly succeeds, and it does so by ditching many of the things that doomed the book for me. I was pleasantly surprised with the result.
The town of Derry, Maine has a nefarious history. Every twenty seven years, an evil presence rears itself, preying upon the town's children. That time has come again in 1988. After the violent death of young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), the ominous figure of Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard) begins to haunt the imaginations of the local youth, trolling for victims like a carnival version of Freddy Krueger. It's up to a group of friends, known as the Loser's Club, to work together to defeat Pennywise.
What I Liked
- The acting in It is spot on. This group of kids gel together quickly, resulting in performances that feel authentic. The standouts are Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Beverly (Sophia Lillis.) They are given the most in the way of fully formed character arcs, and thus are asked to do the heaviest lifting. Richie (Finn Wolfhard) spends most of the film cracking wise and providing some needed levity. The rest of the kids, Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) fill out the requisite roles within the group, but don't stand out in any significant way. A local gang of bullies, led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), torments the group in physically vile and threatening ways. Hamilton is all in on the role and gives Pennywise a run for his money in the evil department.
- Piggybacking off the terrific kid actors, let's discuss Skarsgard as Pennywise. I can't compare this portrayal against the iconic Tim Curry version, as I never bothered, but I found Skarsgard to be sufficiently creepy and engaging. He has just the right amount of curling lower lip to give the clown the distinct look of someone who revels in torturing his victims. He has a way of looking through a victim, and applying just the right amount of taunting smirk to signal trouble is imminent. Recall the way Vincent D'Onofrio looked when Sargent Hartman finally broke him in Full Metal Jacket.
- It does away with a lot of the exposition from the book. This is mostly due to focusing strictly on the kid's arc, leaving the adult arc for a future installment. This helps the film from becoming too convoluted, and allows for more breathing room in developing the characters on screen. I was also glad to see that much of the historical context from the book- things that had nothing to do with what was happening in the current arc- were given a quick mention rather than bogging down the pace of the film.
- That controversial plot device from the book? Not here. Book Spoiler: A prepubescent gangbang to achieve togetherness was a poor decision by King at the end of the novel, and would have been a worse decision had they followed through on it here. Don't @ me on this. It was gross and disturbing, and completely unnecessary. Fans pissed off about the film not adhering to the book on this point are flat out wrong. Do better.
What I Didn't Like
- Too much CGI. A scene early on where Skarsgard's Pennywise holds court over young Georgie from inside the sewer is arguably the best in the film. Skarsgard is given the opportunity to explore the psychology of his character, and the way he manipulates the naivety of the young boy is skin crawlingly perfect. Instead, Muschietti relies too heavily on jump scares and frantic camera work, predictably telegraphed for the audience, diminishing the effectiveness of the scares. The best monsters are the ones that have a human quality to them, and much of that is removed from Pennywise.
- I realize that characters doing dumb things in horror movies is just the nature of the business, but I really wish writers would attempt something outside that box from time to time. Characters making smart choices and still struggling would feel so refreshing. Instead, when a kid (Ben) follows a trail of steaming eggs (who knows) through dark, winding hallways, what does he expect will happen? I can tell you it won't end well, because this is how horror films work, and it just feels lazy at times.
- Beverly is arguably the most thoroughly developed character in the film. She has been branded the school slut and she lives every day in fear of her presumably abusive father. Her place within the Loser's Club is one of admiration. She has a spirit of survival and strength about her. So it's disappointing when her character is the one that requires saving towards the end of the film. Half of these other kids would have fallen victim to Pennywise long before Beverly, but yet, here we go with the damsel in distress angel yet again. It was an unfortunate turn in a film that had earned a decent amount of good will up to that point. But, at least she didn't deflower anyone. One step forward, one step back I guess.
It is a sufficient adaptation of King's source material, but it often feels less like a horror film and more like an R rated "Amblin Entertainment meets the devil" expose. There is a Stranger Things/Stand By Me vibe reverberating throughout, but some of the graphic horror keeps the film from going to far in that realm. There are a few effective frights, and more than enough creepy clown moments. If an aversion to clowns is something you deal with on a regular basis, that's not likely to change with this viewing.
I'm excited for more. The next film presumably will tackle the adult arcs from the book, and the Internet is already hard at work determining the right casting choices (I adore Amy Adams, but she's not right for Beverly, sorry.) I hope they loosen the reigns on Skarsgard going forward. More up close and personal Pennywise could really ramp up the creepy factor to eleven.
Enjoy this film as one of the better King book to film transitions. We all definitely float down here.
3.5 out of 5