For a generation of kids the story of IT is invariably tied to the iconic performance from Tim Curry as the shapeshifting Pennywise the Clown. So indelible is that performance that everyone largely forgets that the 1990 miniseries was not a very good movie. It failed to capture what made the novel so brilliant in the first place. This long in development remake largely fixes so many of the problems in the mini-series and delivers a thrilling rendition of the story that has enthralled readers for decades.
Of all the Stephen King books I love – and there are many – IT is my favorite. There are certain things that I think any successful adaptation has to get right in order to work and this movie damn near nails them all.
IT tells the story of the 7 children that call themselves the Losers Club and their battle one summer against an ancient creature that they simply call IT in the town of Derry, Maine. The creature most enjoys being Pennywise the Clown so that is the face IT shows more than any other. IT feeds on fear and flesh – possibly in equal parts – so when IT is really on the hunt can take the form of whatever scares you the most.
Bill Skarsgard portrays Pennywise as malevolent yet playful but you never forget that the clown is just another mask that IT wears. With IT’s weird buck teeth and clipped way of speaking the clown has a way of almost lulling you in to letting your guard down. When Pennywise is talking you are more of less safe. It’s when IT’s face goes slack and a blankness comes over IT’s features that you know the true terror is coming as IT opens its mouth revealing row after row of teeth that would look more at home in the mouth of an angler fish. Pennywise is a terrifying creation and the filmmakers wisely rely on Stephen King’s dialogue from the book for a lot of the encounters the Loser’s Club has with IT.
The most difficult obstacle in adapting this story is getting the Loser’s Club right and that is the part of the movie that succeeds the best. I wish they had given Mike Hanlon (the only black character) more of his characteristics from the book. In the novel Mike is the one interested in the history of the town of Derry. For the movie Ben Hanscom is given that role but one scene blurs the line when Mike tells them some sordid history about Derry. I understand why Mike is shortchanged along with the another Loser (Stan) but I wish they had found a way to keep Mike’s detailed story intact. For 135 minute run time the movie makes you care about each one of the kids however it’s hard not to wonder what a 10 hour uncut version of this story would have yielded.
All of that said, the movie largely gets the other characters exactly right. Of special note, Finn Wolfhard as Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier is just outstanding as is Sophia Lilis as Beverly Marsh and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kasbrak. All of the kids do a great job but those three are terrific standouts. The movie does a good job giving all of the kids a couple of centerpiece moments which is great but has an unintended side effect. In the novel Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is the leader of the Losers Club. He retains the role here as well but it is somewhat neutered.
The event that kicks off the story is the horrific murder of Bill’s brother Georgie by Pennywise. Throughout the movie Bill holds the idea that Georgie is still alive despite all evidence to the contrary. In the book they know Georgie is dead and Bill’s single-minded pursuit to destroy IT is fueled by revenge. By changing Bill’s motivation it somewhat weakens his character and you don’t entirely buy in to his ability to rally the rest of the kids against this seemingly unstoppable force. These are minor quibbles but they do change the trajectory of the character from what was expected.
Another aspect that is near perfect in the movie is the portrayal of the town of Derry. Book readers know that Derry is an ugly town with an ugly history and the highest homicide rate per capita in the country. Derry is a town where evil things happen and are allowed to happen with frightening regularity. Early on when Georgie is dragged in to a storm drain an old woman on her porch sees the swirl of blood in the street as the rain washes it in to the drain and she simply turns and goes back in her house. Almost all of the adults are ugly on the inside as well as the outside. Of all the actors in the entire movie I would say that Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things is by far the most recognizable. So there is no comfort of the familiar with the adults just largely unknown character actors with makeup and subtle prosthetics to make them look almost inhuman. Their sallow skin and unhealthy palor reflects their internal ugliness and and willful ignorance toward what is happening in Derry.
Because at the heart of the story is the notion that IT is Derry. The creature was there when the town was founded and its evil has infected the town like a cancer. The adults don’t see the horror because they don’t want to and the movie does a terrific job showing this on screen and letting this subtext largely go unexplained. Director Andrew Muschitti (Mama) has said that the next movie (this is only half of the story) will focus more on the history of Derry which was so memorably fleshed out in King’s novel to horrific effect.
For all the great stuff in the movie I do wish the movie didn’t rely on CGI for many of the effects. Some sequences are robbed of their terror because the monsters are obviously animated effects. For a movie like this it would have been great to see practical makeup effects to bring the horror to life. I suspect they started with practical effects and then augmented those with digital overlays but until the eventual making-of segments show up on the blu ray release I’ll have to wait to find out if I’m right. Pennywise is such a terrifying presence that his other incarnations can’t help but fail to bring the same amount of terror.
My complaints aside, IT is a towering achievement that tells a self contained story while also planting the seeds for the next movie. There are quite a few moments of foreshadowing in the movie that I think will surprise viewers that are unfamiliar with the complete story when they go back and watch this segment (called IT: Chapter One during the end credits) in a few years.
Of course we may be talking about more than just 2 movies at this point. As of this writing IT has made $117M in the US alone on opening weekend shattering records for best horror open ever and best September opening. Hopefully the filmmakers won’t try and stretch the story and make a trilogy but instead will put some more King adaptations in the pipeline and give them the same loving treatment.
The Talisman seems like a great place to start to me.