“It” successfully floats above countless failed Stephen King adaptations by way of its core cast and behind-the-scenes vision

I’m 12 years old, it’s summer and I’m reading Stephen King’s 1986 novel, It.

It’s night time so I have to use my book light, a solitary beacon in an otherwise pitch black bedroom. As I lay the book aside to go to bed, one thing becomes immediately apparent: my closet door is open. Now as I’m sure more than a few of you are aware, you can’t really see into a closet at night.

As the titular monster can shape-shift, there’s a literally cornucopia of places it could be. You know if it was real…which it definitely isn’t…right?

By having me second guess myself before getting up to close the door, King won.

When was 12, It was probably the scariest thing I willingly put myself through. There’s just something much more cerebral about a really scary book than there is a really scary movie. A movie spoon feeds you scary imagery and nightmare; a book makes your brain work against itself in conjuring up moments that will have you second guess getting out of bed to go to the bathroom at night.

“So what makes It so scary,” an individual who may not have read the book before may ponder.

I haven’t read most of King’s work but out of the small portion I have indulged in, It was was the most consistently terrifying. In it, King gives us a pervasive and nightmarish vision of an archetypical small town that’s sold its soul to a monster that puts on masks and eats children. Those masks provide It (technically It is a “she”, but that is a discussion for another day) and Stephen King with a chance to dig into just about every archetypal boogeyman imaginable, ranging from werewolves and mummies and even a giant bird.

And don’t forget Pennywise The Dancing Clown.

While many of King’s antagonists are scary, there’s something that sets Pennywise apart. There’s an imaginative brutality to his kills, the way gore and nightmare fuel combine with mean-spirited humor to create an impression of some sadistic, cosmic, shape-shifting bully; something that takes as much, if not more, pleasure in mocking you and your suffering as it does in ripping you to shreds. There’s also the matter of who he preys on specifically.

Several adults die within the book’s pages, but a majority of It’s victims are kids as they have a special vitality that the monster craves; a vitality that serves as one of the book’s major themes. Basically, it craves your fear over your flesh.

And it wasn’t just about the scares either. Sure, that played a big part but what made It such a powerful experience where who those scary things were happening to.

I wasn’t alive in 1958 yet King captures a certain feeling so accurately and enthusiastically that it doesn’t matter if the specifics weren’t something I could relate to. Reading about outcasts my own age, isolated from the larger portions of their peers in a way I understood, playing games in the woods away from things like football or band felt more real than my actual life in a way that’s hard to put into words. As broken as the members of the Loser’s Club are, they were friends, and that friendship, and the unwavering faith in that friendship, mattered a great deal to me.

To me, the book is and always will be this section:

“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”

I think it’d be fair to say I didn’t really read the book as much as I experienced it (although I never had to personally deal with an intergalactic, fear-consuming clown but that’s neither here nor there), something I think every one goes through with more than one piece of popular media or literature in their respective lifetimes.

It tapped into a direct mainline of my subconscious and drilled down so fucking deep that I’ve never been entirely rid of it. Randomly, aspects of the book will pop into my mind and at times I’ll recognize it and others I won’t.

And this is all (mostly) in regards to the portion of the novel dedicated to the Losers as kids. The other portion sees them return to Derry to finish the job they started back over 20 years beforehand. When I was a kid reading that section seemed, not bad, but less important. Adulthood seemed so far away back then. It wasn’t something tangible. In the 1958 portion, most of the adults are largely neglectful, if not outright abusive. In this world, the kids are largely on their own.

As King writes, “Eddie discovered one of his childhood’s great truths. Grownups are the real monsters, he thought.”

Flash forward more than 10 years later.

I still hesitate to call myself an adult, but I’m certainly not a kid anymore.

Last summer, I found myself thinking a lot about It. I knew there was a new movie coming out and I had really fond memories of reading it as a kid but couldn’t remember every aspect of it as I once could. I wanted to go back, although I was initially intimidated by the length, and see if the book stood the test of time.  Because that’s what books do: they’re always the same when you reread them, but you’re always different. Even when you don’t want to be.

Now a “grown-up” myself, I’ve come to realize that the loss of vitality between the kid chapters and the adult ones is not an incidental effect; it is, in fact, a core feature of the premise of the entire book. Without those adult chapters, It would still be scary but it wouldn’t be special. 

As one Loser observes, growing up means the “magic of childhood belief” goes away. It’s never really clear when and where it happens, but it inevitably does. Everything that was big, bold and capitalized turns out not to be a really big deal after all. An adult Bill Denbrough (the Losers’ de facto leader) takes a taxi through Derry, the book’s setting, and reflects on a town he hasn’t seen since his adolescence. He’s shocked at how strained the place looks to him: how things have changed, and how even the things that stayed the same seem blander somehow. Almost like a knock-off of something that used to matter. Every time I go back to my home town, I almost always have a similar feeling.

It’s also about regret. There’s a reason why “Youth is wasted on the young” is an an age-old sentiment. We sometimes fall prey to looking at our childhoods with proverbial rose-tinted glasses, maybe bypassing the unpleasantness.

I finally watched T2: Trainspotting, a movie that I assume the second half to this latest It adaptation may mirror at least thematically in is that it doesn’t cherry coat that the notion that our youth can be just as grimy as our present. It’s really only by recognizing these do we become somewhat adept at dealing with them. And even then, some trauma can never really be healed.

That isn’t to say It a perfect book by any means. King could have definitely used some toning back. It’s a story that really has no need to be as long as it is and there are more than a few sequences that could have been cut as they are either A) unnecessary or B) largely uncomfortable to the service of nothing. (The sewer gang bang fits under both categories.)

Re-reading It was a lot more fun than I was expecting but I found myself appreciating the book’s sense of melancholy for things lost and hope for those gained more than the scares this time around. King doesn’t pull a single punch when it comes to the realities of getting older, but suggests there may be just a little magic left for those willing to fight for it.

Suffice to say, It is a pretty important book to me and any form of adaptation was going to be met with strict scrutiny. Not in the sense that I am a stickler for a film that was 100% faithful to the book. It is a beast of a novel, coming in at well over 1,000 pages. There’s a lot there that can be cut or modified (some material I fully advocate for the removal of, but more on that in a bit) and the story would remain largely the same.

No, I’m speaking more to the “feel” of the book. There’s a misconception that the book is a pretty simple read as well which it is really anything but.

Even though it’s in no way a book for children, there’s a ton of adolescent touchstones included in It, both apparent and hidden between the lines. First love, “lazy” summers, goofing off with your friends, adulthood on the horizon, the final days between “kid problems” and “adult problems,” etc.

Director Andrés Muschietti was not a name I was familiar with before this movie. I skipped Mama if only because it seemed like it fit into every category of something I don’t really want in a horror movie…

Still, I was willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt. First off, splitting book into two parts (the first half dedicated to the kid, the other to them as adults) was a pretty smart movie. The book cross-sections these two portions rather than divide them which works in that medium but would have ultimately been to the disservice to both had they been smushed together. Unfortunately, this could also lead to a movie that doesn’t feel whole as a result as it has been intentionally halved, a move that rarely ever works with films.

So I’ve rambled enough.

Did this experiment work? Did I leave this movie even remotely satisfied? Do you care?

Answers to all (maybe) below…

The plot:

“In the Town of Derry, the local kids are disappearing one by one, leaving behind bloody remains. In a place known as ‘The Barrens’, a group of seven kids are united by their horrifying and strange encounters with an evil clown and their determination to kill It.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

-Cracks knuckles-

Get comfortable, folks. We may be here for a little bit.

Right off the bat, I should say I really, really enjoyed this one. It’s way too early to fully declare but this was probably the warmest reaction I’ve had to a King film adaptation in a good long while.

That said, I think it’ll be hard to fully gauge this one as it is very much a Part 1 of a 2 part story. I can only assume that Warner Bros/New Line were hesitant to fully commit to immediately funding two movies back-to-back. These aren’t guaranteed hits like a Star Wars or Marvel film after all.

So while I stand by it being a smart that this was a movie split in half in the interest of telling the story more effectively, it comes at the cost of a first half feeling a little hallow and without a proper climax. Much like Kill BillIt very much feels like a flashier half of a longer story; the second, I expect, will slow things down considerably. It’s by no accident that the film’s conclusion doesn’t particularly feel like a victory. There’s a lot more ground to cover.

With the recent announcement there will apparently “for sure” be a Part 2, I’m a little bit more relieved but I’m not a fan of having to wait around and see if I’ll actually get the end to a story I want to see. It’s not a great model outside of television.

So I’m going to talk a bit about the differences between the book and movie in this upcoming section. If that annoys you/don’t want spoilers for the book (as a whole), I’ve sectioned it off for your convenience.

-ANNOYING BOOK CHATTER-

There are quite a few changes and omissions Muschietti implements in his version, many of which (surprisingly enough) work and even, in some instances, could be considered improvements. I won’t touch base on every, single one but I would like to highlight a couple (both positive and negative).

The update from the 1950s to 1980s was a little suspect to me, just given the recent popularity of Stranger Things (a series that owes more than a little to King and It in particular).

Largely, the movie (thankfully) doesn’t shove the 80’s down our throats as I was fearing more nostalgia overload. Outside of a few song choices, the basic story remains as timeless as ever.

We lose some of the bigger concepts of the book, i.e. It’s origins and The Turtle. I’m largely fine with this material beginning omitted in the interest of digestibility for a standard audience but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping that they’d at least touch on it a little bit in the sequel. For now though, it doesn’t really matter where It came from or what It wants. As is the case with many movie monsters, there is enough horror to be mined from the mere existence of a shape-shifting monster that kills and eats kids.

I’ve read that original director (and still credited co-screenwriter) Cary Fukunaga wanted to emphasize some of the darker sexual aspects of the book in his version of the film which I fully understand the studio hoping to, not avoid, but not exacerbate. Thank The Turtle the aforementioned sewer gang bang was mercifully left on the cutting room floor.

It’s important to remember this is meant to be a mass consumption version of the book. That isn’t to say a lot of that uncomfortableness doesn’t sprout up in different ways. A sexual-abuse subplot that largely remained subtext in the book is made much more apparent in the film, and a love triangle between three of the Losers is given outsized importance here.

I often find that page-to-screen adaptations either lose the subtly of their source material or the exact opposite and go for the obvious. Muschietti often goes for the latter, to mixed effect.

There are a couple of sequences and/or aspects I would have liked to see but am not all that disappointed by their exclusion such as Bev’s slingshot for example or Richie’s encounter with a teenage werewolf or more of Mike’s look into the town’s bloody past.

There’s been a lot said about the 1990 miniseries, an adaptation that I don’t think holds up very well with the exception of Tim Curry’s role as Pennywise. It does an okay job of telling a story about kids fighting a monster only to have to return as adults to finish the job. As an allegory for confronting childhood trauma, that’s fine but to me, the book was a lot more than just that.

For what it’s worth, I think this film does a much better job at compartmentalizing one half of the book while also delivering the tone/feel of its source material. It’s kind of disappointing to have what is not a conventional book crammed into a conventional three-act structure, the effort largely works here. Muschietti and the screenwriters made a clear effort at maintaining this tone, and show a clear affection that too often gets lost in translation. It is in this effort/affection, that I really appreciate what they’ve gone for. The only thing that worries me is that they’ll get lost in the shuffle when the studio gears up for the second round.

-ANNOYING BOOK CHATTER OVER (MOSTLY)-

Now let’s get on to the movie itself. Y’know, the reason why I assume most of you are here.

I don’t really want to deep dive into what I consider scary…I’ve done that waaaaaaaaay too much in the past. Suffice to say, I didn’t find this movie all that scary but there were some pretty effective scares in it. Muschietti has a pretty good eye for what dictates a good horror set piece. Rather than go for a slow build, he goes the alt route of big, bombast, making use some very effective nightmare imagery and creature effects. If anything, I’d say It is more intense than it is scary which I generally lean towards anyway.

Visually, the movie is straight dynamite. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung delivers a movie that looks better than a grand majority of what else is out in cinemas right now, let alone just horror movies. This is combined with top notch sound and production design that makes for a movie for award consideration, but will sadly most likely be ignored due largely to the unfair stigma attached to the horror genre.

We open with the murder of six-year-old Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), arguable the novel’s most iconic scene, adapted largely beat-for-beat. The notable difference between this and the previous adaptation however is there aren’t prime time standards to adhere to. Kids are murdered en masses by It and Muschietti pulls no punches.

Speaking of horror, let’s take some time to talk about Pennywise, played here by Bill Skarsgård. Skarsgård’s performance isn’t as immediately iconic as Tim Curry’s and almost leans too heavily into the “creepy clown” troupe but more often than not he is effectively used. Delivering dialogue in a Bugs Bunny meet Bane lisp, his physical performance hints at an entity too big to fit fully into its shell; his eyes almost perpetually off-center.

All this horror, gloom and doom would be irrelevant if we didn’t have a quality set of characters trapped therein for us to root and cheer for, and luckily this movie carries more than its fair share of likable characters.

It may be somewhat pertinent that casting director Rich Delia be given his due as, with the exception of two, each of these kids were complete unknowns to me and each of them fits their respective Loser P-E-R-F-E-C-T-L-Y. I’ll concede that pacing and writing does some of them a disservice but none of our young actors falters and does a pretty spectacular job at bringing characters ingrained in my mind since youth to life. These kids have almost an inherent chemistry with one another and interact in a way that is believable and comes off as almost improvised.

As with the book, Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and Bev (Sophia Lillis) are personal standouts. I’d go so far as to say Wolfhard walks away with the movie given just how much comedic heavy lifting placed upon his shoulders. Lillis similarly has a lot of heavy lifting on the dramatic front, and seems to effortlessly elevate her role beyond “token girl” although, like the book, is the center of a love triangle, much more obviously here.

While I’m never really into those story angles, I think what was brought to the table here was as good as it could be. Both Bill (Jaeden Lieberher)and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are quick to fall in love with Bev, and the film is as sensitive to the sometimes tender, all-too-real awkwardness that occurs when puberty opts to rear its ugly head into the tight-rope of male-female friendships.

The group is rounded out by Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sheltered hypochondriac, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), the skeptic and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a home schooled kid from the other side of town. Like in the book, Mike tends to disappear in the group scenes. Hell, they give away his major task as “town historian” to another Loser so he’s often just there in many scenes. Some confusing edits suggest a longer version of the story in which more characters were allowed to develop.

There’s also some bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) that play a role as secondary antagonists but kind of lose their edge as the movie bypasses a lot of their racism, misogyny and outright nastiness on full display in the book. They are, after all, Stephen King bullies. Given this movie only hints at the effect It has on Derry, all of the other antagonists feel…unnecessary.

A major complaint of mine is that there is a really odd rhythm to the pacing here. Like, it almost feels unnatural in the way it’s stacked together rather than organically building dread or building to its climax. I guess that can be chalked up to the transition. Where the book Losers get a whole summer to build their plan to fight back against Pennywise, their film counterparts get two hours.

And I think that largely sums up my thoughts on this end result and it’s sort of the cliche every review of an adaptation shares: it’s not the book, and that’s okay because it largely shares the heart of what made me like the original so much. The book will always be there as well my memories from reading the book.

The point is, it remains faithful without having to be 100% beholden to the book and that’s basically exactly what I wanted. There’s an ambition here that mainstream horror lacks these days and it’s exciting to see something like this with a little bit of cash behind it as well. If movie’s like this within the horror genre were the norm rather than the exception I feel like the stigma constantly holding it back would be lifted and richer cinematic landscape could prosper.

Now give me Chapter 2!

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