IT: Stephen King’s Terrifying Epic Is Given Fresh Life
It is a wonderfully acted and gruesome adaptation of King's novel, even if the scares sometimes detract from its overall effectiveness.
Stephen King‘s considerable bibliography has seen its fair share of adaptations, from TV shows to miniseries to films. Many of these are hit or miss; though some are widely considered to be masterpieces, such as Carrie or The Shining, there are just as many that fail to capture the heart or intensity of King‘s original stories. Just this past month, for example, there was The Dark Tower, a film which, though well cast, was insufficient as an adaptation of King‘s seven-part epic.
Now, just weeks later, It has come to the screen. And, in nearly every way, it did what The Dark Tower could not: it not only faithfully adapted the central characters and themes of King‘s novel, but it did it in such an admirably entertaining way that it’s difficult not to praise the passion behind the project. Though not without its own series of flaws, It is easily amongst the best adaptations of a King novel.
Setting the Tone
Though the original novel took place in the ’50s, Andy Muschietti‘s It reverts to the ’80s instead, a decade that has seen its fair share of nostalgic callbacks in recent years (the Netflix series Stranger Things, for example). Like much of King‘s work, It also takes place in small-town Maine, this time in the fictional town of Derry. A group of kids are about to embark on a summer vacation, though recent events have put a damper on things, such as a recent string of disappearances that began months prior with the loss of 7-year-old George Denbrough.
Though the central characters of It don’t know what exactly happened to George, to the audience it is painfully clear. In the film’s opening sequence, a cold rain-drenched evening finds little Georgie scampering down his neighborhood street, chasing a tiny paper boat that his brother Bill had earlier made for him. Soon after, though, the boat is washed down a drain, only to be saved by a makeup-splattered clown who is somehow lingering below in the sewer. Though his voice seems oddly pleasant, the clown’s wide-mouthed grin is full of malice. Georgie pleads for the return of his boat, but as we all know, he is soon going to “float” in his own way instead.
This sequence, which is both expertly directed and incredibly tense, begins the film with the desired tone in mind: this is a story that will be equally laden with pleasant character interactions undercut by extreme violence. Much like the novel from which it is based, It is, first and foremost, a horror story, but it is one firmly established with well-developed characters and strongly prominent themes, which makes its moments of horror all the more palpable.
The Losers Club
The film focuses on seven distinct characters, who all find their way to each other either by chance or perhaps through some sort of fate: there is Bill Denbrough, the strong-willed leader (Jaeden Lieberher), loudmouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), mousey Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), overweight and quiet newcomer Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), beautiful but emotionally strained Beverly Marsh (Sophia Ellis), home-schooled African-American Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and intelligent, sensible Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff). Altogether, they form the Losers Club, who little by little come to bond through not only strong friendship, but a soon-to-be awareness of the evil that has swept through their small town.
With such a plethora of characters, which also includes a team of bullies lead by the ruthless Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and, of course, the evil clown entity himself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), it’s remarkable that each of them manages to stand out in the way that they do. The Losers Club in particular, all with their own background and personality quirks (with the highlights being Jaeden Lieberher as the confident yet stuttering Bill and Sophia Ellis as the clearly damaged yet lovable Beverly Marsh), yet each will likely be remembered as distinct characters as opposed to simply being a part of a larger mass existing solely for the purpose of being victims of terror.
Gazing into the background of It, you can really see the devotion that the producers and director Andy Muschietti put into the characters of the film. An interview with producer Dan Lin reveals just how in-depth the process was, allowing the kid actors to bond as a group for months before even delving into the scary stuff. Interestingly, the producers also removed interactions between the children and Skarsgård, who plays Pennywise the clown. As a result, the fear that seems evident on the childrens’ faces when they first meet the monstrous entity feels all the more genuine. It is small touches like this that help to elevate It from a simple scary story into one teeming with terrifying charm.
Much like King‘s short story The Body, which was adapted into the early ’90s classic Stand By Me, It lavishes in the rollercoasters of youth: the ups, the downs, the heartbreaks, and, above all, the hours spent wiling away from the world. In the film’s first and best bonding sequence, the group goes swimming at a quarry, each taking turns jumping off a 20-foot cliff before splashing around in the water for a bit and then drying off in the warm summer sun. It’s a pleasant and heartwarming moment, which is likely to be nostalgic for anyone else that grew up in a small town (myself included).
Emotional and Physical Scares
Like most small towns, though, It also doesn’t shy away from the darkness that hides behind closed doors. The central theme at work here is the potentially damaging effects of an unhealthy childhood upbringing, and of the continuing patterns of fear and abuse that plague us as we get older. In this current version, we see only the younger incarnations of the characters, as opposed to in both King‘s novel and the original 1990 TV miniseries, in which the story takes place both when the characters are 11 years old and then later, when they are adults.
Yet we can already see these effects occurring in multiple instances: Beverly Marsh is emotionally distant as a result of physical and emotional abuse by her father, while Eddie is a sickly boy constantly fearing for his own safety as a result of his mother’s incessant over-protectiveness. Bill, having lost his brother only months prior, is hellbent on revenge for the unseen forces that took him. And Ben, in a way that seems ever-prominent in today’s world of cyberbullying, is picked on simply due to being overweight. They are all brought together through a seeming need to have someone to comfort them, showing that safety in numbers doesn’t only work in the physical sense.
And that’s where our monster finally comes in. It represents all that the children fear; though mostly taking the form of an insidious clown, he also shape-shifts into what the children fear the most, such as in Eddie’s case, when he transforms into a disease-ridden leper, or in Beverly’s case, when he becomes the form of her father. It is within some of these moments, though, that It does tend to lose its momentum.
The film does thankfully shy away from the campy horror and effects of the 1990’s miniseries, seen not only with its use of gore but also Skarsgård‘s frighteningly cold-hearted portrayal of Pennywise. Yet, at the same time, Andy Muschietti can’t but help but bring in countless modern horror tropes, in a way more reminiscent of a film like The Conjuring series, which uses an all-in approach to horror, as opposed to the more atmospheric chilling horror that I wished it had gone for instead.
What is more effective than the actual scares, then, is the buildup, such as in the aforementioned initial scene where George wanders down the street after his floating paper boat. With a subtle, haunting score by Benjamin Wallfisch, many of these initial setups build goosebumps based on uncertainty alone. But then, once the creature or monster is revealed, it is with a sudden, intense jump-scare, resulting in a complete undercut of the tension it had built.
An example is with one scene taking place in a basement, in which Bill sees the monster manifested as an image of his younger brother, who first seems to hover in the corner, but in a crescendo starts to proclaim “YOU’LL FLOAT TOO!” at the top of his lungs. Immediately following this, the clown itself jumps out of the flooded basement, and charges at Bill in a silly-looking fast-motion blur.
It’s not that jump-scares can’t be used properly; there is one moment, in particular, where it is effective, almost immediately after something else disturbing had happened. But after a time, such as in the film’s final sequence taking place in the sewer, this type of horror trope becomes simply numbing, unnecessary for what the film is trying to be.
A Hodgepodge of ’80s and Pop Culture References
Much like the aforementioned Stranger Things, which interestingly also starred Finn Wolfhard, It is chock full of playful and deliberate references. Some of the more effective include an homage to the blood-spurting bed scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street, nods to the original 1990 miniseries, including when we see Tim Curry‘s clown in a roomful of them, and more nods to the book itself, including references to a Turtle, which, if you have read the book, is a very important character indeed.
Thankfully, though peppered throughout, the references are also not invasive to the story being told. It is influenced by the films that came before it, but not dependent on them for nostalgic sentiment. It’s a strong enough film even without them.
Andy Muschietti‘s adaptation of Stephen King‘s It was never going to be an easy task. Not only did it have to faithfully adapt the core of King‘s novel, but it had to distinguish itself as well, standing on its own two feet even for those who haven’t read the book. It had to have developed, quirky characters, and a tangible chemistry between each of them as a group, in addition to being fully committed to its grisly, R-rated horror.
Though It does perhaps fall short with scares alone, the film delivers in nearly every other way. In case you missed the reference up above in regards to the adult version of the characters or at the end of the film itself, I’ll say it again here: this is just the first chapter of the series. I really cannot wait for the next one.
What did you think of It? What are some of your favorite Stephen King adaptations?
It was released on September 8th.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.