your hair is winter fire
my heart burns there too
– a secret admirer
IT in all of its incarnations is beloved. The Stephen King novel is magic and a delicate balancing act. The joys, hardships, and triumphs of growing up are juxtaposed against pure, abject terror both mundane and cosmic. As if that weren’t enough, King uses the cosmic terror to bridge adolescence and adulthood, exploring the fears, nightmares, and revelations that adults face in middle age.
Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 miniseries is much the same, though lacking some of the nuance and depth that made the novel arguably the most enduring piece of horror fiction ever created. The miniseries buckles some under the weight of the source material but the emotional core of the work shines through and despite its flaws finds itself warmly nestled in the hearts of millions.
This heady alchemical mixture works because the novel, and the ideas at the heart of it, are infinitely relatable. Revisit IT today and you will find new horrors to unpack from it. You will also find joy. Everyone can see themselves in The Loser’s Club (The protagonists’ name for themselves), both as children and as adults. I was Ben, hiding his insecurity under thick fabric and escaping into the fantasy of books (IT was one of them). You have your own Loser, more likely than not.
All of this is to say that Andy Muschietti had some large shoes to fill. Bill Skarsgård had even larger shoes to fill, given that he plays a clown. I’ve got good news: They both pulled it off. Andy Muschietti’s 2017 film version of IT is fantastic.
As I said before, IT is a story of childhood and adulthood, connected by a cosmic terror. In King’s 1986 novel the action switches between 1956 and 1984, following the story of The Losers’ Club both as children and as adults. Muschietti’s adaptation changes a small number of things, most notably updating the story from 1956 to 1988, and choosing to focus solely on the childhood section of the novel. These choices pay off, both in allowing some separation from the original, making it more relatable by making it less of a period piece and by letting the relationships between the children take center stage. That and the scares. There are plenty of those too, and they are an absolute treat.
The Losers’ Club is comprised of seven children. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), who has recently lost his brother and suffers from a stutter, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), an intelligent but lonely obese child who spends his time studying the town, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a tomboy with an exceptionally bad home life, Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), a wiseacre jokester with a mouth as foul as his heart is golden, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), a frail asthmatic with an overbearing mother and a hypochondriac streak, Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), a homeschooled farmhand who lost his parents at a young age and struggles with responsibility, and finally Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), a skeptical son of a Rabbi with a case of germaphobia an aversion to conflict.
Each child is well-formed, their archetypes resonating even through the time change, and the chemistry between them is absolutely stellar. A film about children can easily go off the rails due to slouchy amateurish acting but Muschietti and his casting team knocked it out of the park.
If you’re familiar with the source material you may have noted some slight changes to the children’s characterization, most notably moving Mike’s preoccupation with town history having been shifted to Ben. This doesn’t detract much from the story but it does minimize Mike’s contributions to the group’s efforts to face the evil that plagues their town by leaving Mike with less to do, an issue that might have larger ramifications for the adult Mike, who in the novel and miniseries ends up the town’s librarian and local historian. How this will be handled in the eventual sequel remains to be seen, but it does make Mike feel less like an organic part of the group.
Barring that, the Losers are fantastic. You root for The Losers, not just because you are supposed to but because you legitimately care about them. They’re real. They’re you and they’re me. Ben and Beverly share little secrets and it’s adorable. Richie’s always ready with a crass joke. Bill’s hesitance to lead and his need to deal with it because, goddammit, no one else will. Eddie and Stan’s quirks make them feel alive and real. Mike’s fear and guilt, as well as his difficulty accepting the responsibility that’s been thrust upon him flesh him out and make him feel like a perfect adolescent.
Not just a kid, not quite an adult. The awkward, uncomfortable middle. That transition is hard for everyone and that theme is at the heart of the film. Bev buying tampons, afraid someone from school might see. Stan not wanting to study for his Bar Mitzvah. Eddie struggling for independence from his mother. The film manages to convey the same lightning-in-a-bottle feeling of hazy summers full of adventure and excitement while also drawing clean, clear lines connecting the small horrors of adolescence to the much more daunting horrors presented by IT, the presence in Derry that seems to make people, especially children, go missing at more than six times the national average.
That horror is fully realized. Chung-hoon Chung, best known for his work with Park Chan-wook on the Vengeance trilogy, manages to perfectly capture both the softness and intimacy of the children as well as the nightmarish, surreal quality of the evil haunting the children of Derry. The scares are expertly executed, with a healthy mix of slow, dread-building moments and lightning-crack jump scares, both of which will permanently carve themselves into the psyche of a whole new generation.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown is so closely associated with Tim Curry’s performance in the 1990s miniseries that Bill Skarsgård had his work cut out for him, but he does the impossible and the Pennywise of the film is a whole new beast. This Pennywise is more an extension of the evil than the evil itself. Every time he’s on screen, he seems like a slightly different entity. A nightmare marionette being moved by unseen hands, or a fleshy protrusion dangling in front of the children like the light of an anglerfish. Exaggerated mechanical movements, unsettling teeth that seem carved from wood, and constant salivating go even farther towards making Pennywise the Dancing Clown the stuff of nightmares. The forms he takes to terrify the children are as fluid and unsettling as they are visually impressive. This IT is terrifying.
My one major qualm with the film is that it feels oddly sanitized despite all of its dread and terror. I am usually completely fine with an adaptation forging its own path, a Stephen King based example of this being my unabashed love of both the King Shining and the Kubrick Shining despite them being wholly separate works that bear no more than a passing resemblance to one another. However, the novel has teeth. It is unafraid to cast IT as a dark shadow over the entire town, amplifying all the darkness in men’s hearts.
The racism, sexism, and homophobia emboldened by the evil beneath Derry are almost nowhere to found, nor does that evil seem to permeate the entire town. Derry was a character in its own right, one with black eyes and warts, but here it is no more than a backdrop. IT seems isolated unto its own dark chasm, reaching out to snatch children, but the larger ramifications of IT’s presence from the novel are almost completely removed. There would probably have been significant value to putting these issues under the cold light of the projector and while it saves the film from making a political statement it also feels like an omission in the name of wider acceptance.
All told, IT is a triumph. A beautifully shot nightmare full of brightness, lovable characters, chills, thrills, excitement, and terror. The cast all deliver great performances, the film is wrapped up in killer production design, set to a perfectly curated soundtrack and is thankfully just as terrifying as we’ve all dreamed it would be. The balancing act is difficult, in lesser hands it may have been impossible. The only casualty of fitting half of a 1,200 page novel into this film seems to have been the social themes and while this reviewer personally misses them, the rest of the story, and the heart and terror that define it is very much intact.
I consider myself lucky to have been able to join The Losers’ Club and I think you should too when IT enters wide release on 9/8/2017.