Few things in life are more terrifying than the process of growing up. Our minds begin to develop deep-seated anxieties as we inevitably realize that the world is not a safe place. Adults who we’ve been taught to look up to are often revealed to be the source of our greatest fears, shattering our sanitized perceptions of reality. Worst of all, it feels as if death could come for us at any time, without any warning or explanation, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
These are themes that Stephen King has explored for decades, and why his 1986 novel, It, has resonated so deeply with readers over the years. On the surface, it’s about a shape-shifting clown who eats children, but the monster is ultimately just a catalyst for the characters’ adolescence. As a horror film, this highly anticipated big-screen adaptation from Andy Muschietti (Mama) flounders a bit, but as a coming-of-age story, it captures the bleeding heart of King’s book quite well.
Updating the timeframe of the novel from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, the film is set within the town of Derry, Maine, and begins with the tragic demise of little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott). After his waxed paper boat gets swooped down into the sewer, the tot comes face-to-face with the infamous Pennywise “the dancing clown” (Bill Skarsgård), whose glowing eyes and pointed dentures foreshadow the child’s grisly fate. It’s a truly harrowing sequence, setting the stage for the film’s bloody, R-rated violence that pulls no punches, even towards its tiniest victims. (One can’t help but be reminded of the shark making mincemeat out of Alex during the first half-hour of Jaws.)
Six months later, Georgie’s stuttering older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is still unable to cope with the loss of his sibling. His middle school friends, commonly referred to as the “Losers Club,” consist of nerdy wiseass Richie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac mama’s boy Eddie (Jack Dylan Glazer), portly new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), timid Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), homeschooled farmer Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whose reputation has been unfairly maligned by promiscuous rumors. Before long, they’re individually attacked by what appears to be a malevolent, otherworldly clown who takes the forms of their worst nightmares, and the toll of missing kids in town continues to rise.
Out of all the recent Stephen King adaptations, this one is especially peculiar in regards to staying faithful to its source material. Ever since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was split into two films, Hollywood has taken a similar approach to various properties (e.g. Twilight: Breaking Dawn, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), but considering that King’s novel is 1,138 pages long, it’s more understandable to divide this story in half. Even the original made-for-TV miniseries starring Tim Curry aired over the course of two nights back in 1990, and adds up to a three-hour running time without commercials. (The fact that it was released 27 years ago is also no coincidence.)
The main difference here is that the structure of King’s book travels back and forth in time to when these characters are adults, drawing parallels to how their various forms of trauma have stunted them over the course of their lives. By choosing to only focus on them as kids, this core crutch of the novel has been left out until the next installment. (The full title is revealed to be It: Chapter One before transitioning into the end credits.) And as someone who loved the book, this does feel undeniably odd considering how the intertwining timelines feel codependent in conveying the book’s motifs.
Still, this is a standalone work within a completely different medium, and should be critiqued on its own terms. After all, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining couldn’t be more distinct from King’s book, and it’s deservedly a landmark of horror cinema.
Stylishly shot by Chung-hoon Chung, who’s primarily known for his collaborative work with Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), the frame frequently engulfs the kids in darkness while contrasting with bold, vivid shades of red that pop like Pennywise’s balloons. In one gorgeously gruesome sequence, a character is drenched in geysers of blood that erupts from their bathroom sink, paying visual homage to Johnny Depp’s fatality in A Nightmare on Elm Street (which is referenced more than once), as well as Brian De Palma’s variation on King’s first novel, Carrie.
The film is, however, far too reliant on CGI, particularly in regards to Pennywise himself. His eyes are a bit too glossy, his body often blurry as he lunges at the camera in the midst of a zoom-out, and the more fantastical he becomes, the less menacingly tangible he appears. It’s a bit of a shame considering that the film is clearly aiming for the spirit of past genre flicks from the ‘80s, but can’t aesthetically match the charms of their practical effects.
None of this can be blamed on Skarsgård though, who provides a more composed take on Pennywise without sacrificing any of the character’s sadistic glee. Curry’s frenetic, Freddy Krueger-esque portrayal may remain the most iconic spin on King’s child-killing clown, but Skarsgård’s slippery new approach is still bound to set your teeth on edge.
The youngsters are even more impressive, and it’s been so long since a mainstream film has so accurately depicted how kids talk and behave. Sentences become sprinkled with four-letter-words, feelings are often pivoted through dick jokes and everything seems to be fueled by hormones you don’t fully understand. It’s through these scenes of camaraderie, such as the “Losers” jumping into a quarry, in which Muschietti not only encapsulates the spirit of the book, but reflects upon the soul of another superb King adaptation about growing up: Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me.
The script, co-written by Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer and and Gary Dauberman, develops some characters nicely while giving others the short end of the stick. I do wish that more time was spent with Mike, considering he’s the one person of color and much of the context for Pennywise stems from Derry’s appallingly racist past. It’s also unfortunate that Beverly is reduced to a damsel-in-distress during the climax (perhaps the most irritating alteration from the novel), but Lillis, along with Lieberher, give especially wonderful performances out of this lively teenage ensemble.
The scares, while visually inspired, sadly become less effective over the film’s 135-minute runtime due to the repetitious formula of every scene. (A kid enters a dark room, takes one wrong step and something pops out accompanied by a very, very loud noise.) Yet, Muschietti consistently strikes just the right tone in making these set-pieces entertainingly ghoulish, as opposed to outright malicious, which is a tricky balancing act considering the age of its protagonists.
It feels a bit like a carnival ride; perhaps one you’ve been on a few times, but one that’s still thrilling enough to give you a good jolt. It’s certainly superior to the miniseries, which is as atrociously cobbled together as this new vision is skillfully produced. Muschietti isn’t clowning around here; in the end, he’s crafted a poignant outlook on how it feels to be crippled by the impending fears of adulthood, and no supernatural entity can prepare us for just how frightening the real world truly is.