Pronouncing that a book is “unfilmable” is a dicey move, if only because it’s proven to be such a flimsy label. Over the decades, allegedly intractable works ranging from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch have inevitably yielded to filmmakers who found an appropriate, often unconventional angle of approach for the material. If such eccentric “anti-novels” can be molded into narrative cinema, then certainly an evocative pulp horror masterpiece like Stephen King’s It can make the leap from book to screen. Nonetheless, the novel form is so essential to the potency of It as a redolent, rambling work of doelful fiction, any attempt to adapt the story to film faces an uphill battle.
Of course, King’s novel has been adapted, first as a two-part television miniseries originally broadcast on ABC in 1990 and now as a two-part theatrical feature helmed by Argentine director Andrés Muschietti. However, it is arguable whether either work constitutes a successful adaptation of King’s tale. The question is not whether It’s bulk can be squeezed into three or four hours of cinematic storytelling, but whether one should. A colorable argument could be made that the deformations necessary to achieve this translation necessarily turn the story into something markedly divergent (Not-It?). The debacle surrounding The Lawnmower Man—wherein a pagan-themed short story penned by King was rather bafflingly transmogrified into a hokey science-fiction thriller—illustrates that a shared title is no guarantee that the source material will be even remotely honored by the filmmaker.
Certainly, director Tommy Lee Wallace’s three-hour 1990 telefilm was generally faithful to the novel while also making quite an unforgivable hash out of it. The blame can’t be laid entirely at the feet of Wallace and co-writer Lawrence D. Cohen, however. The series was positioned to fail from the beginning, given its constraints: the PG-13-level content restrictions of network television; a budget that was far too meager to fulfill the story’s ambitious scope; the limits of visual effects technology in 1990; and the commercial necessity of appealing to a mainstream prime-time audience assembled in their living rooms.
Purely in terms of polish, Muschietti’s film is playing in a league several levels above that of the 1990 miniseries. The formal aspects of It’s latest incarnation—particularly the cinematography, production design, and visual effects—are executed at the high level one expects of a wide release horror film based on a cherished property. The performances are also superior, anchored by a charismatic cast of child actors whose work here ranges from solid to downright dazzling. However, these assets do not necessarily equate to a first-rate adaptation. In terms of translating the staggering emotional robustness of King’s masterwork, Muschietti’s It is a double rather than a home run, but still a heartfelt, handsome, and feverishly spooky work of cinema.
The Stand or the Dark Tower series are perhaps more likely to be cited as Stephen King’s magnum opus, but It is a singular achievement, arguably the closest the author has ever come to bridging the divide between a genre lit page-turner and the Great American Novel. Fundamentally, It is a midnight monster movie as a Bildungsroman. Over the course of the summer of 1958, seven 11-year-old misfits in the town of Derry, Maine develop a friendship. Gradually, the members of this self-styled “Loser’s Club” of tween outcasts discern that they are each being terrorized by the same shape-shifting monster, an entity that feeds on fear. Eventually, the Losers delve into the creature’s subterranean lair and destroy it, or so they believe. Here King effectively puts the standard coming-of-age tale on pause for 27 years, as the Losers grow into successful (yet troubled) adulthoods, move away, and gradually forget their harrowing experience. Eventually, the monster resurfaces, compelling the now middle-aged Losers to return to Derry and reunite, with the goal of eradicating the malevolent “It” for good. (There is, needless to say, quite a bit of subtext in King’s novel regarding the arrested development and unsettled traumas of the Boomer generation.)
Despite its extensive cast of characters, recurrent digressions, and 1,000-plus-page length, It is not truly a sprawling epic in the same vein as The Stand. Most of the novel’s events unfold over a relatively short period (one summer in 1958 and a few days in 1985), and the action is confined primarily to Derry and its surroundings. However, the scale of the book feels enormous, in the same way that a momentous summer vacation can dilate in one’s memories until it achieves a Tolkien-level mythic density and moral starkness.
In part, this is due to King’s customary attentiveness to the nuances of setting—more evocative in It than anywhere else in his work—as well as his fulsome yet agile engagement with the points-of-view of secondary and tertiary characters. It’s most conspicuous formal feature, however, is doubtlessly its hopscotching structure. The author leaps back and forth in the story’s chronology, entwining the past and present in a way that not only reflects the psychological realities of trauma, but also examines the bizarre gestalt of reverence and denial that characterizes American attitudes towards history.
This is one rare respect in which the 1990 miniseries more closely follows the source material than does Muschietti’s film. Opting for the most blunt and reductive approach to such a massive story, Warner Bros. has elected to split the novel’s events into two discrete halves, one depicting the Losers as children, and one revisiting them as adults. This straightaway removes one of the novel’s most distinguishing features, although given the clumsy way the prior adaptation handled the two timelines, perhaps it’s for the best.
The first of the new It films is accordingly the story of the Losers’ initial confrontation with Derry’s protean boogeyman. The screenplay pushes these events forward from 1958 to 1989, which allows the studio to set the second feature film in the present day. (A-level production design naturally being cheaper for one period piece than for two such films.) Not incidentally, this approach also places the first film squarely within the formative years of today’s middle-aged viewers, the exact cohort that snuck first-edition copies of the notoriously violent and sexually explicit It off their parents’ bookshelves.
Muschietti is blessed with a sharp ensemble of child actors in the roles of the seven Losers: lanky stutterer Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the group’s informal leader; home-schooled African-American farm boy Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs); obese, bookish “new kid” Ben Hanscomb (Jeremy Ray Taylor); scrawny, hypochondriac Eddy Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer); impoverished tomboy Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis); bespectacled wiseass Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard); and rabbi’s son Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), the group’s anxious skeptic. As the nominal lead and the sole Loser with a personal vendetta against It—the creature abducted his little brother George one year prior—Lieberher's Bill is given more screen time than the others. Unfortunately, consistent with the novel and the 1990 miniseries, Mike and Stan are not as well-characterized as the other five Losers, and Jacobs and Oleff consequently don’t leave a strong impression, through no particular fault of their own. That said, there isn’t an obvious weak link in the bunch, performance-wise, although there are some standouts. Wolfhard absolutely runs away with every ensemble scene, tossing profanity-strewn insults and dirty jokes in the exact manner of a junior high class clown who’s trying a bit too hard. Lillis is the real discovery, however, a sparkling presence who shifts smoothly and convincingly between Beverly’s two poles: sharp-tongued, quick-witted tough girl and cringing, conciliatory abuse victim.
The Losers are It’s heart and soul, but the star of the show is, of course, Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), the grease-painted shape that It seems to prefer when hunting Derry’s children. The new film’s frilly, 19th-century design for Pennywise is far afield from the Bozo-like figure described in the novel and featured in the miniseries. There’s a little Pagliacci and commedia dell'arte in the costume as well, and the overall impression is distinctly fusty and effeminate, as though Pennywise were a life-sized doll who had clambered from some Victorian child’s toy chest. Physiologically, there is something distressingly abnormal about the clown, as evinced by his bulbous forehead, rodent overbite, and unruly eyes that never quite seem to follow each other perfectly. In short, he’s creepy as hell, but he also seems a bit too obviously designed to be creepy, which would seem to undercut the entire point of a “friendly clown” façade. In short, this Pennywise looks like a horror movie perversion of a clown, not an actual clown that one might find twisting balloon animals at a fair. Just as it’s difficult to imagine any little girl voluntarily choosing to play with the Annabelle doll, one can’t envision any right-minded child approaching Skarsgård’s Pennywise, unless they were dragged there kicking and screaming.
Skarsgård’s performance will inevitably be compared to that of Tim Curry, who portrayed Pennywise in the 1990 miniseries, but their takes on the character are so divergent it’s hard to assess them side-by-side. Curry’s approach to the clown was devilishly campy but perhaps too human, his croaky threats sometimes wandering away from “puffed-up Disney villain” and into “angry, abusive gym teacher.” In contrast, Skarsgård portrays Pennywise as a restless bundle of childish giggling, snorting, and muttering, as though he were a demonic Little Lord Fauntleroy working himself into a fit over a promised sweet (or a kitten to burn). It’s such an outrageously high-strung performance that it takes a minute or two for the viewer to attune themselves to Skarsgård’s unstable wavelength.
This sort of over-the-top portrayal pays unexpected dividends, however, when one starts to pick up on the subtleties that Skarsgård doodles between the lines. At times, Pennywise abruptly seems to glaze over or lose track of what he is saying, as though he had gone into momentary mental vapor-lock. It’s the huge red, toothy smile that truly unnerves, however. It mostly alternates between a naughty-boy leer and a manic Joker grin, but occasionally something more disturbing peeks through, as though an alien were attempting a hideous approximation of a human smile. Such cues suggest that for all It’s predatory cunning and supernatural insight into its victims’ fears, there is some elusive aspect of humanity that It is not able to emulate.
The film’s screenplay is credited to Gary Dauberman, Chase Palmer, and Cary Fukunaga, the latter attached to direct until he allegedly parted ways with the studio over that old chestnut, creative differences. However, the result is still a snug story, lacking the palpable seams that would indicate numerous script overhauls. If anything, It’s most conspicuous flaw is that it feels too streamlined, pitilessly compressing events that took hundreds of pages to unspool in King’s novel. The author’s notorious verbosity notwithstanding, the time spent slowly steeping in the exuberant and harrowed lives of the Losers is essential to the book’s appeal. The reader grows to know and love this gaggle of misfit kids—and then to fear that, for all their bravery and planning, they are still alarmingly outmatched by the monster.
In comparison, Muschietti’s film has expurgated the story to the point that its emotional foundations feel noticeably undernourished. The plot isn’t perfunctory so much as hasty and graceless, with an outline that could be scrawled out on a cocktail napkin. The film introduces the Losers, and then serves up roughly one scary set piece per kid. They quickly piece together what’s going on, and thereafter head into the sewers to slay the proverbial dragon. Intertitles attest that the film’s events take place over three or four months, but there doesn’t seem to be any practical reason It should take that long to unfold. Given the simplicity of the film’s A to B to C trajectory and the ruthlessness of the pruning performed on the source material, it’s a two-week story, tops. Of course, it would have been preferable if the filmmakers simply hadn’t condensed the plot so aggressively to begin with. One can envision a cinematic adaptation that would allow King’s story the necessary breathing room to achieve its full emotional and spiritual potential, but that film is an 8- or 12-hour limited series, rather than a pair of theatrical features.
Some of the minor revisions made in the transition from novel to screenplay are puzzling. The Losers are one or two years older than they are in the book, a change that slightly but meaningfully alters the story’s wistful tone, not to mention the dynamic between Beverly and the boys. Similarly, the film leans a bit more strongly than the novel did on the unspoken romantic triangle between Bill, Beverly, and Ben. The film does not derive any discernible benefit from such alterations to King’ story, which raises the question as to why they were made in the first place.
(The only excision that is obligatory is the removal of the so-called “kiddie-kiddie-bang-bang”: the notorious, gratuitous, thankfully non-explicit passage in which 11-year-old [!] Beverly decides, apropos of nothing, to have sex with each of the other Losers. It’s a horribly misconceived scene of jaw-dropping bad taste, pushing King’s novel dangerously into child pornography territory.)
While It’s story weaknesses are hardly insignificant, Muschietti and his crew unequivocally deliver when it comes to horror fundamentals. The creepy, rattling set pieces in which Pennywise takes repulsive delight in scaring the absolute beejeezus out of the Losers are terrific stuff. Strictly speaking, these sequences aren’t exactly scary. A seasoned horror aficionado will see every jump coming, and, with a few exceptions, the film doesn’t employ any tricks that haven’t been used before, in countless monster flicks and ghost stories.
What’s exceptional about It is that the film manages to make it scares such delicious fun, in the style of a first-rate haunted house. Appropriately enough, the overall tone of Pennywise’s approach is that of the over-enthusiastic player in a R-rated carnival funhouse. The Losers themselves are unequivocally terrified by It’s illusions, which often reflect their deepest fears. However, the viewer’s reaction is likely to be anxious tittering and exhilarated screams, accompanied by the vaguely pleasurable gooseflesh that a spooky campfire story elicits. The central achievement of Muschietti’s film is that manages to be a thoroughly entertaining horror tale without ever losing the novel’s essential atmosphere of hyper-real childhood dread and suffering.
This version of It is very much in the vein of Sam Raimi and Tim Burton, on those occasions when their work wriggles ambiguously in the murky space between horror and comedy. A scene where Ben is chased through the stacks of the Derry library by the headless, smoldering corpse of a child is pure Evil Dead in the best possible way, in that the viewer doesn’t know whether to laugh nervously or scream delightedly at the apparition’s herky-jerky movements. This slightly ridiculous, even kooky sensibility doesn’t detract from the film in the least. Indeed, it’s perfectly aligned with the way that an intense nightmare inevitably sounds silly when the dreamer later tries to explain why it undid them so thoroughly.
Funhouse scares are It’s most obvious strength, but it isn’t the only game the film knows how to play. Muschietti gradually allows a more explicitly alien horror to peek through the literal cracks in Pennywise’s mask, most memorably glimpsed in the gaping, needle-toothed Lovecraftian maw that he sometimes reveals. The film’s R rating allows Muschietti to indulge in some striking gore—as well as visceral violence perpetrated against children, normally a horror taboo—but what lingers most intensely is the terror of the grotesque. Pennywise is consistently creepy when on screen, but his most searing moments occur late in the film, when his façade begins to peel away in eruptions of spasmodic limbs, noxious excretions, and blubbering screeches. The Losers’ final confrontation with It echoes The Thing, The Fly, and even Terminator 2, as Pennywise oozes and shudders through his numerous forms, some of them previously seen by the kids and some suggesting more monstrous, unfamiliar morphologies.
It generally relies on standard horror film tropes—scary clowns, decrepit houses, fetid sewers, shambling corpses—although it executes those familiar elements with prodigious style. Much of the credit should go to Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, a frequent collaborator with Chan-wook Park. Granted, nothing in It approaches the dazzling visuals of Park’s best features. After last year’s sensual, phantasmagoric The Handmaiden, also shot by Chung, Muschietti’s film almost looks drab. However, virtually every shot in It is a handsomely composed little marvel, whether it’s a sun-kissed snapshot of summer horseplay or a trembling look down a moldering subterranean passage.
Like Muschetti’s dour, muddled first feature, Mama, the film relies a little too much on a dank, putrefied aesthetic, but at least here it’s justified (Pennywise is a sewer monster, after all), and blessedly balanced with the warm, vitalizing colors of a New England summer. Although Muschietti and Chung are generally dependent on King’s novel for their set pieces, they find ways to visualize some key elements (e.g., the mesmerizing “deadlights” that Pennywise controls) in innovative ways. Occasionally, they even discover a strikingly original vista. Chief among these is Pennywise’s lair, a cavernous vault of gothic rot with a breathtaking centerpiece straight out of Guillermo del Toro’s twisted imagination. Around a hundred-foot tower composed of waterlogged childhood detritus—clothes, toys, books, bikes—a slow-motion maelstrom of little bodies float in midair, a trophy display for Pennywise’s discarded, fear-sapped victims. It’s the kind of chilling, spectacular image that almost justifies this cinematic adaptation of It all on its own.