Twenty-seven years after the much-lauded (but equally criticised) miniseries by Tommy Lee Wallace and some thirty years after the publication of Stephen King’s original novel, director Andy Mushietti brings one of King’s most terrifying works (and my personal favourite book ever) to the big screen with the novel’s gruesome imagery and themes largely intact. Unlike the novel, It takes place at the back-end of the 1980s and revolves around the coming together of seven outsiders to face an unspeakable, shape-changing nightmare in their quaint little town. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), who suffers from an uncontrollable stutter, is absolutely devastated after his little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), goes missing one rainy afternoon.
While Bill, blinded by grief and guilt, is determined prove that Georgie is still alive, Georgie has actually fallen prey to Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), a sewer-dwelling maniacal shape-changing creature that feeds on children. With school out for the summer, Pennywise begins to haunt and terrorise several of the neighbourhood children, who are already struggling to avoid being targeted by local bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and their own adolescent issues. While Bill regularly visits the Barrens and investigates the sewer outflow pipes alongside his friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stan (Wyatt Oleff), they run into local new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and, while patching up the wounds he suffered at Bowers’ hands, join up with Beverly (Sophia Lillis). As the group bond as friends, they each recount their encounters with Pennywise, share stories of the history of their home town, and work to figure out how they can avoid ending up on missing posters
After a particularly apocalyptic rock fight against Bowers and his friends, they befriend Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the only black kid in town, and figure out that Pennywise appears to live beneath a dilapidated house. Journeying inside, they are attacked by Pennywise and realise that, together, they are able to wound and stand up to the creature. The remainder of the film deals with them overcoming their own individual fears and coming together as a group to not only solve the mystery surrounding Bill’s brother but also destroy an evil that has apparently existed for hundreds of years. Although primarily revolving around a horrific situation, the core themes of It are friendship and coming to terms with adolescence and the loss of innocence. Fittingly, the depiction of the child protagonists is staggeringly on point; the Losers Club (as they dub themselves) all seem to be close friends and their dialogue and interactions appear real and well-developed. However, due to the sheer amount of characters present in the narrative, some of them get less development time than others; Richie never encounters Pennywise by himself (which seems an odd omission given that the other six characters all get attacked by Pennywise separately before coming together), and Mike is largely absent and a lot of his characteristics are transplanted onto Ben (who also isn’t as prominent as he is in the book or miniseries). Despite this, the characters are all very likeable and layered characters, each dealing with their own problems and struggling to deal with the trials they face as children.
The real star of the show here is Bill Skarsgård. While Tim Curry put in a truly iconic performance in the original miniseries, playing the part of Pennywise with a manic glee that remains iconic to this day, Skarsgård opts for a far more intimidating, creepy take on the character. Pennywise taunts his prey, lulling them in with Its comedic appearance and mocking them as It seeks to bring their fear to breaking out and feast upon their flesh. While Pennywise is noticeably absent for sections of the film’s middle, the entire plot and motivations of the children revolve confronting It; this also serves to give Skarsgård’s appearances that much more impact and he really embodies the dark comedic menace of the creature. Right off the bat, It sets itself up to be much more “inspired by” King’s book than directly based upon it. As an adaptation, it retains many key scenes, themes, and characters from the book but places them within entirely new settings. Unlike The Dark Tower (Arcel, 2017), It has the runtime to properly flesh out the child protagonists and bring King’s story to the screen in a far more faithful way. It’s fair to say, though, that, much like the original miniseries, It is quite a departure from the book. The violence and general themes are present but a lot of the specifics are altered; Pennywise takes different forms than in the book and attacks the children in very different ways, and the idea that they can overcome It by not being afraid of It is far more pronounced here than it is in the book.
Perhaps the biggest departure is the fact that It revolves entirely on the narrative of the children; the book and miniseries detail how the children encounter It in the 1950s and then again as adults in the 1990s. All throughout the film’s marketing, no mention was made of inserting the adult narrative into the film or producing another movie to tell that story but it turns out this was a masterful strategy as, right before the end credits play, the film retitles itself as It: Chapter One, which should hopefully mean that a second chapter will follow to complete the story. This means that It is purely focused on developing and portraying the characters as children, establishing the world they inhabit and the rules of that world, as well as dipping its toe into the more metaphysical aspects of Pennywise. Is It the beginning of a new age of successful, profitable horror movies? The critical and commercial success seems to think so, though I was slightly disappointed to find that the film is more about the in-your-face, loud scares and less on haunting, spine-tingling scares, as I had hoped and suspected from the trailers (most disappointing of all was that the creepy soundtrack heard in the trailers was absent from the film). However, It doesn’t rely on random jump scares as much as you might think; the tension builds appropriately well and the payoff is suitably cathartic – Pennywise’s possession of the kids’ slide projector and attacks them in a large, monstrous form exemplifies this wonderfully. As an adaptation of one of King’s works, It fares a lot better than The Dark Tower and many other adaptations. Many liberties are taken with the source material but they all retain the essence of the text in a way that fits and feels natural, while still leaving plenty of unused material for the sequel. Some characters could’ve been given more screen time and a bit more spotlight but, overall, the film works extremely well as a coming of age story featuring a truly creepy and horrific villain.
Recommended: Definitely, if only to finally see a really well done adaptation of a Stephen King story.
Best moment: Probably the first real showdown between the Losers and Pennywise in the house on Neibolt Street.
Worst moment: Despite the decent runtime and the well-developed characters, the lack of screen time for Mike and Ben was a bit of a miss-step for me.