Stephen King and the movies have an interesting relationship. The prolific writer’s memorable characters, interesting settings, and terrifying villains have often made the jump to the silver screen. These adaptations have had various levels of commercial and critical success, but King’s works have been a mainstay of the horror and movie industry for almost five decades.
It may be King’s most beloved work. Initially released in 1986, the novel covers many themes: loss, childhood, adulthood, masculinity, courage, and friendship. It spans decades with a complex lore filling over 1,000 bing-able pages. And of course there is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the titular villain, who may be one of the best written antagonists in literary history and the book’s best-known element.
Already adapted into a relatively well-regarded miniseries in the 90’s, will fans of the book be willing to accept yet another adaptation? Will new fans see It as more than just another creepy clown scary movie? Will the misplaced comparisons to Stranger Things make a difference?
It has a pretty basic setup: when children start to go missing in a small town, a group of kids who have no friends but each other attempt to save everyone. There are obstacles to overcome, bullies that have to learn lessons, and adults that refuse to listen. Andrés Muschietti, the director of this newest adaptation, does an excellent job bringing the additional depth of the novel to the big screen. Fair warning though: book fans will need to accept some changes, even one major one. Otherwise watching will be an exercise in frustration.
It is not a typical monster movie, in that it strongly focuses on its characters. If a movie is going to go that route, it needs a stellar performance from its cast. There are definitely notable performances. Finn Wolfhard stands out in his role as Richie Tozier. Richie has a filthy mouth and is quick to comment about other people’s moms. Wolfhard plays his role naturally and commands every scene he is in. Jack Dylan Grazer is the other standout as Eddie Kaspbrak, a hypochondriac constantly warning his friends about their dangerous activity. The role could easily have become an annoying know-it-all, but Grazer skillfully avoids that pitfall.
Wolfhard’s and Grazer’s excellent performances inadvertently steal the spotlight from the other child actors. Jaeden Lieberher plays Bill Denbrough, the de facto leader of the Losers Club. While Lieberher does a fine job, he pales in comparison to Wolfhard and Grazer. The same can be said of Sophia Lillis, who plays Beverly Marsh. Jeremy Ray Taylor’s performance may have been impacted the most. As Ben Hanscom, Taylor puts on a performance that would stand out in any other movie. In It, Taylor will probably best be remembered for being the kid who liked New Kids on the Block.
This is especially unfortunate since the movie does a great job of developing the group dynamic. Deep bonds amongst the Losers Club are setup in just a few well-done, efficient scenes. Each flawed individual is much stronger as part of this group of oddballs, and it’s a lot fun watching them on this adventure. Juggling this relatively large group of seven characters, all straight from the book, does inevitably lead to some getting short-shrift. The screenwriters clearly have more material for some rather than others, and it leaves two characters in particular, Mike Hanlon and Stan Uris, with little to do.
On the monster front, Bill Skarsgard is creepy as Pennywise, but that might be more due to the nature of the character than his actual performance. After all, clowns already have an unsettling vibe, so Skarsgard is secondary to the character. Pennywise’s costuming and makeup, however, are top-notch and suitably twisted.
As for the other horror elements in It, there is a disappointing lack of fresh ideas. There are typical special effects and scare shots: faces appearing from out of the shadows, doors closing on their own, and monsters charging at the screen. The sound, too, relies on genre-norm ear-piercing music and sound effects. With such a high-profile horror property, I was hoping for some more unique scares.
In spite of these flaws, It succeeds. Bits and pieces of the history of Derry, Maine is told throughout the movie, which is really interesting. The drama in the character’s lives really pull you in; before long you find yourself laughing with and rooting for these characters, even in their pubescent love lives. These character moments are the only relief for the constant sense of dread that hovers over the whole film. When Pennywise suddenly appears, the threat feels real, and you want the Losers Club to succeed, not just because they’re the good guys, but because you genuinely like them. This is storytelling at its best.
Adaptations of Stephen King books have thrilled and frustrated fans for decades. It is no different. Far from perfect, the movie has many strengths. Thanks to strong characters, a captivating story, and horrifying, if somewhat routine, moments, It will go down in the pantheon of good Stephen King movies.