Written By: Daniel Kinsley
“The terror, which would not end for another 28 years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
-Excerpt from IT (1986), Stephen King
Over the years, this writer has consumed an exceptional number of books from any number of authors, but none have quite captured the imagination the way Stephen King has. While the name has remained synonymous with horror, King has essentially transcended genre and become something unto himself, though even his most horrifying works have often had a bright streak of humanity in them. At 1,138 pages (give or take depending on the edition) IT remains one of King’s most epic stories. While the author (and many of his fans) consider The Dark Tower series to be his magnum opus (and the less said about that film adaptation, the better) for this Constant Reader, the honor must go to the story of The Losers Club.
For many casual fans intimidated or uninterested in the gargantuan novel, the 1990 miniseries has remained up until now the most visible jumping off point for the material. While the quality of the adaptation has been debated ad nauseam (and will not be rehashed here), what seems to be generally agreed upon is that Pennywise, The Dancing Clown (Bob Gray, if ya nasty) as played by Tim Curry is a fairly iconic horror performance. While the miniseries has its fans, the source material is bursting at the seams with ideas, and it has long felt ripe for a big-screen adaptation, particularly considering the way King stories have been mined for any number of film and TV projects in the proceeding years.
For the uninitiated, the novel is largely split into two parts. The first half takes place in 1958, detailing the Losers’ discovery of, and escalating encounters with, Pennywise, while the second part picks up with the adult Losers in the 1980s when they must reunite to face their shared past. What separates the film from its small screen-counterpart is both simple and savvy; the timeline has been updated so that the children’s story takes place in the 1980s, and any cross-cutting between present and future has been excised. IT (2017) belongs solely to the children. It is an evocative move, as many of the now audience members will be able to recall the ‘80s with a proper dose of nostalgia (even if it is only through a pop culture lens), and it will also allow for the second half of the story to take place in the modern day. While much has been made by certain audience members about the title card at the end of the film that reads IT: CHAPTER ONE, allow this writer to set the record straight: from the earliest days of development, the plan was always to make two films.* In this writer’s opinion, it is a bold, but very satisfying narrative move, allowing both parts of the story the room to breathe, earning its scares, but more importantly, the character notes.
The film opens in 1988 with Bill Denbrough (Jaden Lieberher) constructing a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to take sailing through the streets on a rainy day. When Georgie’s boat floats down the street and into a storm drain, he encounters Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) a clown who appears from the darkness, claiming that the storm blew him away. It is a scene laden with dread, as it is clear to Georgie on some level that something is very, very wrong. Still, after an unsettling conversation, he reaches reluctantly into the drain for his boat. The clown’s jaws open wider than any creature ought to be able to, and bites the boy’s arm clean off. It is one hell of an opening salvo, which is to say nothing of the actual image, which is both impressive and terrifying; the bright burst of blood made all the more striking among the gray hues of the storm. Narratively, it strikes a tone, too: this is a film unafraid to break (unspoken) rules about harming children, even in a horror film.
The action picks up nearly a year later, after Georgie and several other children have disappeared (unlike the novel, Georgie’s body is never recovered) and the parallels begin to form as the Losers assemble, while slowly realizing something about their hometown is deeply wrong. While the original core of the group is made up of Stuttering Bill (“He thrusts his fists against the posts…”), Richie, and Stan; Ben, Beverly, and Mike all make their way into the crew in a wholly satisfying, and organic manner. It feels right the way the kids take in fellow oddballs and outcasts, and the actors do a hell of a job of selling the immediate acceptance that children excel at, up to a certain age. As the only girl, Beverly is given the kind of reverence reserved for things that are both fascinating and totally alien to young boys. Ben, the new kid in town, and Mike, the only person of color, join the group almost by default, after being targeted by the local bullies, led by the rotten Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). Over the course of the film, each of the kids faces some variation of IT, which only fuels the feeling that there is something more sinister behind the unusual rate of disappearances in their hometown. There is something rotten about the town of Derry, Maine, and the film does an excellent job of injecting dread into the banal and the ordinary. There is a pall cast over so much of the town that only the Losers seem to notice. There is not much of an adult presence in the film, but those that do pop up are subtly unseemly. From the pharmacist who is a little too friendly toward Bev, to Eddie’s controlling mother, the adults in Derry feel every bit as rotten as the town itself. It is to the film’s credit that it gets the little details so right, as the setting is an enormous boon to the story. Much like Castle Rock, or Salem’s ‘Lot, Derry is a town with a long history of awful events, and the film does a great job of show, don’t tell, with regards to just how pervasive the nastiness is, all without ever feeling too on the nose.
While capturing the atmosphere is very important, the horror on display is only the surface level of the text. The true subject of the story is the wonder and terror of childhood, and the sense of magic to being young that is lost in adulthood. While the eponymous monster at the center of the story is undoubtedly a constant and terrifying presence, it is the dynamic between the members of the Losers Club which has made the story resonate into classic status. Without the love they feel for one another, the story would likely dissolve into not much more than a very creative slasher. It is not hyperbole, then, to say the success of the film adaptation lives and dies with its casting, and boy, did they get it right.
While all of the children are terrific, there are a few easy standouts, most notably Sophia Lillis as Beverly. As the sole female member of the Losers, Bev is called upon to be many things at once, and she also has some very difficult material to face down (both in the novel and the film). Lillis is more than up to the task, carrying herself with a confidence and ease onscreen that belies someone far older than her years. Similarly, Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things fame) and Jack Dylan Grazer acting as relief, filling the time in between scares with a lot of laughs. As Richie, the motor-mouth who loves talking about his penis and annoying his friends with his impressions, Wolfhard is flat-out hilarious, managing to have the kind of timing that can cut the tension with a well-timed joke, without ever losing sight of what is at stake; while Grazer plays Eddie, the hypochondriac-germaphobe with an overly protective mother. In some ways, he might have been a character type as played by an adult (think George Constanza), all neuroses and hand-wringing, but Grazer brings the perfect amount of affable outrage to his scenes, and even when he is being terrified, it is kind of hard not to find something to laugh at, too. It may sound contrarian to say that a film so intent on terrifying the audience can also make them laugh so effortlessly, but really, it captures the essence of what it is to be a child. The world is baffling to a young person, and life can alternately be side-splitting and terrifying, often on the heels of one another. The only real disappointment character-wise is the way Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is largely sidelined. In the novel, Mike is the amateur-historian who discovers the connection between some of Derry’s past horrors and the creature picking off children. Instead, Ben occupies this role (despite being the new kid, and also having a crush on Beverly) for no discernible reason. While Mike gets a chance to shine toward the finale, it feels like a missed opportunity, and one this writer hopes will be rectified in part two.
By design, much of the sub-plots of the novel needed to be stripped away, as it would be impossible to cram them all into a two hour film. As such, the pace of the story is at times a double edged sword; there is a relentlessness to the way Pennywise appears, as the encounters seem to escalate from one set-piece to the next (though to their credit, they are mostly very effective). The house on Neibolt Street is a standout, as it is a centerpiece of the children’s story (both in the film and the novel) the place where they begin to learn the truth about IT and have their initial confrontation as a group. On the whole, it mostly works, but for this writer, some of the best moments in the film are just watching the kids riff of one another. It is something unlikely to be noticed as acutely by non-book readers, though. The breathlessness of the way things move plays to the advantage of the film’s momentum, and will keep audiences near the edge of their seats.
Ultimately, the big question on many people’s minds will be whether IT is scary. As usual in a horror film, that depends entirely on the viewer. Skarsgård absolutely slays as Pennywise, turning in a performance that feels unhinged and totally unique. It is a performance made all the more impressive considering it never feels like a rehash of his predecessor. There are a lot of individual moments that are so good, like the horrifying sound of his laughter, or the deranged expression on his face after Bev scores a costly blow with a piece of rebar. For this writer, the single best moment comes late in the film: the Losers stumble upon Bowers and his gang beating on Mike, and in between trying to cover up, he catches a glimpse of Pennywise watching from the nearby cover of the woods, gnawing on a disembodied arm, blood around his mouth, grinning like a loon with his razor sharp teeth. It is a moment that truly embodies the ugliness underneath Derry, and the chaos at the heart of the monster haunting it. Whether the film scares is up to you, but it remains thrilling throughout, walking a razor’s edge between pitch-black absurdist humor and abject cosmic horror. As for the various forms IT takes, some are more successful than others, with the painting that haunts Stan being an obvious weak point, as the CGI employed looks twitchy and dated. In all fairness, the film was made on a fairly low budget (about $35 million!) but with Skarsgård game to go to some strange places, it seems a shame that they did not rely more on using the actor and practical effects to sell the scares.
While it might be fun for this writer to pick apart the changes made from page to screen, it would likely make for pretty boring copy. Aside from the side-lining of Mike, there are not many things that the film did differently to complain about, though. The only real criticism that comes to mind is the final confrontation with Pennywise in the sewer. While it seemed pretty unlikely they would go the same direction as the novel (to put it mildly: things get weird, and then controversial the whole thing feels a bit too muted, and a little too easy, considering what an enduring horror Pennywise has been to both the town, and the Losers. Having said that, it is difficult to judge certain choices too harshly without seeing where the story goes next. For those who want to remain in the dark, there will be no real spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the Losers have almost certainly not seen the last of Henry Bowers (last seen falling down a well into the unknown), and there is still plenty more to reveal about the exact nature of our friend Pennywise.
The film ends in much the same way that the first half of the novel does, with the Losers swearing a blood oath that if IT ever returns, they will return to and defeat it, no matter what. The long summer has ended, and with it, the last innocence of their childhood. The final moments of the film are quiet, and sweet, and a bit heartbreaking, as we know these children will not be children for much longer, after all they have endured.
For a number of personal reasons, this writer placed a lot of emotional weight on the hope that the film would be a success. It would be difficult (and likely out of place) to articulate all of the little things that have made this particular story such an important one, but there is an essence at its heart that has nothing to do with scares. Ultimately, the terror is an excuse to probe things much deeper. It is a story about love, memories, friendship, and what is lost on the bridge between being a child who must become an adult. To let the man himself tell it:
“Disquiet and desire. What you want and what you’re scared to try for. Where you’ve been and where you want to go. Something in a rock-and-roll song about wanting the girl, the car, the place to stand and be.”
The fact that the film comes very close to capturing this feeling is a huge part of what made it such a triumph. While we haven’t seen the last of the horror known as Pennywise, the thrill of film itself is proof: even the losers get lucky sometimes.
“If you spare a last thought, maybe it’s ghosts you wonder about…the ghosts of children standing in the water at sunset, standing in a circle, standing with their hands joined together, their faces young, sure, but tough….The circle closes, the wheel rolls, and that’s all there is.”
-Excerpt from IT (1986), Stephen King
* A horror film is always a hard sell as far as having legs to make money, particularly a hard-R rated, 2+ hour film. By all measures, then, IT is a huge success. It’s garnered positive looks critically as well as with audiences, and the box office numbers are looking to shatter records, too. It was no surprise that the official green-light arrived so soon after opening day.