If you’ve read Stephen King’s book of It you will know that turning it into a feature film is a daunting task. Between Pennywise the Clown’s multiple looks, the dense history of the town of Denny and the bit with the giant space turtle there is a lot to translate to screen. Most importantly the main characters, the misfits and rejects that make up The Losers Club, are some of the finest and likeable characters King, or indeed anyone, has ever written.
Basically making a film of It is a tall order.
The TV mini series in 1990 tried with very limited success: Tim Curry as Pennywise obviously and some of the kids stuff but that’s about it. This new movie looked to be heading for disaster with the removal of original director and True Detective creator Cary Fukunarga, he seemed like a perfect fit with TD also telling a story over different timelines. He was replaced by Mama director Andrew Muschietti who everyone seemed to hate because the last ten minutes of Mama had too much CGI despite the previous 80 minutes being horror perfection. Every still that came out was moaned about, no one expected anything good… until the conversation changed when the first trailer came appeared and became a phenomenom. Could It actually be good?
Now we’ve finally got the answer. It the movie is a raging success.
Okay let’s be straight here, it isn’t all perfect. I don’t think the horror side of things is as good as it could be. A lot of the times that the children are scared by the demonic creature the film making approach is loud and overbearing with the It comin’ right at ya. There’s no denying that a lot of King’s prose also had this kind of over-the-top monster mayhem but occasionally it would be nice for a scene to underplay the scares rather over do them. Pennywise himself is a twisted, screaming banshee of a ghoul. His approach to bringing out the fear in his victims is to overwhelm them. It does work within the confines of the story though: think of it as a sideshow or a ghost train at a creepy fun fair. It is roller coaster thrills rather than genuine chills.This, of course, fits in well with the scary clown motif rather than a creepy old haunted house slant (although there is one if those too).
Another way to look at the horror aspect is that they are going for that macabre playfulness that Freddy Kruger gave us in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Not terrifying, just a grisly mocking of children’s fears. This makes sense as the It presented here is set in the 80s of Kruger not the fifties of the book. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child is even playing at the local theatre.
Maybe I’m just making excuses for It, but even if the scares aren’t actually scary the film gets so much else right that it doesn’t really matter.
The very best thing It the movie does well is get The Losers Club right. Not just right but spot on. All the children are perfectly cast and so well realised that it’s hard to pick out a best performance so I won’t even try. Richie Tozier was always my favourite in the book and Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things nails him so well: everything he says is hilarious, which actually now I think about it isn’t like the Richie of the book because all his jokes were terrible. Jaeden Lieberher as Big Bill is sincere, focused and brave despite his stutter, a serious boy not prepared to give up like his parents have after his brother disappears. Sophia Lillis as Beverly is such good casting that it is almost as if she has stepped out of the page: she probably has the most traumatic life and it’s amazing that a young actor can bring such a multi layered and complicated performance to the screen. A scene in her bathroom which could just be gory and standard horror fare is made gut wrenching and tragic by Lillis’ exceptional performance. Only a weird damsel in distress bit late on in the story somewhat undermines Beverly’s character (it’s also a moment not in the book) which made me slap myself in the head. Other than that all the kids are brilliantly brought to life: not just in their acting but in that you can believe they are real friends who hang out with each other, trying to make their lives less depressing and dangerous.
Almost as important is how well the town of Derry is brought to life. In the book Derry is the very epitome of hell on earth: it seems like any normal blue collar American town but just beneath the surface it is a place of violence, abuse and racism. Actually there’s not much of the racism of the book which is a shame as it misses a good opportunity to make a comment about these turbulent times. The adults ignore or are oblivious to their children going missing and hold long, generational grudges against each other. Derry is always just one step away from it’s next accident or murder, another child disappearing or building burning to the ground. The movie somehow manages to capture this terrible feeling of dread in one place perfectly. Being summer there are fairs on, Batman and Lethal Weapon 2 playing at the cinema and long, hot Maine summer days for the kids to enjoy. But just around the corner there are gangs driving in muscle cars, adults ignoring children’s screams and the damp dark sewers where Pennywise is waiting for his next meal. It is the Derry of King’s novel, brought frighteningly to life, and is the really scary part of the movie.
I’m not going to say that I wouldn’t like the horror to be cleverer or more subtle because I would. There’s still enough ghoulish fun and jump scares to at least entertain if not exactly frighten you. But this isn’t what makes It such a great adaptation. It’s the well rounded and believable characters and the perfect sense of time and place that make the film. And the fear it creates is the fear you will have for these characters and the terrible world they live in, and the hope that they can make it out of it alive. Muschietti and his team clearly cared enough about the Losers Club when he made the film, hopefully you all will too.