by Henry Kulick
After its over 30-year mark on the world of storytelling, IT is no stranger to most of us. Whether it was the original Stephen King novel, the 1990 miniseries, or the newest iteration, the 2017 film adaptation, IT is a pulse-pounding story about facing our greatest fears, no matter how terrifying that may be. And that we could always use a little help from our friends.
But for the first time, under the directorial eye of Andy Muschietti, IT breaks out of the horror genre to become something more—a dark fantasy that may be the best Stephen King adaptation to date.
Unlike the previous adaptation, IT focuses only on the younger years of our protagonists, the time in Derry when seven kids wore the title of “loser” with self-deprecating pride. With the members of the Loser’s Club all around the age of 11 when Pennywise the Dancing Clown starts to wreak havoc upon Derry, we’re seeing this fear through an adolescent lens.
Now, Pennywise is capable of turning into whatever someone fears most, so we see him in seven different forms, one for each of what these kids fear most. But don’t think he isn’t the child-eating clown we’ve all come to love; that’s the form he takes most of the time.
IT is nothing without Pennywise, but this movie is ultimately about the Losers’ Club. I’ve always had reservations about films that revolve around children because I believe, for the most part, there’s a point where young talent can plateau. I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case at all with the actors in this film. The dialogue was sharp and fun, but none of that would have mattered if the kids who were relaying it weren’t capable of selling it. Thankfully, every single one of them rose to the occasion.
However, with a cast of seven prominent characters, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of them drifted into the background. Specifically, Mike, the homeschooled farm boy, and Ben, the lovestruck new kid seem to take a backseat in the latter half of the 2-hour film. They were along for the whole ride, but they only had moments of being centre stage while the others were in the limelight the entire time. This is particularly off-putting near the end of the film, when these two boys are catalysts for the resolution, because they step out from behind the rest of the crew to fill that role before returning once more to the shadows.
Even though not every one of the members of the Losers’ Club got their chance to shine, it’s through them that we experience everything. As they fight the supernatural fear-eating Pennywise, it becomes clear that nobody is there to aid them in this fight. It’s them against the world, because who would believe them, after all? It really helps the audience connect with these kids, realizing that they know something is real but it would be futile to recruit any adult to help them.
Of course, Bill Skarsgård stole the show as Pennywise. Roles like these give great actors a chance to really shine, but the direction received from Andy Muschietti was key in making Skarsgård’s presence as disturbing as possible. Because that’s what Pennywise is: disturbing.
His presence is aided by light additions of gore and jump scares, but for the most part, it’s the unsettling way he speaks and moves that causes the fright to begin to bubble up from within.
Though the story focuses mostly on Pennywise and the Loser’s Club, there’s a second antagonist to be found in the local bully, Henry Bowers and his snivelling gang. Henry’s story rises to somewhat great importance near the end of the film, only to fall brutally short. Whether or not his story is finished has yet to be revealed, but for someone just dipping into this universe, this sudden story arc could feel very jarring. Between this and the lack of prominence in some members of the Loser’s Club, it’s hard not to wonder if some scenes should have been re-balanced to adjust for this.
Regardless of these complaints, IT managed to keep the story tight, all while bringing some genuinely terrifying moments. From the different ways Pennywise struck fright within the children, to the well-timed jump scares that existed to bring the viewers in on the action, IT wielded horror like a true weapon. This should be no surprise coming from Muschietti, whose most notable work before this film was 2013’s Mama.
I can’t focus on what IT did right without looking at what translated from the source material and what didn’t. It’s important because in a time where adaptations are rampant, IT can serve as a great example of what should stay and what shouldn’t.
IT is a big novel—it’s a huge novel. With clearly defined timelines, it’s a story that can easily be split into two movies, but there was still much that was cut from the kid’s timeline—and for the better.
Stephen King is a masterful storyteller, but IT the novel has some scenes that are questionable in their appeal to a large audience. Do some quick Googling to see what I mean. But besides trimming King’s source material, Muschietti took a great narrative and made it more enjoyable for a 2017 viewer. The majority of this came from a tightening of the plot, but also a modernization in the setting and dialogue.
The original story took place in the 50’s and 80’s, but now our story begins in the 80’s, with the prospective second chapter taking place in present day. This was a great move in making things more accessible for the audience, but also in opening up new ways that Pennywise could torment the kids. After seeing the projector scene to its full length, you’ll know what I mean.
If you’ve watched the old miniseries, you’ll know Seth Green played the original Ritchie, and everything he did was reflective a 50’s comic-hopeful. He was the comic relief, but one that would have felt aged if portrayed in exactly the same way in 2017. Instead, Finn Wolfhard redefines the role as a kid in the 80’s who’s learning to incorporate sex into humour or taking full liberal use of the f-word. It works really well because he’s a kid who’s learning the ropes of humour, and in that sense, his character is relatable and genuinely fun to watch.
And I think that’s what IT’s newfound success comes down to: the revitalization of appeal for a story we’ve known for over three decades. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, Pennywise has a long history with most of the audience—one that can put people in seats—but it’s the way the entire story of IT was brought into this modern age of storytelling that will ensure people will return for the now-inevitable part two that will follow.
On top of everything, IT is a lot of fun, and a film adaptation done well. If you’re looking to learn more about what makes a great film adaptation, check out our article on just that!
Interested in reading more? Check out our other reviews below:
Henry Kulick is an InFocus blogger and film writer who’s almost always in front of a screen. He’s always looking for the newest worthwhile stories to drool over, and they’re almost always in film and television. That’s where you’ll find him. You can also find him on Twitter (@Gatorfolk).