The challenge of bringing a Stephen King novel to the big screen is a result of the very same thing which brought him mainstream success as an author: his stories are conceptually cinematic, throwing throngs of strongly built and believable characters into high-concept scenarios. Fans and critics alike will agree that King’s prose brings to life the theater of the mind, which has naturally spawned an endless parade of filmic adaptations. These are all of varying quality, and it’s hard to pin down why. Conventional nerd-wisdom dictates that his stories are either too short to expand into a full movie (Children of the Corn) or too long to condense into anything shorter than The Ten Commandments (The Stand). But conventional wisdom would be wrong. For every Thinner there’s a Misery. For every Rose Red there’s a Carrie. Sometimes you get Mick Garris, other times you get Stanley mothereffing Kubrick. The fact of the matter is that there is only one rule when it comes to adapting King:
Make the characters work and the rest will fall into place.
It’s for this reason that IT truly succeeds. Not the creatively staged jump scares, not the beautifully shot and cleverly choreographed sequences of unrelenting horror, not the specter of nostalgia that sneakily peeks out like an internalized version of Pennywise the Dancing Clown — its the characters which elevate IT into the upper echelon of King-based cinema.
The order was indeed a tall one: make a scary movie that pleases fans of the novel and fans of the miniseries, while delivering a broad enough appeal to draw the casual horror filmgoing market. Furthermore, the film has to work as a standalone, complete story while keeping the door open for a potential sequel contingent entirely upon the box office returns. Basically, this movie should have suffered the same fate as 2017’s other impossible King adaptation, The Dark Tower. And while IT plays the same “safe” bet as Tower (namely that it didn’t go for broke and run head first into the realm of cosmic weirdness per the source material) it’s still a smashing success, and it clears every hurdle listed above.
We all know the basic premise: an evil entity takes the form of a clown and feeds on the bodies of children in the sleepy town of Derry, Maine. This clown can sense the fears of its victims and recreate them before feasting because frightened kids taste better. When a group of young outcasts band together in friendship, their combined strength proves to be the one barrier between said evil and its goal of relentless consumption.
Fans of the novel know that there is a LOT more to the story, but boiled down to its most cinematic elements, this is pretty much the gist. All told, it’s a formula we’ve seen plenty of times (The Monster Squad and The Gate are two of my favorite examples). The catch is finding the right kids for the job, and since kids are generally not good actors, it’s something of a miracle for all seven members of The Losers Club to be so wonderful.
Jaeden Lieberher is excellent as the de facto leader of the gang, ‘Stuttering Bill’ Denbrough. He’s done a small disservice by the script which weakens his character in comparison to the novel. It’s Bill’s little brother Georgie whose death kicks off every single iteration of this tale, and in both previous versions Bill’s drive to fight against It is not one of vengeance or hope, but one of duty. He wishes to prevent future attacks so that others won’t have to share in his family’s suffering. In this version, he seems to think there’s a chance that Georgie, now missing for a year, may still be alive. It makes sense in given the way it informs a later moment, but it doesn’t quite sit right with me. No matter. Lieberher owns the character with the same reluctant confidence which brought Bill his leadership role. And making a stutter seem real is something I’ve NEVER seen an actor do until now.
Fans of King-homage Stranger Things will recognize Finn Wolfhard, whose take on Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier brings a large amount of the movie’s humor (yes, IT is very, very funny). Not to be outdone, however, is Jack Dylan Grazer, whose Eddie Kaspbrak is less the peckish hypochondriac of the novel/miniseries and more a paranoid child whose fear is based in a seemingly adult wisdom. His is a hell of a performance, and one which adds elements to the character that aren’t on the page.
Wyatt Oleff and Chosen Jacobs (as Stan Uris and Mike Hanlon, respectively) are given much less to do than the rest of the gang, but it only feels like a loss when it comes to Jacobs. Stan is a minor character in the story, but Mike is classically as featured a player as any of the Losers. It’s an odd choice to sideline his story, but it makes sense in the context of this being the first of two parts (in the novel, adult Mike Hanlon becomes the Derry historian required to exposit so much of the town’s history to readers).
And when it comes to “the fat kid” this version of Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is second to none. He is so damn adorable that he ultimately carries the heart of the movie.
But amongst this sea of youthful talent, it’s Sophia Lillis as Bev Marsh, the object of lust for the rest of the Losers Club, who emerges the film’s champion. It’s a challenging role that, by nature of the source material, has to be played by someone who can be strong, cocky even, while facing the worst brand of horrors, both supernatural and not. You can see exactly why the young men envy and covet her, but also why they ultimately respect her. You can see why she is bullied by the other girls at school, as well as why they all feel threatened by her. And when she and Ben share a running joke surrounding his fandom of the New Kids On the Block, you can’t help but feel the warmth. This has everything to do with Lillis.
Also, she looks EXACTLY like if Kristen Wiig and Amy Adams somehow had a baby.
These characters are such a joy to be around that the film’s shortcomings barely register. But alas, I must mention them. First and foremost, I was a little bit disappointed in the treatment of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Bill Skarsgård is FANTASTIC in the role. He is as scary as Tim Curry was 27 years ago, and his take on the character is very much its own thing. Instead of the booming radio voice of Curry, Skarsgård speaks with a lighter, more childlike tone, which gives him just the right amount of mystery for me to buy the idea that children might be drawn to him (not me — I run from clowns, full stop). Yet the script doesn’t do much with this beautiful rendering of Pennywise. Very few scenes let Skarsgård embody the character before turning into a shreik-fest. Not that these moments are bad, but it would’ve been nice to see Skarsgård lay the creep-factor on thick. He clearly has the ability.
Another thing that left me wanting was the almost total ignorance of the breadth of It’s abilities. Derry, Maine is a town POSSESSED by It, and although that is indeed the case here, the concept (and resultant dread) is mostly glossed over in favor of big, booming jolts. Don’t get me wrong, the jolts work wonders, but I like horror which exists between the big scares, and there’s very little of it here. One hopes that when the two-film tapestry is complete, the dread will emerge. And since part two will be based in the world of grown-ups, a world defined by dread rather than spooks and goblins, I can confidently assume it will be the case.
Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) has an undeniable skill when it comes to staging effective and slick scares, and IT shows a visual maturity that bodes very well for the material. One scene — we’ll call it “the first showdown at the house on Neibolt Street”— is, no lie, an all-time great piece of horror filmmaking. One of the best in any movie this year, and just as good as anything you’ve seen this side of Poltergeist. IT is a handsomely crafted work. In a few years I can easily see Muschietti being capable of creating something as indelible as The Shining.
A testament to the effectiveness of this film in two parts:
1. A fellow Cinedelphia writer, who shall remain unnamed until he/she chooses to eschew anonymity, screamed louder than I’ve ever heard any adult scream at a movie before. It was awesome.
2. I went to bed early last night, long before my girlfriend got home from work. I was fast asleep when she finally did arrive, and she found her way through the dark to the bed by GRABBING MY ANKLE AND RUINING ANY CHANCE I HAD OF LOOKING LIKE A TOUGH GUY BECAUSE IN THAT MOMENT I KNEW THAT IT WASN’T A YOUNG WOMAN GRABBING MY ANKLE BUT A CLOWN DEMON WHO WANTED TO DRAG ME INTO THE SEWER TO EAT ME.
I’ve been waiting for IT for a very long time. It’s been one of my favorite books for over a decade. If this could have disappointed anyone, it would’ve been me. My expectations were exceeded. For the first time in ages, the promise of a sequel actually feels organic rather than studio mandated. I hope it has the turtle.
IT opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.