In Stephen King’s 1986 novel, IT, the titular demonic presence returns every 27 years to wreak havoc. The same can be said for the recently released big-screen adaptation of the novel, coming to us 27 years after the original IT miniseries (1990). (You can read my article regarding that miniseries here)
There is a reason it took nearly three decades to get one of King’s most noted works to the big screen. The majority of which has to do with the fact that the novel is thick enough to beat a clown down with, ensuring that you will never be solicited a red balloon again. Clocking in at 1,138 pages, telling ITs story on screen was always going to be a difficult task. Thus, getting the new film to the silver screen went through a period of development hell. A development which began nearly a decade ago in 2009 when writer David Kajganich (A Bigger Splash) was tapped with the task of adapting the behemoth of a novel. At that time, Warner Bros. intended to get everything into one screenplay and make one film. Doing so proved impossible for all parties involved after a year and development ceased for the time.
Then, in 2012, IT floated back up from the depths of the sewer. Warner Bros put the development of the project under their genre arm, New Line Cinema. Under this development approach, the studio decided to split IT into two different films. The first covering the childhood portion of the novel. The second (being contingent on the success of the former) would focus on the characters in their adulthood. Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Beasts of No Nation) was brought on board to direct and co-write the adaptation.
Teaming up with Fukunaga was writer Chase Palmer, who had no major credits to his name at the time and still doesn’t except for the film in question. The pair crafted a screenplay that drew heavily from their childhoods. They also created the idea of updating the novel’s setting from the 50s to the 80s. However, over the course of their screenplay drafts, the duo began to deviate from the book. Part of this deviation was minimizing the appearances of Pennywise, who is not over-abundant in the book as it is. Instead, they wanted to go for other sources of horror, more inherent in each respective characters psyches.
At the same time, they wanted to retain many of the more extremely violent, sexual and controversial portions of the source material. Doing so would have resulted in the film receiving an NC-17 rating, which the studio was obviously against. Though to their credit, the studio knew they needed to stick with a faithful adaptation of King’s novel, meaning that it would indeed be a violent, scary, R-rated film. The issue with the story Fukunaga & Palmer had crafted was straying too far away from its source into territory the studio was not interested in exploring. All of this led to creative differences between Fukunaga and studio; leading he and actor Will Poulter (War Machine, Detroit), who had been cast as Pennywise to drop-out in the spring of 2015.
Shortly after that, Andy Muschietti was approached to direct after the success of his 2013 horror film, Mama. Muschietti accepted, but like the studio, he wanted to make a movie that was closer to the classic novel. After choosing what elements of Fukunaga and Palmer’s script to retain, such as the 80s setting; the screenplay began to be re-tooled. New Line & horror vet, Gary Dauberman, (of this year’s Annabelle: Creation) was brought in to re-write the script. Together, they all worked out a screenplay that would cover the childhood portion of the novel. More importantly though, it was a more faithful adaptation of those sections of King’s work. They then proceed with production, giving us the film gracing theater screens now.
From the fall of 1988 to the summer of 1989, the small town of Derry, Maine experiences disappearances and murders of the children who reside there. There are still plenty of children left in sleepy Derry, however. One of these kids is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) who is determined to discover the source of these disappearances. Despite being bullied and having a severe stutter; Bill is not alone in his quest. To the contrary, he’s joined by his friends.
Trying to add levity to it all is obnoxious, but endearing class clown, Richie Tozier (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard). Lending his support to his friends and being a target for Richie’s joshing is Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer). Eddie is asthmatic and has a helicopter parent of mother, who’s convinced her son will suffer every sickness possible. Rounding out the quartet is Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff); one of the only Jewish residents in the town.
The boys quickly add three new members to their group once things begin to go askew. Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) is not only bullied by many, but also suffers abuse at the hands of her father. Then there are the new kids in town. Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is the only African-American in town and unfortunately has to withstand horrible racism. Finally, there is Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) who just moved to town and is made fun of due to his weight. All the kids befriend one another, initially bonding over the fact that they’re all bullied by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). Together, they form “The Losers Club.” Only to find they’re all dealing with something much worse than Bowers. They find they have all had surreal, terrifying experience at the hands of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a child-killing clown. Soon though, the kids find that there is much more to Pennywise and that they must defeat IT.
Having been marginally impressed with Muschietti’s Mama, I was hesitant, but ultimately felt he was a logical choice to helm IT. However, I was weary about an updated version of this story in general. That is until the first trailer dropped. At that point, I began to very much look forward to the film. With every movie I see, I try to develop little to no expectations and IT was no different. Even so, any expectations or doubts I might’ve had for/about this film have been exceeded and vanquished, respectively.
Muschietti’s appreciation for the source material and his style work perfectly for the movie. Also, the film’s screenplay shares the same sentiment of appreciation for the original story and its characters. Despite the density of the material and the film’s two and a quarter hour runtime, it moves like a bullet, remaining engrossing. More importantly though, the horror of it all and the insecurities of childhood and growing up are captured in a very accurate way that audiences can clearly identify with.
All of the above is solidified by the excellent cast. Unlike in the original 1990 miniseries, there are no weak performances here. The kids act and talk like adolescents do. So much so, that I was reminded of that portion of my childhood. (Not surprising, considering the childhood nostalgia is a large part of why the story of IT works.) I wager, that on one level or another everyone who watches this flick will find a “Loser” they can identify with. Enough about the kids though; how does the new Pennywise measure up? Well, no one can or will ever do what Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) managed to with the character. Nor would it be advisable to do so.
Evidently, Bill Skarsgård knew this, as he puts his spin on it; giving a genuinely original performance. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is much more childlike when luring in his prey. He has a high level of energy, as well as a cartoonish affectation in his voice. To me, such miniscule behaviors made his performance even more terrifying. Needless to say, when Pennywise goes from friendly to evil; it’s all even more unsettling.
Skarsgård won’t make you forget about Curry’s performance, but you’ll never really think about it while watching this update either as the actor has made the role his own. The only thing I didn’t care for in regards to the update of the character is the use of CGI in his movements and face; I found it to be distracting. Despite that small qualm, I do not doubt that he will be the next (and future) generation’s Pennywise.
In my opinion, the updated IT is one of the year’s strongest films. Not just in the horror genre, but all-around. The only criticism I have of this adaptation is that I feel the characters of Mike and Ben are just a bit short-changed in comparison to the rest of the film’s pediatric protagonists. But, I hope that this will be rectified in the Chapter 2 follow-up. I’ve seen IT: Chapter 1 (as its fully titled in the credits) twice now and it was equally impactful in both viewings. Whether you’re a fan of King’s book, the miniseries, or just horror, I recommend you see this movie. I can assure you will not be disappointed and that any or all of those fandom trifectas will be sated. As Pennywise says, “They all FLOAT!”
IT is currently playing nationwide.
FUN FACT: As of this week, IT is on track to outgross The Exorcist as the highest grossing horror film of all time.