Nobody does a slow build like Stephen King. In both THE STAND and IT, he’s still introducing new characters and concepts with 250 pages to go and he can spend chapter after chapter establishing history, geography, mood and layer -upon-layer of hangups and neuroses driving his heroes and villains. I think that’s why a lot of his material works better on TV: it’s all a matter of time. In the new film adaptation, King’s doorstopper book has been split right down the middle. Part One tells the kids’ story, the adults’ encounter with the shapeshifting It will follow…
Something rotten lives below Derry, Maine. It takes many shapes and I’s been there for a long time, every 27 years waking for a spree of child-killing. After his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is taken by It, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) and his gang of Losers face their fears and battle It’s multiple guises, most notably Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård).
What they do get right with It is is casting. What a talented young ensemble this is. Straight from the page steps a determined, passionate Bill, a wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and a nervy, hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer – the highlight). Reinterpreted we have Tomboy outsider Beverly (Sophia Lillis), tragic orphan Mike (Chosen Jacobs), local history nut Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and a world-on-his-shoulders Stan (Wyatt Oleff). It’s interesting the character traits they swap around in this version, the changes in the kids’ backstories they make, but they all make sense, especially in this setting, updated from the 1950s to the 1980s (tying neatly into the story’s 27 year cycle – this will make Part Two contemporary). What makes an outsider and the dynamics within friendship groups have changed a lot over three decades. I would have liked to have seen psychotic bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) get less of a short shrift, but there are admittedly a lot of characters to divide screentime between, and the chemistry between these kids is just right everywhere else.
What makes even more sense in this adaptation, and the thing that gives it its most hard-hitting punch is what they do with the concept of fear. Rather than the grab-bag of horror tropes and stories around the camp fire King presents in the book, here every form Pennywise takes is tied to, and is essential to who each of the Losers are. They each get their own horror set-piece that delve into their respective psychologies and the traumatic events that made them.
The kids are all great, but Skarsgård is something else. I know I’m going to tread on a lot of toes here, but the 1990 TV movie was fine, and that’s about it. Nothing against Tim Curry, but this was TV limited by budget and the time it was made. In the film, Pennywise is primal and animalistic but also chillingly calculating and malicious; creepily almost human. He plays with his prey, mocks them for their weaknesses and wears them down, changing into manifestations of each child’s phobia but always settles back into the shape he has grown accustomed to over the centuries (at least three judging by the ruff and stockings), the dancing clown. You get glimpses below the surface, hints at what It really is, but they’re saving most of these reveals for the (presumably more sci-fi- tinged) sequel.
But here’s the rub: for me, It wasn’t all that scary. I’m not saying this will be the case for everyone – on the contrary I can see many well-placed and executed moments that will scare the bejesus out of some – it just didn’t particularly chill me. I’m more into creeping dread, much like director Andy Muscietti’s previous exercise in horror, MAMA (which is cannily referenced in one of It’s forms). Perhaps they’ll be able to do something more stylistically daring and different with the horror element beyond jump scares and unnatural, jerky J-Horror movement in the sequel, when they have to nail on what scares grown adults.
It might not be an original horror in its presentation, but it connects where it counts and brings King’s Losers and their struggles with fear and growing up to real life. What Muscietti and his writers understand from Stephen King’s words and living life itself is that what really scares kids the most, beyond blood and ghosts and clowns, is growing up and having adult responsibilities. Because adults themselves are the scariest thing in the world. SSP