Where to begin with the vast and treacherous legacy of Stephen King movie adaptations? For over 40 years now, a plethora of filmmakers have attempted the alchemy of trying to assimilate the prolific author into the medium. And within the space of just one month, we have seen a microcosm of just how much of a mercurial process adapting King for the big screen can be.
Only 4 weeks ago, The Dark Tower landed with a loud thunk in theaters in a lackluster version of King’s meta-masterpiece that inexplicably reduced the grand mysticism of the novel to a rote superhero movie. It was a box office dud that merely served to illustrate the biggest obstacle in adapting the literature maestro’s tomes: the eye-watering word counts that lavish every element of his tales in exacting detail. And no other of King’s books are more notorious for his trademark slavish minutia than his horror classic, It.
It is this factor that has led to filmmakers balking at the idea of trying to contain the 1,000 plus pages of the best-seller into a digestible piece of cinema without losing key components. This is why, of course, the only attempt to render It for any kind of screen is the 1990 TV mini-series, which clocks in at over 3 hours and even that had to eschew significant swathes of the novel’s more “out there” elements.
Fast-forward 27 years (a spooky coincidence, surely?) and Hollywood has finally plucked up the courage to render It (wisely split into two 2-hour chapters) for the big screen after nearly a decade of the project stalling at various stages. The result is a bonafide horror blockbuster that achieves almost all it sets out to do but suffers from one flaw: someone beat It to the punch a year earlier.
Once It passes its opening test – Georgie losing his paper boat and then his life to Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard filling Tim Curry’s clown-sized shoes) – with flying colors, director Andy Muschetti turns his attention to establishing the tone which is essentially The Goonies versus a metaphysical terror. If that sounds like a familiar fusion, that’s probably because you watched the very same concept play out nearly beat for beat on Netflix this time last year.
Throughout all the tantalizing promo’s for It, the specter of Stranger Things was omnipresent and, unfortunately, this permeates the final film to the point of distraction. This isn’t to say that It doesn’t hold its own against Netflix’s hit show. Indeed, It matches Stranger Things stride for stride and when it comes to the scares, It ups the stakes considerably. However, for a film that was clearly hoping to lure audiences in with a nostalgia trip as much as its funhouse of fear, the former is undoubtedly undermined by having our 80’s fetishes so recently stirred.
Of course, this is just unfortunate happenstance and it’s actually quite admirable that Muschetti stuck to his guns rather than panic in the aftermath of an unforeseen pop culture juggernaut which so unwittingly stole his film’s thunder. But, it isn’t just the shadow of Stranger Things that It finds itself cast under. The source material and the TV series are already so endemic in modern culture, with the latter doing for clowns what Jaws did for the ocean, the air of familiarity is one that Muschetti’s film could never have escaped.
So, a more realistic ambition for It is to be the best possible version of itself it can be, and it may have just about succeeded in realizing that…
The Defin-IT-ive Version
Firstly, let’s address those oversized shoes that needed filling for It to stand any chance of succeeding. Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the 1990 version is the stuff of legends thanks to the British actor’s perpetual gleeful malevolence in the role. So, it is to Muschetti’s credit that he decided to not only take the villain in a different direction but also to cast a decidedly non-household name in the role (though that won’t be the case for much longer).
Remember when no one was going to be able to follow Jack Nicholson as The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman and then everyone panicked when they handed the coveted role to that Australian guy from 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale? The rest is history, of course, as Heath Ledger turned in a performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that ensured his immortality long after his untimely passing. The secret to the success of this decision was to play The Joker straight and more understated but infinitely more threatening and the same direction has been adopted by Bill Skarsgard here.
The Swedish actor brings us a new uncompromising version of Pennywise that won’t necessarily supplant Curry’s performance, but it brings significantly more danger to the character. The Pennywise here is more softly spoken with a sinister lisp that does occasionally make Skarsgard’s diction a little tough on the ears, but this just adds to the effect of the insidious other-worldly quality of the monster. There is a nuance to Skarsgard performance, such as his eyes often drifting in an opposing motion, that pervades the screen with constant dread. For a character that a big name actor would have potentially used to fill the screen with a feast of ham, Skarsgard goes in the opposite direction by aiming small and hitting big that provides the film with a constant chill running down its spine.
With Skarsgard’s memorable performance giving It its backbone, everything seemingly falls into place around it. The kids are universally excellent in their performances and characters with special mention going to Sophia Lillis as Beverley, who is the best realized of the bunch, and only Chosen Jacobs as Mike gets short-changed as an outsider to the other outsiders. The film remains resolutely focused on The Losers with the adults being reduced to an almost Charlie Brown like status and although It essentially gives each of the youngsters a different version of the same “fear of growing up” set piece, these all land so expertly it’s difficult to pick out an exception.
Nightmare On Easy Street
It’s these imaginatively realized set pieces that gives It more than a passing resemblance to the better Nightmare on Elm Street films (the fifth film in said series is even showing at the local cinema) which helps galvanize the tone of its period and moves the big version away from its novel and TV counterparts where the first half of the story was set in the early 60’s. There have also been some allusions to a Spielberg-like tone to the kids’ banter and their struggles with local bullies and authority figures, but these aspects actually hone much closer to Richard Donner’s aforementioned Goonies and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (another King adaptation).
Ultimately, though, for all the conviction on the display in It, we are dealing with the easy part here. It is definitely reassuring that all involved have succeeded in creating a memorable horror film that manages to walk the fine line between being genuinely unsettling and blatantly commercial, a balance that guarantees a level of box office success normally beyond the reach of the genre, but we only have half of the story currently. While the ending certainly does not feel truncated or incomplete, It makes no bones about the job only being half done as the kids swear to return in 27 years if the monster returns and “Chapter 1” is emboldened across the screen as a not-so-subtle reminder to keep your eyes peeled for the tantalizing continuation.
With Chapter 1 playing matters straight without engaging in the frankly mental mysticism of King’s novel, the decision to either stick with they’ve got and retread the same story with grown-ups (essentially what the TV mini-series did) or go bat-shit crazy with all the “world balanced on a turtle’s back” malarkey will be a difficult one. But with the first chapter showing supreme confidence with the elementary element of its source material, it would be heartening to see such confidence take an actual risk in Chapter 2 rather than the cocksure strides Chapter 1 takes in other’s footsteps.