8.5 out of 10
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise
Directed by Andy Muschietti
There are Stephen King adaptations, and Stephen King movies. Believe it or not, but there is a difference. The first is full of films, both great and not so great – movies like The Shining, an unquestioned masterpiece, or something so far afield like The Lawnmower Man, which really only shares the title with a Stephen King short story. These films have been loosely adapted from the source, to the point that quite a few of them are unrecognizable from King’s work. And before I get jumped on for lumping The Shining in with these films, know that I consider Stanley Kubrick’s film to be a cornerstone piece of cinematic horror. It’s a great film. But as far as adaptations go, it’s not very close to the source except in specific ways. And it doesn’t capture the sweeping tragedy of King’s novel. I’m someone who prefers the book to that film, but really, there isn’t a comparison.
And then there are Stephen King movies. Movies like Stand by Me, which to me may be the closest in tone and spirit to King’s work. Or The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, or The Mist. Even a movie like Maximum Overdrive (directed by King), which, while it may not be very good, still keeps the spirit and vigor of King’s stories alive. That’s more important to me than accuracy – that the emotion, the power, the scares as well as the rich characterization, remain intact. While these movies aren’t exactly A-to-B-to-C in comparison to the written word, the spirit is there – a sense of personality, style and even humor that feels very familiar to those of us who love his work through the years. It’s a fragile thing to make a Stephen King movie as opposed to an adaptation, and not a lot of filmmakers get it right.
Andy Muschietti gets IT right. IT is a sweeping novel, full of characters, spanning years, and, of all of King’s works, may be the most difficult to adapt. There are certain elements that don’t play as well in present day as they did in 1986, when the novel was released. IT is a long novel, full of subplots, and some of the book doesn’t come across as particularly cinematic, especially the ending. And while IT the film takes a different path than the novel in certain places, the heart and soul of the movie is pure Stephen King. This is made with love, and respect, and in watching IT, you can feel how much the novel informs the film, but also how much the filmmakers bring to IT that makes the movie work separate from the book. There are scenes pulled straight from the novel, and there are also scenes that the screenwriters have invented that, while not in the novel, feel just like King himself had written them. There is a sense of dread throughout the movie, and the scares are legitimate, fun, and not of the “cat jumps on the bed” variety.
And the glue that keeps everything together, and that makes IT work as well as it does, are the performances of the kids. Each performance is wonderful, from Jaeden Lieberher’s steadfast, earnest Bill Denbrough, to Sophia Lillis’ wounded but strong Beverly Marsh. Each of the kids gets a moment to shine, and all of them rise to the challenge. I especially loved Finn Wolfhard’s Richie Tozier, a wiseass of the highest degree, whose mouth runs about a mile ahead of his body. Wolfhard isn’t repeating his character from Stranger Things here, and Richie feels full-blown straight from the novel. Jeremy Taylor’s Ben is full of unrequited love, and a quiet resolve. Chosen Jacobs’ Mike Hanlon is an outsider, but strong and brave. Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie Kaspbrak is afraid, and seemingly fragile, but finds inner strength in his friends. Finally, Wyatt Oleff’s portrayal of Stanley Uris hints at the darkness to come.
Of course, everyone remembers Tim Curry’s work as Pennywise in the miniseries, and how terrifying he was. Bill Skarsgård’s performance is markedly different, but no less menacing, and I admire how he turned the role into his own without going against the grain of what Stephen King wrote. Skarsgård makes the audience jump. He’s quite menacing, funny, and quite good. Andy Muschietti relies a bit too much on CGI at times when I think practical effects would have been more appropriate, but IT is genuinely scary where it counts. One sequence, with Beverly in her bathroom, plays out perfectly, and IT has no problem making the audience jump in fear and fun. IT isn’t some dire exploration of existential dread; this movie has fun scaring you, and a lot of the fun of the film is trying to anticipate what happens next.
Many of the themes of King’s film remain strictly subtext – how the town itself seems complicit in what is happening, or what It really is, and I hope the writers manage to pull that material off successfully in any sequel (and of course there’s going to be a sequel). The town of Derry itself feels like a living, breathing place, something that exists in more than our dreams. The ending of IT doesn’t read as especially cinematic on the page, which is why I’m very impressed that Andy Muschietti, screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, and producers Seth Grahame-Smith, Roy Lee, Dan Lin, and Barbara Muschietti manage to distill the novel so effectively, while adding their own flavor to the mix. What works in the book would come across as a little ridiculous on the screen, and the filmmakers weave through those troublesome threads and effectively make it work.
IT is long, but IT‘s long in a good way. IT lets us spend time with these characters, as we grow to care for them and worry for them. Pennywise is a formidable monster, and the best scary movies make us feel fear for characters we care about. There are only a few films that get Stephen King so intrinsically perfect – that rich tapestry of emotion, fear, humor, and power that has kept us reading him for more than forty years. In that time, some filmmakers have hit that elusive mark, while others miss wildly. IT feels like Stephen King, that sheer pleasure of cracking open one of his books for the first time, and falling into his world. IT is terrifying, exhilarating, full of heart and spirit, and if nothing else, I hope the sure-to-be Chapter Two follows in those same footsteps. Stephen King deserves respect, and so do his novels and stories. IT is treated with the utmost reverence, and in respecting the source while trying to find new paths, Andy Muschietti has given us one of the best horror movies in King’s pantheon, deserving to be mentioned right along with Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. Take note, wannabe adapters – this is Stephen King done right.