Stephen King has written some of the best known and most beloved horror and fantasy novels in the last five decades and his books and stories have been the source of innumerable films and TV series. Starting with Carrie in 1974 which was filmed by Brian De Palma in 1976, he is still providing Hollywood with inspiration in 2017 and beyond.
Based on his 1986 mega-tome, IT is one of the more recent incarnations of his works and is directed by Andy Muschietti whose only previous work was the very effective, entertaining but ultimately flawed Mama. It is the second adaptation of this novel, the previous being the 1990 miniseries which I review, along with the book, here:
This new film is a fairly faithful rendering of half of the original novel which focused on a group of friends over the space of thirty years – in 1957 when our heroes are preadolescents – and in 1985 when they return to the town of Derry, Maine to face the evil of IT once more. This new film, however, jettisons the adult part of the story (for now) and focuses entirely on the seven young friends and their summer of terror.
The film also moves the action from 1957 to 1989 (three years after the novel was even written) which slots nicely into the current vogue of eighties nostalgia as exemplified by the brilliant Netflix series Stranger Things (which is, itself, heavily influenced by the novel IT).
It starts off with the death of Georgie Denbrough who is pulled into the sewer by Pennywise the Dancing Clown – the physical embodiment of the creature which haunts the town. We then skip to the last day of school, a time which, for most, promises long days of sunshine, friendship and doing your very best to do as little as possible, but for Georgie’s older brother, Bill, it is a time to investigate what actually happened to his sibling and, hopefully, find him alive.
Bill is joined by Richie, Eddie, Stan, Mike, Beverly and Ben, kids who each have their own worries, their own outlooks and their own ways of coping with the horrors of the world. The strength of the novel is that it takes its time to get to know these characters and to develop each personality with care and affection and whilst the lengths King goes to in order to achieve this is difficult to replicate in a two-hour film, the strength of IT is that it still succeeds wonderfully in bringing these youngsters to life.
The cast performs these characters perfectly and there is no hardship whatsoever hanging out with them. The performances are great, especially Sophia Lillis as Beverly and Finn Wolfhard as the smart talking Richie, and they convey a real sense of camaraderie. It is obvious that the group of kids enjoyed working with each other and it translates easily to the big screen.
There are a number of things which fans of the book might be expecting but the filmmakers had to discard (for example, there is only one ‘Beep, beep, Richie’ and that is spoken by the clown and not by Richie’s friends) but that’s fine. Book and film are two very different media and a slavish commitment to every single page does not a good film make.
The portrayal of the bullies – Henry Bowers et al – is also well written, the threat is still there but they don’t seem to be the one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts they were in the miniseries.
For most people however, the main reason for seeing IT, is Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The advertisng for the film has focused heavily on Pennywise and there have even been complaints from professional clowns that it is impacting their business. The 1990 miniseries starred Tim Curry as Pennywise, a performance which has become iconic despite the problems the show had as a whole and when I first saw the trailers for this version I was a bit concerned. The whole point of having a clown is that they can easily disarm a child, to lull them into a false sense of security before catching and killing them. But this iteration, as performed by Bill Skarsgård, is not about deceiving children, he is there entirely to scare us, the audience.
The good news is that, whilst the original idea makes more sense, within the confines of the film, he is indeed scary and menacing and you do feel your skin crawl at the sight of him. The creature designs are excellent and very effective and are presented in an immediate way which avoids any sense of unrealism. In fact, realism seems to be key here, especially in the scenes focusing on the Losers, something which is difficult to maintain in such a fantastical story.
IT is a very entertaining film, it has some genuine scares and there are moments of real emotion. There’s some nice humour and the ending, which deviates from the novel, is very satisfying. In fact, it maybe the best Stephen King horror since Carrie and Salem’s Lot back in the 70s. Production for Chapter 2 begins early next year (as of yet it has not been given the official green light but, given its massive opening weekend, that is certainly going to happen now) and it will focus on the Losers as adults.
I can’t wait to be seeing the clown once more especially if it’s as satisfying as this new iteration of King’s work.
Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10
It is in cinemas across the UK & US now.