The face you’re looking at above is the face that absolutely haunted my entire childhood, as I’m sure it did many others.
I first learned about Stephen King’s IT when I was about six-years-old, wandering around Blockbuster and looking for any VHS that had a dinosaur on the cover. However, conveniently along the walls right near the kids’ section, Blockbuster had setup their rows and rows of horror movies. Being as young as I was, of course I was curious to occasionally walk by the section just to look at the case. Certain movies interested to me, I remember Pumpkinhead (1988) in particular was one of my favorites to look at for some reason. However the majority were just too intense for my precious mind to handle. The cases for Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Hellraiser (1987) were two I always avoided after seeing them once. However there was one specific VHS case that was something truly special, one that didn’t just fill me with dread as I walked away from it, but instead made me cry out in terror right there in the store. And it was the cover featuring the same image you see at the top of this article.
Over the course of time as I became older, I learned a lot about that movie that I couldn’t even bring myself to think about without curling up with fear. I learned that IT was based on a book by Stephen King. I learned that the clowns name was Pennywise, and that he liked the eat children by pulling them in the sewers. Now obviously none of this information helped calm my terror in any way. But for some reason, my curiosity still got the better of me. I managed to find that my Mom owned the book, and, like an idiot who touches a hot stove to see if it burns, I began to read the horror novel to see if it was scary. Now of course as I read more and more of IT, I was terrified at times. Reading certain excerpts from that book that may have been the first time I’ve ever felt truly disturbed. But more than scared, I was fascinated. The story of a group of kids going out and stopping this evil monster that eats children, instead of some fearless adult hero, was so new to me. This was before I had seen The Goonies (1985), or any stories similar. This was my first exposure to this particular genre. I was terrified of IT, but I fell in love with it at the same time.
Even after reading the book, finally gaining the courage to see the 1990 TV movie was still a daunting task. But by the time I had finally finished it I wasn’t left in awe or terror, I was left…Underwhelmed. The story and characters were mostly accurate, sure. But as I’m sure anyone who has read the novel is aware, the story of Stephen King’s IT has a certain tone and mystique to it that is just as important as the actual story and characters. While the TV movie didn’t get its story or characters wrong, per say, the entire thing felt more like reading Wikipedia’s synopsis of the novel, rather than reading the novel itself. The story was there, but the heart, that was absent. Still, the adaption gained became a cult hit, due in no small part to Tim Curry’s thrilling performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. While the rest of the performances were decent, Curry has always had a way of outshining anyone he shares a screen with. And of course, he just makes a such a goddamn fantastic bad guy.
But just recently, a new adaption of King’s horror epic has been released in theaters. The new film was announced back in 2012, and right from the get go, skepticism over the very idea of it had swept through the internet. The vast majority mistakenly condemning it as a remake, while others were worried by its troubled production. IT was originally meant to be directed and written by acclaimed director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, 2014), with Will Poulter lined up to play Pennywise. However, after years of silence, and some leaked concept art, in 2015, it was announced that Fukunaga had left the project due to creative differences, with the studio wanting to almost completely start over. Just two months after Fukunaga’s departure, Andy Muschietti (Mama, 2013) was announced as his replacement, with rewrites being done by both him and Gary Dauberman. Then, almost a year later in June 2016, Bill Skarsgard was announced as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, replacing Will Poulter. Production was finally moving forward, and as more and more was shown off, the onslaught of cynicism was now mixed with voices of anticipation and excitement. And now, after 5 years of waiting, the first half of the new adaption has finally been released. And speaking with total honesty as a longtime fan of the book, I can confidently say that it has delivered exactly what I’ve been wanting from a film adaption.
The accuracy to the story isn’t totally there, no. There are scenes and character details that were either missing or revised. And while I didn’t mind most of the changes, there were a few that do irritate me, which I’ll touch on later. But in this fan’s opinion, the most important aspect of the book was executed flawless, and that was the heart. The wonderful concoction of love and terror that the book thrived on could be seen and felt constantly throughout the film. That’s what made this the better adaption, in my eyes. The writing, combined some sincere performances from the child actors, perfectly captures all aspects of the Losers Club. While their vulnerability and fear of Pennywise is the main focus, the film manages to also highlight their personal struggles, their internal drama, and their love for each other every chance it gets. A moment filled with blood and horror can quickly cut to a side-splitting line from Richie, or a heartfelt speech from Bill. These transitions never feel forced, awkward, or poorly written. In a matter of seconds the movie can fill you with horror before making you laugh, and it all feels completely natural. When the film starts, all you want is to see Pennywise show himself off and kill the kids. But by the end you’re cheering internally, and you’re glad to see that this group of friends you’ve fallen in love with have finally conquered their fears, and the evil that’s been stalking them.
That’s not to say Pennywise is uninteresting, far from it in fact. While Tim Curry managed to fully deliver on the morbid fun and humor of Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard’s performance brings out the horrifying uncertainty that always surrounded the character in the book. In the first half of the film, whenever one of the Losers Club encounters Pennywise, it almost feels as if he was never there when the encounter ends. Almost like it was all a very vivid hallucination. These were some of my favorite moments from the book, and I was ecstatic to see how Skarsgard managed to stay creepy and fun without ever going too over the top. Pennywise in this film felt much more like an overall presence, or a force, rather than just a villain. He’s used sparingly for the majority of the film, and whenever you do see him, it feels somewhat fleeting. Tim Curry’s performance is irreplaceable, but Skarsgard delivers what I personally was hoping to see from the character.
Now while I do believe the film works better as an adaption, that’s not to say I think it’s totally flawless. Out of every character in the TV movie, the only one I can say was executed better was Mike. As a fan, I was particularly disappointed to see that the role of the Losers Club’s historian had been switched from him to Ben. In both the novel, and the 1990 TV movie, Mike’s knowledge of the history of Derry comes into play as the kids learn more about Pennywise, and in them taking it upon themselves to stop him. Through Mike, the kids learn that Pennywise and Derry’s history of violence go hand-in-hand. It’s once they learn this that they realize that if they don’t stop IT, no one ever will. These revelations are so important in not only moving the story forward, but also in showing why Mike is so crucial as a character. Despite characters like Henry Bowers hating him his skin color, Mike overcomes the prejudices thrown at him in Derry by proving to be one of its greatest minds. While this can still be shown off and redeemed in the sequel, which will focus on the Losers Club as adults, in this film, Mike’s character suffers by passing that role onto Ben. Now looking at it from a pacing perspective, it is somewhat understandable, considering Mike joins the Losers later in the story. At that point it may have felt too late before the end for them all to learn about Derry’s history. He’s by no means a background character in the film, and it should be noted that some of his scenes (along with many others) had to be cut in the interest of time. But it can’t be ignored that these deleted scenes and changes for pacing still turn Mike into the token black kid. And for a character that will be so important for the second-half of the story, that’s very disappointing to see.
Another notable change I wasn’t a fan of was something that had occurred with Beverly. Now let me preface this by saying that Sophia Lillis delivered one of the strongest performances in the film, and that’s saying a lot. She was a near-flawless representation of Beverly, and while she’s done some work in the past, I can definitely see this being the film that launches a very prosperous career for her. That being said, towards the end, Beverly is kidnapped by Pennywise and taken into the sewers. Unable to kill her just yet due to her lack of fear, he exposes Beverly to the Deadlights, putting her in a catatonic state (making her literally float in midair), and keeps her as bait for the Losers. Now this is a huge revision because Beverly is essentially placed into a damsel-in-distress role. Yet I didn’t find myself really minding this change at first. In fact, I initially liked it. In both the book and TV movie, Bev ends up being the one who defeats IT, both as a child and an adult, and it’s a thrilling victory considering all of the abuse and trauma she endures from those stronger than her. So the idea of her being used as the damsel-in-distress, only to come back from it and vanquish Pennywise herself, was exciting to me. However, while Beverly does join the Losers in defeating Pennywise together, by not having her be the one who does it, it does very little to redeem her damsel-in-distress role. While she is not fully made into the stereotypical helpless girl, she fails to significantly stand out during the final battle. I definitely prefer this film’s portrayal of Beverly to that of the 1990 movie, but that was another important aspect that the first adaption had done better.
These are my two biggest issues with the film, and while I loved the movie and can’t wait to see it again, these are issues that shouldn’t be ignored. Still, I don’t hold them as much against this movie as others have because I’m aware that this is the first half of the story. While the vast majority of Cary Fukunaga’s script was either changed or erased completely, the one big idea of his they decided to keep was to tell the first film from the perspectives of the younger Losers Club, then plotting the second around them as adults. The book and original TV movie go back and forth between past and present all throughout, and though it worked for them, this idea works much better for when presented as feature films for wider audiences. And just recently, it was announced that a director’s cut of the film will be released on Blu-ray, and that the second film would not only center around the adults, but also feature flashbacks to the younger Losers Club. So even though those issues with Mike and Bev are problems for me, I believe that the director’s cut and sequel can remedy these problems. With Mike, specifically.
Andy Muschietti’s take on IT isn’t perfect, but it gets very close. The 1990 movie, while underwhelming, will always have a special place in my heart and the hearts of many others. And this film doesn’t invalidate that movie, nor was it ever trying to. Many who worked on it came right out and said that this isn’t a remake, it’s another adaption. So why did I spend so much of this review comparing the two? Well, this isn’t entirely a review. While I did want to talk about what I loved and disliked with the movie, it’s also been out for ten days, and The Game of Nerds’ own Jordan Rolufs has already written a review of his own for the site (go check it out). I’m aware that as far as critique goes, I don’t have much new to say. So what I wanted to talk about was how I discovered the story of IT, what I think makes it so special, and how this new adaptation does so much of a better job of replicating the aura of love and horror that makes it so great in the first place. I’m hoping this will not only be informative for those that haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but perhaps that it will also speak to people who have. We have around two years before we see how Muschietti’s follow-up will turn out. But if the heart in this movie is implemented in the sequel, while taking care to address the issues people have pointed out, then I’m sure it will be a more than satisfying conclusion to this films tremendous start.