At long last, after years of development and a revolving door of potential directors, a big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s legendary It has finally arrived, amid a wave of fervent anticipation that is likely followed by a pang of doubt over whether King’s dense tome could ever be suitably adapted for the screen. On the basis of this film, the answer is “yes,” though a qualified one, its style at times working against its content, its belief in and reliance on a troupe of fabulous kid actors its saving grace.
The King novel is both the figurative and literal definition of “thick.” In the literal sense, it’s long as hell. In the figurative sense, it explores fear in a heavily multifaceted manner – as an innate part of the childhood experience, in the mythic sense that we create inside our own paranoid heads as well as the very literal fears that we see every day, from schoolyard bullies to peer pressures to parents who just don’t understand (or worse), and the way our formative fears and embarrassments define who we grow into, the plague that can never quite be vanquished. The only previous adaptation of the material – a 1990 TV miniseries starring the likes of Harry Anderson and Tim Curry – tackled the entirety of the novel in a three-hour block. In this cinematic It, director Andy Muschietti wisely sidesteps the pitfall of forcing all the material into a single volume, focusing squarely on the coming-of-age portion of the story and stripping down some of the more explicitly outlandish elements of the novel (i.e. no interdimensional arachnids). The result is a classical tale of adolescent adventure and self-discovery filtered through a gothic horror lens, and that purposely limited framework may be the best cinematic vehicle for this story.
“Limited,” in this context, is both a blessing and a curse. From a screenplay perspective, the simplification tempers the material into an earthbound exploration of youthful humanity, still leading us down a sewer hole of oddity but girding it to characters we can identify with and care about. In a stylistic sense, however, the limitations are less welcome. Muschietti’s palette feels too elegant by half, as though he is chasing after the vanilla classicism of Spielberg without possessing the visionary audacity. The frames are all pristine, the Dutch tilts all carefully designed, the heavy gloss rounding the edges of an atmosphere that should feel much sharper and more unsettling. There is also some period confusion; the film shifts the novel’s setting from 1958 to 1989, though the production design feels aged, like a ‘70s world with occasional New Kids on the Block references wedged in. Among the film’s earlier potential directors were the Duffer Brothers (who went on to create Stranger Things) and Cary Fukunaga (who still retains credit as a screenplay contributor); the Duffers would’ve more precisely captured the ‘80s vibe and Fukunaga would’ve delivered the appropriate thematic roughness. But Muschietti, whose first feature was the delightfully gothic 2013 gem Mama, knows how to deliver an onslaught of scares and It delivers a veritable cascade, latching onto the novel’s core idea that the most horrific evil is one that preys on every individual’s inherent fears, testing the tensile strength of the will.
Youth is the purest form of that litmus test, which is what makes the childhood section of King’s novel its most captivating, and what makes this version of It an effective standalone film. Details of otherworldly dread be damned, what makes this story sing is the specter of the unknown that haunts our adolescence, be it the looming presence of nasty bullies, the sting of parental opposition, or the creepiness of a dark basement or ramshackle house on the edge of town. King’s genius was galvanizing those fears into a monstrous entity and giving it a face: that would be Pennywise the clown, an icon of childhood fright, played here by Bill Skarsgard with maniacal glee. The infamous shape-shifter is able to materialize into whatever form will most sufficiently horrify each individual victim, their terror fueling his life-force. But a motley group of outcasts who dub themselves The Losers literally stare into the face of fear, spending the summer of 1989 researching their town’s disturbing history of missing children and unveiling its demonic source. For de facto group leader Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), it’s a chance for catharsis in the wake of his younger brother’s disappearance. For Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), an opportunity to emerge from the shadow of a false reputation and come into her own…amid a group of shamelessly captivated teenage boys. And for each member of The Losers, the journey is one of defiant self-discovery: to stand up against Pennywise is to exorcise their own personal demons.
The kids are fabulous, one and all, the beating hearts of this story, a frightfest that is really about the perils of growing up. There will surely be a “Chapter Two” that tackles the back half of King’s novel, a more perilous undertaking that could betray the relative purity of this initial chapter. But on its own, this version of It, under a thick layer of polish and bearing the burden of long-standing expectation, ably navigates its obstacles to deliver an absorbing exploration of childhood fears, writ large.