For a number of years beginning when I was around 11 years old, I had a mild obsession with Stephen King’s horror opus “It,” to the extent that I could finish any quoted passage from any section of the book’s more than 1,000 pages—a feat so impressive that my older brother would sometimes trot it out as a parlor trick to show his friends. I read one copy to tatters: it fell apart, slowly at first then one day all at once, the pages exploding out of the paperback binding as if from a loose-leaf ledger book. I quickly bought another copy, which also disintegrated some years later.
“It” might be one of the most misunderstood books in all of King’s considerable canon. There is a widespread assumption that the story is primarily about a monster that “takes the shape of whatever scares you the most,” but this is, in the grand scheme of the grand novel, almost an ancillary feature of the creature, and probably the least interesting one. Indeed, in the story surprisingly few encounters with It fit this description. The monster is far more multifaceted, and significantly more terrifying, than simply a deepest-fear-personified boogeyman.
“It” is not primarily about a monster but about growing up, about how even if you can evade the demons of childhood—supernatural or otherwise—adulthood, as one boy realizes early in the novel, will get you in the end. The principle function of the battle between the Losers’ Club and the monster that calls itself Pennywise is not one of ghoulish adversity but one of maturity. Practically abandoned by adults too self-absorbed or too paranormally stupefied by the monster to help them, the children must take matters into their own hands, becoming the extramundane equivalent of latchkey kids: mom and dad aren’t around, so they have to slay the Eternal Eater of Worlds by themselves.
This Adaptation Compared to the Alternatives
Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 miniseries adaptation, for all its heart, took a rich coming-of-age tale and turned it into little more than a goofball low-key monster flick featuring Tim Curry as probably the least frightening killer clown in movie history. We should not be too hard on Wallace for failing to live up to the source material, particularly within the constraints of a three-hour ABC program. In the end the miniseries has its own sweetly nostalgic faded charm, though other ‘90s King television adaptations—“The Langoliers,” for one, as well as the magnificently cast interpretation of “The Stand” from 1994—hold up better in the end.
I do not want to seem like I am beating up on Wallace’s miniseries when I say that Andrés Muschetti’s interpretation of “It” is superlative in every way compared to the former. “It” is easily the best feature-length King adaptation since 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” and but for that masterpiece (which, to be fair, is probably the greatest movie ever made) could probably be considered the best King movie of all time.
As an adaptation of the novel it is astonishingly good, deviations from the source material notwithstanding; as a standalone film, taken on its own merits, it is dazzling—and terrifying. “It” is so captivating that I did not realize until about three-quarters of the way through that my heart had been racing for probably about 50 minutes straight. Where the miniseries was campy, “It” is unnervingly, grossly realistic; where the former held back, the latter goes for the jugular (in some cases literally).
The movie has a surprisingly fresh feel to it. There is a genuinely stupid tendency in horror movies today to rely heavily on both jump-scares and ghoulish twitchy stop-motion monster frights. While “It” has its share of both, it manages to carve its own path, presenting a host of genuinely frightening, squirmy, dismaying horror sequences: you may never look at Easter eggs or measuring tape the same way.
The Casting Is Perfect
Muschetti has managed to preserve King’s deft blend of creeping horror and coming-of-age tribulations without sacrificing the quality of either; indeed, in some places he even adds layers of poignant significance to both, as is the case with Beverly Marsh’s gouting bathroom sink drain, freshly allegorized alongside a timely purchase from the drugstore. The portrayal of the Loser’s Club as typical 1980s teenagers—foul-mouthed, carefree, bike-riding scamps—is oddly affecting, as is their surprisingly intimate and moving camaraderie. I am not sure if the child actors in this film could have been cast better than they were; they are, to a man (or woman), almost perfect in their roles.
Nor could Pennywise, played by an almost-too-scary-to-be-true Bill Skarsgård. Curry, for all his merits as an actor, was not, and perhaps by necessity never could be, a scary clown. Skarsgård manages to bring Pennywise to life in a way that makes you back up slightly in your movie theater seat: in addition to the face-eating, arm-ripping homicidal insanity of the monster itself, Skarsgård’s murderous clown has a tendency for gross, unsettling little tics and tendencies: at times he will space out, seemingly losing his train of thought entirely, as if he is wondering if he left the burners on at home. It is meant to unsettle you, and it does.
I do not want to oversell “It,” which certainly has its flaws, though they are minimal enough—some moderately too-fast pacing at times, a few unnecessary subplots. Most of my personal complaints were of the insufferable the-book-did-it-better variety: the narrative alterations, the characters left out (it is a mystery why Muschetti ignored Will Hanlon, maybe King’s richest and most interesting side character).
But even as a movie that has to fit half of a sprawling epic work of fiction into two hours, “It” does remarkably well. It is, from start to finish, a genuinely fine film, perhaps the best I have seen all year. In a movie industry saturated with cheap and predictable thrills, it is a rare horror film that is at once both unsettling and genuinely touching. “It” manages to be both, while staying admirably true to a difficult and complex novel.
It has been long years since I was able to quote every word of King’s book. Muchsetti’s “It” made me realize why, once upon a time, I was so captivated by this dark and thoughtful tale of growing up. It also scared the crap out of me, making me feel, at least for a little while, like a kid, once again scared of the monsters in the basement—or the storm drain, as the case may be.