Stephen King’s It has had an unusual ride to the big screen. It was at first a miniseries in the ‘90s starring Tim Curry as the nefarious clown Pennywise, but FCC restrictions ensured that the miniseries would have to tame King’s more frightful elements. In recent years, Warner Bros. had been trying desperately to get King’s massive text to the big screen, and a number of stops and starts plagued the film in preproduction. It’s no easy task to cram 1,100 pages of Stephen King into a two-hour movie, and with so many underwhelming adaptations of King’s work it’s not a mystery why the author’s die-hard fanbase was skeptical of bringing It to the big screen. And yet, It is here. More surprisingly, director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation is really, really good, one that will win over the uninitiated and please the most ardent fans. With a great young cast, a robust sense of humor, and plenty of chilling moments of terror, It takes the mantle as a modern day classic of horror cinema.
The film opens in 1988. Young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is eager to set loose his paper boat in the gutter as water rushes due to a rainstorm. His older brother Billy (Jaeden Lieberher) prepares the boat but is unable to join his younger sibling due to a cold. The paper boat floats down the wet streets before landing in a storm drain. The young child looks down dismayed at losing his paper boat, but a clown in the sewer has saved the boat. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) gleefully entertains the young boy before taking the child’s arm and severing it with his gruesome teeth, the rain-covered street stained with blood.
In 1989, Billy is still haunted by his brother’s disappearance and the town of Derry, Maine is reeling with another disappearance. School has just gotten out for the summer and Billy’s friends, loosely referred to as “The Losers,” are ready to exchange profane barbs and enjoy the summer sun. “The Losers” consist of Billy, Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff); and they’re soon joined by Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a homeschooled young man whose grandfather runs a slaughterhouse, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), an overweight young man who has just moved to town, and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a young woman with an abusive father and a runaway reputation. Not only do these youths have to contend with the demented clown Pennywise, but also the relentless bully Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), who along with his friends are determined to make life a living hell for “The Losers.”
Considering the formidable task of adapting King’s beloved novel, the screenplay by Gary Dauberman along with Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga (who at one point was attached to direct) is amazingly efficient, building King’s mythology for the screen and cutting the ample terror with plenty of laughter. The terror is omnipresent in the film and yet there’s so much humor to counteract the horror elements. Even for those, like myself, unfamiliar with either the novel or the miniseries can’t help but be rapt with the combination of horror and comedy that ensures that It is among one of the best Stephen King adaptations of the past 20 years.
The young cast of It is a revelation, and any comparisons to Stranger Things just happens to be a coincidence, as the show was heavily influenced by King’s novel. Finn Wolfhard often steals the show with his impeccable delivery of some astounding one-liners. The same, however, could be said of any of the film’s young actors, including Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, and Jeremy Ray Taylor. They’re all dynamite in their work. As Beverly, who thankfully isn’t a faithful adaptation of the novel’s depiction, Sophia Lillis is a compelling young actress who makes you wonder if there’s some factory where they’re cloning Amy Adams. Jaeden Lieberher avails himself well after the debacle of The Book Henry, with a nuance performance that isn’t grating yet overflowing with empathy and concern.
In the role as the film’s antagonist, Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård delivers a dynamic piece of acting that doesn’t lean upon Tim Curry’s performance and stands entirely on its own. Skarsgård is menacing and unsettling as the ghastly clown lurking in the sewers below Derry. He brings a performance that leans on comic stylings with a horror tinge, yet he brings the goods to a level that no star could comparably bring. Pennywise isn’t the heart and soul of It, it’s the young cast, but Skarsgård makes himself indispensable to film’s whole with a twisted, ghastly heart that fits into the film’s unsettling blend of horror and humor.
The reactions surrounding It have been drenched in hyperbole. It is a very entertaining movie, and the fact that it’s a good adaptation of Stephen King after years of movies that failed to deliver makes it seem a little better than it is. The combination of the stellar young cast, the demented work of Bill Skarsgård, and the tense direction of Andy Muschietti help obscure some of the film’s weaker aspects. From start to finish, It entertains as a devilish work of horror. I do believe that the charming young cast and the bold personality of the film will ensure that It is not only a hit, but a movie that horror fans will be talking about for years to come.