There are certain books that I’ve read over the course of my life that have been serious achievements. You know, reading your first book at all, the first chapter book, finally defeating Infinite Jest, the first time you read a book from what will become your favorite author. And, for me, conquering It was a major accomplishment. I finally read It when I was a freshman in high school, and already a bona fide book nerd. I’d read a lot of books, by a lot of different authors, but It was at the time the longest novel I had ever read, and the first one by Stephen King. It was also the first real horror novel I’d ever read, and it certainly scared the bajesus out of a young me. But I loved it. It took forever, but when I finally finished It it was a major accomplishment. It proved to a younger me that I could handle an adult novel, far more than working my way through whatever stodgy classic I read in a lit class could ever do. So, of course, I was more than a little protective when I heard that they were taking a stab at adapting It to the big screen. Yeah, there had been the TV movie from the nineties, but for whatever reason I never really took that all too seriously. Possibly because it was TV movie, and could never hope to be an accurate adaptation of the novel. But a big-budget, R-rated movie? Well, that could take a stab, and if done incorrectly could become incredibly frustrating. And after a lot of behind-the-scenes drama and what seemed to be a general lack of subtly in the designs of the film, I wasn’t inspired by a whole lot of confidence. But, delightfully, it turns out that those fears were completely unfounded, because It is not just a terrific adaptation, it’s a terrific film.
It tells the story of a town known as Derry. It’s a fairly innocuous place, where frankly horrible things happen. It’s a small town that has an absurdly high rate of missing children, deaths, and terrible accidents. And, in the late eighties, it appears to be happening again. Because during a rash of missing children cases we see a young boy named Georgie be approached by what appears to be a clown named Pennywise. But Pennywise isn’t what he seems, and the clown becomes something else, and kills Georgie. We then skip ahead a year, where more children are going missing, and we’re introduced to to our protagonists, the Losers Club. We have Bill the stuttering brother of Georgie, Richie the loudmouth, Ben the chubby new kid, Bev the abused weird girl, Stan who’s apparently the only Jewish kid in town, Mike the only black kid in Derry, and Eddie the smothered hypochondriac. These kids have reached their summer vacation, and are trying to figure out what to do in order to ignore the sadness and death that seems to surround their town. But Bill won’t let up, and his friends follow him in his mad quests to find what happened to Georgie. And, slowly but surely, they start to piece together the horrifying past of Derry, while becoming closer friends.
And as they get closer and closer to the truth of Derry, and the curse that seems to have a hold on the town, they find themselves face to face with the curse itself, Pennywise. In their own ways they encounter Pennywise as he takes the form of whatever will scare them the most. But they all remain resolute, and eventually admit to each other what they’ve experienced, and decide that they need to do something about it. They begin investigating Pennywise, and find that some horrible event has happened in Derry every 27 years since the town was founded. And it all revolves around a location in town that now sits under an abandoned house. So the Losers go to investigate this house, and indeed find Pennywise’s lair. He’s able to scare them all off, but not without finding something important out. Pennywise is indeed a powerful entity, but he seems to need people to fear him to have that power. The Losers then take this information, and after a minor falling out, Pennywise kidnaps Bev, and the rest of the Losers head back to his lair to save her. They find their way down into Pennywise’s lair, and after a fight they finally manage to defeat the creature, before it throws itself into a seemingly bottomless pit. The Losers then rise back to the surface, and promise each other that if they didn’t actually defeat Pennywise, and it comes back in 27 years, so will they.
Before seeing this film I worried that it was going to suffer from a lack of subtly. The idea of splitting the novel It in half and only adapting the first half of the story, when the Losers are children, was a pretty great idea, and a very solid way to handle tackling this story. But when things started to come out about this movie, and we saw the design of Pennywise and the House on Neibold Street, I couldn’t help but feel like it all looked a little too obviously evil. It seemed kind of cartoonish. But, in actuality this ended up being one of the most affecting and well-crafted horror movies I’ve seen in years. It’s a genuinely scary movie, without relying too heavily on simple jump-scares and startling music cues. There was of course a bit of that, but the film managed to create a sense of horror and dread through suspense, editing, music, and everything else that goes into making an actually scary film. And while I initially wasn’t sure what to make of Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of Pennywise, it ended up winning me over by the end, filling a character who is an embodiment of evil with the necessary fear, humor, and mystery that was necessary to buy it. But it’s not just all about scares. Because this film succeeding in making a shockingly charming coming-of-age story with a group of extremely charismatic young actors who had very believable friendships. The film had a genuine sense of humor that I wasn’t expecting, and it gave the film an added spice that helped it from becoming a dour and depressing slew of horror. This film will more than likely go down as one of the best adaptations of King’s work, saturating itself in that trademark aesthetic that so many other adaptation fail to capture, but it also deserves to be remembered as a genuinely great film.
It’s a very special thing to come across a great adaptation of a story that you already know. Because it typically isn’t good enough to just become a copy of the story you’re familiar with. It’s also highly unlikely that it will find a way to somehow tell the story better than you’ve seen it before. But, occasionally, an adaptation can tell you a story you know, and allow you to grasp something about the story that’s always alluded you. Like I said, I read It when I was in high school, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a book that sticks with you, a gateway to the works of Stephen King, but a book quite unlike any others that you’re likely to find. And I’ve always held deep affection for it. But I don’t think I’ve ever really thought too deeply at the message of the book. But this film helped unlock that a bit for me. Now, I know that if I ever dive deeper into the works of King, specifically the Dark Tower series, I can learn more about what King really thinks Pennywise is. But, after seeing this film, I feel like the true answer of what Pennywise is, is history. He’s something that has always been there, and something that no one seems to learn from. He takes the forms of things that people fear, but that ends up being things that we’re all familiar with. He’s racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and just a general sense of bullying. He’s misery, both accidental and inflicted on purpose. And we just sweep him under the rug. No one seems familiar with Pennywise, not just because adults don’t seem to be able to notice the affects of his abilities, but because they choose to forget him. Everyone in Derry was a child once, and they more than likely had the chance to encounter Pennywise, and his work, every 27 years, but they do nothing about it. It took Ben just a couple weeks to see that Derry is a strange place, full of tragedies and horrors that seem impossible to ignore, and yet the people of Derry manage to do just that. They ignore their history, they don’t learn from their mistakes, and they perpetuate that horror. Every generation has the chance to defeat Pennywise, to kill him and end this vicious cycle. And yet, time after time, they don’t. He returns, like clockwork, and brings devastation to a whole new generation of people, just for it to continue. Yes, Pennywise is a shape-shifting clown of supernatural origin who feeds off human suffering, but he’s also a manifestation of humanities inability to learn from our mistakes. To continue down the same, ignorant paths, and recreate our suffering for a new generation. But, perhaps, by coming together and finding that we have nothing to fear, we can finally defeat that cycle.
It was written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, directed by Andy Muschietti, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk