This past Friday I did something that I haven’t done in far too long: I saw a movie in the theater on opening day. The movie: “It: Chapter One.”
When the first YouTube trailer was released, download records were broken and a buzz formed around the movie, a buzz that has never really died down. This fact, coupled with my being a fan of the 1990 ABC-TV miniseries and the 1986 novel, which I’ve read three times, had me go in to Andy Muschietti’s (“Mama”) film with high hopes (and an 18-inch gourmet pretzel to snack on).
My full review follows, but in a word: meh.
The opening sequence mirrors the miniseries and Stephen King’s book practically beat-for-beat. “Stuttering” Bill Denbrough, home sick with the flu during a particularly rainy day in Derry, Maine, coats a paper boat with parrafin so that the younger brother he adores, Georgie, can sail it down the rainy street. The curb-side current is too swift for clumsy Georgie to keep up, and the boat sails into a sewer grate just seconds before the boy can rescue it. But the boat seems to have another rescuer: Pennywise the Dancing Clown (also known as Bob Gray in the novel but not in this big-screen iteration). Pennywise offers Georgie his boat back, and a balloon, too…all in exchange for poor Georgie’s arm.
The boy’s gruesome death, seen from afar from an uncarrying Derry resident, is the first in a series of child murders and disappearances that plague the cursed Maine town for almost a full year, from Fall, 1988 to Summer, 1989. Bill is convinced that Georgie, alive or dead, must be somewhere in Derry’s maze of sewers that connect seemingly every inch of town. Bill’s three best friends, bespectacled joker Richie Tozier, asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak, and Bar Mitzvah candidate Stan Uris, sympathize with Bill but know that he needs to move on and try to enjoy the summer as best they can.
Little time passes before two more outcast pre-teens, overweight Ben Hanscom and pretty Bev Marsh (with whom all five boys are smitten) enter their group, and (almost as an afterthought) home-schooled farm kid Mike Hanlon. This defacto “Losers Club” is united by two things: the target signs on their heads as drawn by bully Henry Bowers, and the fact that they have each seen things they can’t explain, usually involving a shape-shifting clown, the same one we met in that aforementioned opening sequence.
So a very “Stand by Me”-ish coming of age dramedy turns into “Super 8”-esque horror adventure as they team up and venture into the sewers (via a supremely creepy haunted house) to take It down, the catalyst – and a departure from both the book and the miniseries – being the kidnapping of one of their own by the centuries-old monster, maintaining It’s strength by feeding on their fear.
Oh, they also take a literal blood oath to return to Derry and fight It in the future should It come back, as they learn, per amateur historian Ben (a role taken by Mike in the book and miniseries), that It tends to do every 27 years or so.
As it (lower case) happens, it was also 27 years ago that the ABC miniseries first came out, and those of you who (like me) tend to compare adaptations will be quite pleased, and little surprised, by the vast improvement in makeup and special effects. (As played by Bill Skarsgård this time rather than the great Tim Curry, Pennywise has a broader forehead, with clown makeup applied to look like peeling plaster, an unsettling touch).
You will also delight at the film’s humor and age/gender appropriate language. (Richie, as played by Finn Wolfhard and taking over for Seth Green from the miniseries, is quite the potty mouth, and though some may find that language unnecessary, I know from my own 1980’s childhood that many adolescent males cursed like sailors.) My favorite bit of comic relief came when the boys are standing atop a cliff-jumping spot, wondering who is going to go first, only for Bev to surprise them by running past the group, seemingly from out of nowhere, and jumping over the side into the river below. The shot cuts to a beautiful aerial shot and it is unmistakably Richie who blurts out, “What the fuck?!”
The acting is universally strong, with Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben), Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie), and Sophia Lillis (Bev) delivering especially touching performances. Lillis, whose Bev Marsh is both fierce and vulnerable, walks away with the movie, and is sure to be a heartbreaker when she is older. Less memorable are Wyatt Oleff as Stan, Chosen Jacobs as Mike, and Jaden Lieberher as Bill. In the cases of Oleff and Jacobs, it is simply because their characters are underdeveloped; Mike, perhaps the most vital character in the book, is given short shrift here, and for no discernable reason. I cry “foul.” In Lieberher’s case, I simply preferred Jonathan Brandis, who played Bill in the miniseries and who, sadly, committed suicide 13 years later.
I also thought that the Bowers gang villains, so vital to the novel, were hardly flushed out here at all. Not only that, Henry and Patrick Hockstetter met with different fates here than they did in the books, while fellow goons Victor Criss and Belch Huggins were simply forgotten about by the screenwriters. Sloppy. None of the actors in these roles, except perhaps Nicholas Hamilton as Henry, had much opportunity to make any kind of impression.
Skarsgård, so important to the whole film as Pennywise, is creepy enough, through his walk more than his words (I couldn’t understand half of his dialogue). As regards clown makeup and costume design, Skarsgård is leagues above anything ABC-TV did for Tim Curry, but Curry’s take on the role, all throaty laughter and sad eyes – and an enormous factor over the last 27 years in why so many people are so scared of clowns – is still one for the ages. Curry gets the edge for now, though I am curious to see what Skarsgård will bring to the role in Chapter Two.
The changes? Well, the setting as I mentioned, is updated to 1988-1989. Stephen King has always been so good at world building, especially anything involving children from the wrong side of the tracks, that such a time period change made little difference as the overall mood remained. Plus, we get a few funny jokes about New Kids on the Block, and NKOTB is always good for a laugh, even 30 years past the boy band’s prime. I do wonder how the contemporary setting of Chapter Two, presumably involving the return of the Losers Club as adults to battle a post-hibernation It, will use cell phones, drones, and other bits of smart technology as part of the arsenal of tricks against Pennywise and an uncaring Derry in general.
Other changes? It is attacked with a bolt gun, not a slingshot, and the Niebolt House from the novel serves as the main access point to the sewers, rather than the Barrens. There is no werewolf (miniseries and novel both), no giant bird (novel), no gay subtext (novel), and no Dark Tower connection (novel). There is also no Losers Club sex scene (novel, and less controversial in its original context than you may think if you’ve only heard about it secondhand), and in fact everything that happens in the sewers has been changed here, muting the scare factor considerably.
I don’t consider any of the revelations in the previous paragraph to be spoilers, and most of the outright omissions make sense from the standpoint of running time if nothing else (though the movie is still long for the genre, at 135 minutes). Still, I would have loved to see Mike Hanlon confront that giant bird, with its three orange poms.
But what do I know? My niece, who just turned 14, just one or two years older than the Losers Club members themselves, loved the film. Movies nowadays are made for young adults with fidget spinners and bottomless allowances, not 42-year-old bloggers – regardless of how many times said bloggers have read the book or seen the original miniseries. When I told her she should read the novel, she made a talk-to-the-hand motion and said, simply, “I don’t do ‘reading.’” So the movie, as much a coming of age film as a horror film, was everything she wanted in a movie. She would no doubt give it an A. I enjoyed its humor and performances, but not its character development nor its plot changes.
I give it a C+.