When first- and second-person pronouns just aren't scary enough
Stephen King has long been regarded as a master purveyor of horror fiction. Since Startling Mystery Stories, in the magazine’s sixth issue in Fall 1967, printed his first professional work, a short story called “The Glass Floor,” Mr. King has published more than fifty novels, as well as ten collections of short stories, five nonfiction volumes, and assorted other works. His books have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide. To describe his writing as popular vastly understates his place in the reading public’s authorial hierarchy. Mr. King’s name has become synonymous with bestsellers and prolificacy, and many consider his work the ne plus ultra of supernatural thrillers.
Except that most of what Mr. King writes tends more toward science fiction, crime, or straight drama. That is not to say that he hasn’t penned his share of vampires and werewolves, of gods and ghosts, of haunted hotels and possessed cars. Even much of what he writes outside the horror genre often owns a certain gothic quality. But Carrie doesn’t feature a mystical teenager; rather, it tells the story of an adolescent with telekinetic abilities, just as Firestarter follows a young girl with pyrokinetic powers. The Stand begins with the near extinction of the human race when a biological weapon escapes a United States military facility into the general population. The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, and Under the Dome involve extraterrestrial life-forms. From a Buick 8 details a portal to an alien world, while 11/22/63 utilizes time travel as its primary staging device. Novels such as The Colorado Kid and Mr. Mercedes are crime stories, while books like Misery and Gerald’s Game are dramas. Even Cell, ostensibly a zombie tale, effects the transformation of people into feral creatures by way of a transmission that essentially reboots human brains to their base state—a science-fiction concept dressed up in the trappings of a horror novel.
Why is any of that relevant to a discussion of the feature film version of It? Because, although filled with images and events meant to inspire terror in readers, the 1986 King novel from which it derives resides firmly in the genre of science fiction. The literary story grounds itself in everyday reality, while the film, shifting wholly to the horror side of the ledger, fails to fully find an internal logic that such tales require in order to be completely effective. The main characters, a group of seven pre-teens in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, see the evil antagonist of the film mostly as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), but also in other forms, such as a leper, and as a deformed figure literally out of an Edvard Munch–like painting. That malevolent force plainly has the ability to alter its shape, as well as to influence the minds of its prospective victims, causing them to experience things that aren’t real. That being the case, how difficult would it be for such an entity to take the lives of—or at the very least abduct—a gaggle of adolescents, if not all at once, then one by one? Especially given that other events in the film suggest that the creature that is Pennywise has dulled the minds of the adults in Derry to the point of inaction, even as residents of their town, both young and old, go missing.
The film begins strongly, with a scene of childhood innocence that leads to the introduction of Pennywise and the horrors of which he—It—is capable. Director Andy Muschietti builds a sense of foreboding as six-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) chases his folded-paper boat along the gutter of a rainswept street until the homemade toy plunges into a sewer opening. The slicker-clad boy drops to his hands and knees to look through the grating for the boat, and unexpectedly encounters the evil clown peering out at him from down beneath the sidewalk. Mr. Skarsgård is memorably sinister as the titular villain, and in his exchange with Georgie, he fills the persona of It with a creepiness beyond even that of an adult scheming to take advantage of a naïf. In short order, the audience learns the type of monstrous acts of which Pennywise is capable.
Months later, at the end of the school year, Georgie’s older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) leads a quartet of boys into summer. The group of assorted nerds, which fashions itself as the Losers’ Club, soon burgeons to seven members, adding two more outcast boys and a girl. Together, they must navigate a world arrayed against them: a bully of an older boy named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his band of local delinquents; parents who are, at best, negligent, and at worst, abusive; and, as they soon discover by comparing recent experiences, the menacing form of Pennywise.
The young actors are all solid in their roles, with Jaeden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis (as Beverly Marsh) turning in superior performances. The teenage toughs are all fine, which in itself presents a problem: we’ve seen these characters many times before, and although the script allows for some backstory to explain the wayward behavior of gang honcho Henry Bowers, it’s not enough to distance him from shopworn stereotype. The presence of the older boys feels almost obligatory, which is not the case in the novel.
There are also other mismatches with the book. On the big screen, the brutality that Beverly Marsh suffers at the hands of her father, while still troubling, falls considerably short of what she endures in the novel. The cruelty meted out by Henry Bowers is likewise diminished; yes, he still terrorizes younger kids, even carving his initial into one boy’s midsection, but that pales in comparison to all that Stephen King has him do.
But a film should not be measured against its source material for the differences between the two; both works need to stand on their own. The cinematic version of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules combines characters, omits events, and condense’s the story’s timeframe, and yet both works succeed on their own merits. Field of Dreams rearranges the tale W. P. Kinsella relates on the pages of Shoeless Joe, and actually ends up delivering a stronger emotional punch than its literary forebear.
Stephen King’s original novel clocked in at more than eleven hundred pages, and so the story perforce had to be pared down for the screenplay. The book actually tells two different tales: the members of the Losers’ Club, in their youth, battling Pennywise back into hibernation, and then, twenty-seven years later, that same group of people, grown into adulthood, reuniting to make a pitched effort to banish It for good. The filmmakers wisely chose to divide the massive book in two, saving the last half for a followup feature (which has already been announced). Even so, at two hours, fifteen minutes, It feels too long. Despite impressive visual effects, the film develops a quality of sameness to it. Part of that arises from the muted color palette, probably a necessity to avoid amplifying some scenes from the frightening to the lurid. Nevertheless, the dull tones undercut an otherwise well-photographed work, and underscore a script that sputters two-thirds of the way through, when it becomes clear to the audience just how the story will end.
And that’s the real failing of It—not that the film doesn’t fully recapitulate the novel in exacting detail, but that it doesn’t hold up on its own. It does work in part. With some good direction, the young cast does a fine job—although it is unfortunate that the lone African-American actor (Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon) is one of two members of the Losers’ Club given very little to do onscreen (Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Uris is the other.) Both Jaeden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis manage to wear their youth believably, while at the same time displaying an inner fortitude that stands at the heart of the children’s collective battle against evil. And in his role as the embodiment of that dark force, Bill Skarsgård strikes just the right note as an ominous and existential threat.
At the same time, there is a lifelessness to the town of Derry. Adults are in short supply, and when they appear, they largely don’t seem interested in doing much. The story explains all of that by pointing to Pennywise as the cause, but it doesn’t do so convincingly enough. Consequently, a flavor of the unreal supplants that of the real, and events do not flow organically. The film broadcasts its intentions, making it difficult to offer up a willing suspension of disbelief.
It didn’t have to be that way. The story contains terrors aplenty, but the truly horrifying moments give way to make-believe images. Sure, scenes of a maniacal, murderous clown that can change form and manipulate people’s senses can prove scary, but only for a moment, since such creatures do not actually exist; a father threatening to molest his young daughter, and another who brutalizes his teenage son, are genuinely frightening because they happen all too often in our society.
The town doesn’t quite work from a physical standpoint either. Though aerial shots show a view of Derry’s quaint main street, the film does not provide enough of a feel for the setting. Even the ridiculously spooky-looking house that stands above a well leading down into the local sewer system lacks a sense of claustrophobia—as do the underground pipes in which the children eventually find themselves. The film’s staging feels too deliberate, robbing it of its power to genuinely surprise. Mr. Muschietti offers up some artistically crafted images and set pieces, but for the most part, they play like exhibits rather than scenes.
It isn’t a bad film. It’s just not a particularly good one either. It falls somewhere in between. There can be no question that It has achieved success: it had the most lucrative opening weekend for a horror film in cinematic history, the most lucrative opening weekend for any September release, and the most lucrative opening day for an R-rated picture. Fans of the book—The New York Times lists It as the bestselling volume of hardcover fiction in 1986—clearly turned out to see the film. It is competently made, occasionally rising to a level above that, but not often, and not enough. It’s a pretty good movie, but audiences would be better served by reading—or rereading—the book.
**¾ (out of *****)
©2017 David R. George III