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14 Sep 2017

'It' Is Lit: Stephen King's Muddled Novel Proves to Be Excellent Source Material for Andy Muschietti's Horrifyingly Great Film

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Bill Skarsgard in It. Bill Skarsgard in It.

I read It when the novel came out in 1986, and I was underwhelmed. It had a cool premise, but sloppy, overlong, out-of-control prose. That sucker needed some editing.

I had been gobbling up Stephen King books (I’m a big fan of Christine and Different Seasons), but experienced a bit of a lull in interest after his lousy Peter Straub collaboration, The Talisman. I felt like King was overextending himself a bit, and It seemed like a big mess.

In other words … I’m not a huge fan of the source material for the new It film.

I was also not a fan of the wimpy 1990 TV miniseries with John-Boy Walton, Jack Tripper, Harry Anderson and a decent Tim Curry as evil clown Pennywise. It featured that unintentionally hilarious puppet spider at the end.

The good thing about a movie like Andy Muschietti’s It is that the director and his writers can keep core themes that worked, but switch things up and streamline the narrative to make the story work better. As a result, the new It is a triumph.

While the miniseries dealt with both the young and older versions of the Losers Club—the posse of kids who stand up to evil—the new It stands as Part One, completely dividing the kid and adult stories. There’s also a major time change, with the kids’ story taking pace in the late ’80s instead of the 1950s. Thank you, Stranger Things.

The core story remains the same: Children in Derry, Maine, have been disappearing for many years. The film starts with the sad case of Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), a little boy in a yellow rain slicker who follows his paper boat to the sewer drain, where he makes an unfortunate acquaintance.

That acquaintance is Pennywise, the dancing, sewer-dwelling clown, played as a most savage beast by Bill Skarsgard. The big difference between Curry’s Pennywise and the new incarnation is that Curry’s Pennywise seemed almost like a normal circus clown—until he sprouted monster teeth and took you out. He was into trickery. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is a makeup-cracking, scary demon clown. He has an ability to charm for a short while, but he oozes evil. If you saw him at a circus, you’d be seriously afraid for the trapeze artists and lions. He even drools a little while addressing Georgie … before tearing Georgie’s arm off. At this moment, It immediately declares itself to be an R-rated, no-holds-barred King affair, as opposed to the homogenized TV version.

The kids are great. The standout is Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. At one point, one of the Losers calls her Molly Ringwald. Lillis has that kind of teen-film leading-lady presence. Jeremy Ray Taylor will break your heart as Ben Hanscom, the chubby kid who has a crush on Bev. (Their first meeting is one of the best scenes in the film.)

Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard and Jack Dylan Grazer provide solid comic relief as Richie and Eddie, while Jaeden Lieberher (excellent in Midnight Special) does a damn fine job with a stutter as Georgie’s big brother, Bill Denbrough. As for the bad kids, Nicholas Hamilton is the second-scariest entity in the film as bully Henry Bowers. He’s very real. I’m pretty sure I got in a locker room fight sometime in the 1980s with Hamilton’s Bowers.

Muschietti scores some big scares, especially during a slideshow gone very wrong, and a meeting between the Denbrough brothers in the family basement. (“You’ll float, too!”) It appears there was never a moment when Muschietti and his writers paused and thought, “Say, perhaps that idea would be a bit too unsettling? Maybe it’s a bit much and wrong?”

It: Part Two, while not official yet, is a certainty. As for It: Part One, it takes the best elements of King’s inconsistent novel effort, and comes out a frightening winner.

It is playing at theaters across the valley.

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