By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
In 1986, Stephen King’s epic horror novel, IT, hit books stores, and through the following decades, the book has become one of the acclaimed author’s more celebrated stories. The novel received an ambitious, albeit weak, TV miniseries treatment in 1990. Fans would have to wait, though, for a few more decades until a group of producers and filmmakers would finally start work on a more cinematic interpretation. After thirty-one years, the first installment of a planned duology of movie adaptations is finally opening in theaters. As a long-time fan of the original novel, I can honestly say that the results are quite pleasing.
The film takes place in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, a seemingly quiet and uneventful place which actually has a dark history. In the year 1989, things are looking darker than they have in decades, as a few of the town’s children have gone missing, including one Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) who is the first to disappear. Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and some of his friends and classmates begin having some bizarre and frightening supernatural encounters in addition to constant bullying by the thuggish Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his cronies. Bill, his friends Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and new friends Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) form a group called “The Losers Club” to stand up to Henry Bowers and his gang. At the behest of Bill, the club also further investigates the child disappearances that continue to plague their town. The group soon realizes that a ghastly phantom, which often appears in the form of a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), is the monster responsible for the town’s suffering.
I read the IT novel in either 1986 or 1987, when I was in eighth grade. At the young and impressionable age of thirteen, I was completely captivated and definitely frightened by this masterwork of King. The book was not only my first introduction to Stephen King’s writing, but was also my first introduction to horror literature. As a mousy and nerdy kid at that age, I could easily relate to some of the problems of the Losers Club, though my experience with bullying didn’t compare at all to the pain and torment inflicted by Henry Bowers. And though the horrific imagery and the nightmarish quality of this book really struck me, it was the heartwarming friendships formed within the Losers Club which stayed with me the most. The idea, that a group of nerdy outsiders could band together to battle both an oppressive classmate and a supernatural monster, is what makes the novel absolutely brilliant. Director Andy Muschietti and his writers make it a point to highlight these very important elements of the book in their wonderful cinematic translation.
With an adapted screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, Muschietti and his crew do exceptional work in recreating the world envisioned by Stephen King where Derry, Maine exists and where a malevolent beast attacks the town’s children. As far as aesthetics go, the gorgeous cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (The Handmaiden) deserves high praise for giving Derry and all of its dark nooks and crannies the perfect foreboding appearances. The exciting and epic neoromantic score by Benjamin Wallifisch channels the hearts and spirits of more seasoned veterans like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, and gives Muschietti’s film the proper cinematic accompaniment. These visions and sounds of King’s world are merely the icing the cake, though. It is Palmer’s, Fukunaga’s and Dauberman’s screenplay which almost perfectly captures the heart, the spirit and the characters which make King’s novel so remarkable.
The movie beautifully recreates the wonderment of youth, the exciting and frightening discoveries on the way to adulthood, and the fears caused by both rational and irrational sources. The fighting spirit of the Losers Club is alive and well in the film and is skillfully recreated through the movie’s characters. As expected, some changes are made including omissions from the novel and slightly different approaches to some of the characters. My only main gripe with this adaptation has to do with the slightly reduced role of African-American character Mike Hanlon who, in the book, served as the group’s main source of the town’s haunting history. That role is given to one of the other characters in the story, even though Mike does offer some of the town’s background information. Nevertheless, I noticed this striking difference and hope that it was not at all racially motivated. I feel that, while the audience gets a taste and some development of his character, his role gets unnecessarily reduced and lacks the personality that the other child characters have. Actor Chosen Jacobs does perform rather earnestly and offers one of many outstanding performances by such a magnificent ensemble of talent.
Including Jacobs, the entire cast that comprises the Losers Club deserves accolades for fantastic work as an ensemble. I was particularly impressed with Jaeden Lieberher whose exceptional and emotional turn as Bill Denbrough is certain to win the hearts of all audiences. Young actress Sophia Lillis gives a powerful and haunting performance as Beverly Marsh, a young lady who must deal with some serious emotional trauma in addition to the horrific threats of IT. Stranger Things‘s Finn Wolfhard gets to show his comedic chops and quippy timing as the somewhat obnoxious, but lovable Richie Tozier, the joker of the group. Completing the lovable Losers Club are Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, and Jack Dylan Grazier.
Wyatt Oleff stars as Stanley Uris, a devout Jew who is also very logical and germaphobic. Jeremy Ray Taylor stars as Ben Hamscom who is a recent addition to Derry, but one quickly tormented by Henry Bowers for his obesity. Ben brings a much heart to the group as well as an impressive knowledge of the town’s history. Jack Dylan Grazier portrays the sickly and hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak, a child who often feels trapped by his over-protective mother, but gets to break free and enjoy some time outside of his home through the Losers Club. All of these talented young men perform exceptionally in their roles. Finally, I must highly praise the tremendous and utterly frightening performance of Bill Skarsgård who portrays the character of Pennywise/IT and does so with hideously wicked glee and malevolence. Skarsgård may get the help of CGI effects and creepy makeup, but his vocal work, his body language and his intensity bring the nightmarish clown to realistic fruition.
And it is the hearts of the child characters and the highly relatable fears and problems they have which keep this supernatural nightmare grounded in reality and credible to its audiences. Those same characteristics which serve King’s novel well are what make this movie a triumph for Andy Muschietti and his cast and crew. As a fan of the book which inspires the film, I feel confident in stating that this movie is sure to please other fans of the novel. It isn’t completely flawless, but is nevertheless a stellar accomplishment for the filmmakers involved. Even Stephen King himself has heartily endorsed this adaptation and that says quite a bit. If the man whose imagination and brilliance came up with the story approves, then it should be obvious that these filmmakers got IT right.