Published in 1989, It is one of Stephen King’s longest books and its adaptation into a miniseries in 1990 has been described as terrifying, silly, and everything in between depending on the viewer. Its decidedly low budget and quality meant a big screen reboot was inevitable. Murmurs of a new film were heard back in 2009 and after sitting in production hell for over eight years and going through multiple screenwriters and directors, It has finally arrived. Thankfully, it turned out that the process was worth the wait; It succeeds at being scary and exciting, and it sets a new bar for adaptations of King’s work.
It is set in Derry, Maine, a small town where children have been disappearing and no one seems to know why. The first scene of the film shows the brutal death of Georgie Denborough (Jackson Robert Scott) at the hands of the monstrous, shapeshifting Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard), who takes his body down into the sewer. Georgie’s older brother, the 13-year-old Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), is rocked by the boy’s disappearance and becomes convinced that Georgie may still be alive somewhere. On the first day of summer, Bill convinces his friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), a foul mouthed smart ass; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), an asthmatic with an overprotective mother; and Stan (Wyatt Oleff), a fastidious Jewish boy, to help him in his quest to find Georgie. The group eventually grows to add Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a fat kid who is new to Derry; Beverly Marsh (Sophie Lillis), a poor girl with a bad reputation; and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), a black boy from the rural part of town. They soon discover that each of them has seen something terrifying that turned into a clown who tried to kill them, and they deduce that this thing is what has been snatching all the children. As they learn more about the history of Derry, they realize that they might have to be the ones to put a stop to It.
The novel of It is over a thousand pages, and rather than cram as much of it into the film as possible, the screenwriters chose to focus on the half of the book that is about the characters as children. They use the bare bones of that story and fill in as necessary with their own material to create a balanced narrative that fits a film’s running time. While most of the choices that were made in how the film differs were good, they chose to cut the agency out from one of the characters to serve the plot which cheapened the end of the film. As an adaptation, It is successful, hueing closely to the tone and structure of the original story, and there are enough references to the book and King’s other work to please the diehard fans.
The acting in It is a big part of why it succeeds so well. While the initial buzz for the look of Pennywise was not positive, Skarsgaard is terrifying and otherworldly. The film doesn’t shy away from mixing CGI and practical effects, but Skarsgaard is at his most unnerving when it is just him in his makeup. Jaeden Lieberher is solid as Bill but is a little wooden at the most intense scenes. Finn Wolfhard steps up his game from Stranger Things, with an energetic performance and a delightful ability to curse like a true 13-year-old: with vigor and as often as possible. Of all the child actors, Sophia Lilllis stands out the most, giving a range of emotional depth to the character that was a treat to watch. The three other boys are good, but they are given such a small amount of screen time that they are little more than background characters.
The director, Andy Muschietti, is no beginner in the horror genre and he uses its traditional tools well. There are jump scares, odd camera angles, and zooming shots used with impeccable timing to get the most out of the set up. The cinematography is gorgeous with delicate, focused lighting that enhances the creepy atmosphere. There is plenty of CGI, but it’s used with a subtlety that augments the scenes rather than overwhelms them, so nothing feels fake. Technically the film is all of a piece, with a forbidding tone and a tension that ramps up gradually with occasional scares along the way to an intense pay off.
While It is an adaptation, there is no need to have any previous experience with the material to enjoy this version. There isn’t much background or detail given about the characters but the fast pace and immediacy of the events allows the film to get by without it. The attention to detail in the sets and makeup and dedication in the acting and camerawork is apparent in every scene, and it all contributes to the film’s rich atmosphere. It is great horror film with interesting characters and a strong story that should definitely be watched more than once.