The strongest adaptations of Stephen King’s horror works are those that latch onto his most enduring trait of creating empathy for his characters. More often that not, that empathy stands shoulder to shoulder alongside his ability to create an ever present sense of dread and sheer horror. It, the second attempt at bringing King’s 1,000 plus page novel to the screen, largely succeeds at completing such a daunting task. Director Andy Muschetti has crafted a film that may perhaps go against audience expectations. The R rating is not used as a crutch to provide relentless sequences of grotesque gore. Instead, It opts to tell a coming-of-age story that’s both emotionally gripping and frequently horrifying.
It is not a slavish translation of King’s 1986 book but rather a spiritual and conceptual adaptation. The basic premise is entirely intact barring a time shift to the 1980s. Seven kids dubbed “The Losers’ Club” face the fears and tribulations that accompany growing up. On top of facing parental issues and school bullies, they also have to battle a monstrous entity who feeds off of their greatest fears. Pennywise the Dancing Clown may be the character who the film was sold on, but The Losers’ Club are the soul that make this film so endearing. Their comradery creates a sense of companionship not unlike films such as Stand By Me and The Goonies. In fact, It could almost be sold as a hybrid of Stand By Me and The Monster Squad.
Muschetti and the casting director did not strike a wrong note with any of their young actors. Each member of The Losers’ Club brings a very distinct personality to their role that feels right off the pages of the story. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the screenplay provides equal time to each of them. Bill (Jaeden Lieberman) is clearly the predominant lead of the story. His brother’s unfortunate encounter with Pennywise serves as the cold opening of the film. Anytime Georgie reappears as a horrible perversion of his former self, it’s effective and emotionally stirring.
Where the film stumbles is when it chooses to focus on Beverly (Sophia Lillis) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), whose subplots are somewhat problematic. Mike, who is the only minority of the group, doesn’t possess much of a personality beyond his initial phobias that Pennywise preys upon. Beverly’s disturbing relationship with her father, while it is unsettling, doesn’t have any context or background to it. For that reason, it feels tacked on for the sake of being faithful to the novel. The “love triangle” between Beverly, Bill and Ben is always charming and isn’t overly written to appeal to a specific demographic. It comes off as very natural for pubescent children.
Pennywise’s role in this iteration places him akin to someone like Freddy Krueger as opposed to Tim Curry’s portrayal. Bill Skarsgard’s performance emphasizes the demonic nature of Pennywise while also giving him a more childlike demeanor. That contrast plays brilliantly during the opening scene with Georgie but he doesn’t speak as much as one might expect. Instead, Skarsgard relies more on the physicality of the role which makes his transition into primal instinct more terrifying when he lashes out. Each individual scene of a particular kid meeting Pennywise is effective. However, the collective totality of the scares is somewhat hindered because of this. Each scene has a particular structure that carries throughout the first two acts, resulting in scares that can be predictable. A few of the jump scares work but some don’t escalate enough to build up tension. Thankfully, the production design and decrepit set pieces go a long way in providing suspense.
Muschetti and the screenplay keep the majority of the background information about Derry close to the chest. The detailed minutia well known by avid King fans is not readily present in It. As previously stated, this is not a word-by-word conversion of the original source material. The themes of the novel such as exploring childlike innocence and the fear that can accompany life’s journey are entirely intact. Some elements are short changed though, notably the absence of fully explaining Pennywise’s origin and the one-note masochistic bullies that made parts of the book a chore to read.
Even though it translates roughly half of the original story, the film is all the better for it even at a run-time of 135 minutes. Considering how likable and charismatic these actors were, an argument could be made for an even longer exploration of their lives. Despite a second part seemingly on the horizon, the film stands on its own as one of the stronger King adaptations brought to screen.