Perhaps the worst thing one could do before viewing It: Chapter One, the second attempt at bringing Stephen King’s classic horror yarn to screen, is to read the original novel that it came from. Ad verbatim, turning a book into a film is bloody hard. I try to avoid making comparisons between literature and their movie counterparts, primarily because doing so tends to result in churlish fanboy whining. The circlejerking always follows the same cycle. You complain endlessly about how the film doesn’t match the source material, how plot points weren’t delivered correctly or that certain characters are missing - all the while ignoring the fact that any deviating creative decisions are usually down to the necessity of shifting from one format to another.
As far as books go, It is a sprawling epic spanning over a 30-year timeline with a setting that felt more ‘smalltown America’ than actual small American towns. It managed to achieve a thematic union that combined American history, the trials of adolescence and the controlling power of fear itself - and the book still needed a thousand pages to tie all of that together. Converting it to a feature film would always be a Herculean task, if not impossible. So maybe this 2017 rendition shouldn’t be faulted for trying to cut a more direct path through King’s vast saga of a sleepy East Coast town plagued by a paranormal evil. But in doing so, it does lose quite a chunk of the soul - resulting in merely a good modern supernatural horror, instead of the tour de force that the book deserves.
Nonetheless, it keeps proceedings close to the defined outline of the original, pitching up its solid circus of frights and cerebral dread in the fictional town of Derry, Maine - a place which springs up quite a lot in King’s novels (Bag of Bones, Dreamcatcher). For those outside the King fandom, Derry is pretty much the average white-picket fencers’ dream - a quaint, uncomplicated pocket of New England for local people with local aspirations, and a long-neglected history as a logging town. In fact, its history is actually its only cause for concern. Derry has a legacy, and a bloody one at that. From mass genocides in its prospecting days to catastrophic nightclub fires, it’s been plagued with sudden bouts of indescribable death and violence for centuries. Lurking further in-between the grooves of the town’s dark timeline lies something more sinister still - a sustained pattern of child murders that only seem to happen every three decades. Nobody has ever gotten to the bottom of the mystery surrounding these murders due to the horror of them becoming numbed by the years in-between. Either nobody remembers, or nobody cares. But in the summer of 1989, a sudden resurgence in child disappearances sparks an unlikely group of heroes into action.
Teenager Bill Denborough (Jaeden Lieberher) has felt the re-emergence of Derry’s shadowy past at closer hand than most. Months before, his own little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) vanished, last seen playing in the street outside their house with a paper boat in a torrential downpour. Unbeknownst to Bill, Georgie’s final encounter with the outside world was with a mysterious clown hiding in one of the street’s storm drains - a curious figure kind enough to rescue Georgie’s boat from falling into it, before monstrously dragging the child himself into the depths below. While Bill continues to struggle with the unexplained loss of his brother, his circle of friends at school - a regular collection of misfits who dub themselves “The Losers’ Club” - are beginning to grow suspicious of their other classmates going missing. No sooner is their skepticism registered, do the ‘attacks’ begin - one by one each member of this group of friends is subjected to terrifying hallucinatory ordeals tied directly to their own worst personal fears. Be it evil clowns, fountains of blood or even frightening portraits come to life, the Losers are unable to explain their experiences, but are certainly aware they share a common theme - and a common culprit. Delving into Derry’s past, they find that the very same pattern of disappearances they’ve grown wise to has happened every twenty-seven years in the town since its inception. With the cause of Derry’s plight now clear as day - not to mention Georgie’s own vanishing act - Bill and his friends set out to put an end to whoever or whatever has held the town in a grip of terror for centuries. Little do they realise, this ‘It’, a supernatural shape-shifting demon beyond comprehension, is only too keen to draw them in too - ready to once again feed upon the children of Derry, as well as their fears.
Faithful to the book or otherwise (and it does deviate), It: Chapter One does at least structure itself in a straightforward fashion. The book weaved its tale of horror almost as two separate novels, portraying its central heroes in their childhood and adulthood, and constantly cutting back and forth over both timelines. Here, screenwriters Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga have chosen to give this opener a sole focus on their younger years - and it’s a shrewd decision. In an era for movies where the building of an immersive world is more essential than ever, a strain of simplicity is definitely needed to settle in both the characters of It, as well as their setting. In the case of the latter, the on-screen version of Derry reveals itself to be an iconic (and for the book fans, authentic) stage for the film’s proceedings - at least on the surface. The film definitely breaks one major rule in the outset, setting itself in the late 80s rather than the 50s of the original. But fans should still be content with how well director Andy Muschietti’s vision has translated many of the town’s ‘landmarks’ to screen. Key locations such as the town’s movie theater and particularly the wilderness of the Barrens - where so much of the Losers’ Club’s own personal development plays out on - have been perfectly laid out here. And even without prior knowledge of It’s world, the town still comes across exactly as it needs to: an idyllic East Coast town hiding its ugly past under a veil of post-Colonial pleasance. The book fell back repeatedly on such an atmosphere to fully convey the all-corrupting evil of its monster-at-large, so it’s especially pleasing that the film is able to pull off the same here - at least on initial impression.
The film’s aptitude in capturing the book’s spirit is evident in its casting too - particularly with its protagonists. On the face of it, the Losers’ Club is essentially your typical group of plucky kids who stumble upon a calling far greater than themselves - think The Goonies, Super Eight and similar horror venture Stranger Things. By handing leading roles to more experienced junior actors such as Lieberher and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard - present here as the Losers’ Club’s resident smart-mouth, Richie Tozier - it’s also a group that has a couple of recognizable faces off the bat. But the film takes particular measure in ensuring that this bunch - ultimately seven in total - all have equal footing. Such balance plays a critical role in making their camaraderie convincing. As their summer goes by and their group expands against the backdrop of their own coming-of-age, the film takes special time to ensure that their sense of fellowship does the same, making their final confrontation with Derry’s monster both dramatic and emotionally taut. For sure, certain characters do fit certain molds - Bill the determined, courageous leader, Richie the one-lining comic relief, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) the quiet, studious one, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) the mollycoddled hypochondriac. And, of course, there’s always room for an ‘only girl of the group’ in Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whose aura of maturity and coolness seems to leave the male Losers in awe of her - with all the not-so-subtle hints of their own emerging adolescence packaged with that. But even if we’ve seen these tropes before, It: Chapter One still does the due diligence necessary to make them worth cheering for - which is just as well, because the villain they’re up against is one iconic beast indeed.
A lot of the hype leading up to the release of It: Chapter One has largely centered around Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise - the sadistic clown persona that ‘It’ constantly utilizes to terrify, snatch and eventually eat his victims. He’s one of the great horror figures, for sure - largely thanks to Tim Curry’s career-defining effort in the same role during Tommy Lee Wallace’s TV mini-series from 1990. Skarsgard’s own take lacks the suffocating sense of presence that Curry’s Pennywise offered, but he certainly makes up for it by offering a portrayal closer to the character from the book - evoking the literary counterpart’s maniacal sense of glee, and his love of psychologically bullying his victims, to the letter. Whether skulking in shadows or unleashing another terrifying illusion upon his hapless targets, he gives a performance of genuinely frightening, skin-crawling quality that makes for some tremendously hair-raising moments - especially during the Losers’ Club’s own battles against him.
It’s a good thing Skarsgard remains so entertaining, because something curious happens to the film halfway through that causes it to lose its initial energy. As mentioned, the major reason that It: Chapter One’s story might be direct and uncomplicated is because it chooses to focus on the characters during their younger years - saving the later grown-up stuff for the sequel. The problem though is that by drifting in-between both eras, the book was able to mask just how repetitive the childhood chapters actually were. Essentially, they boil down to Bill and his friends getting spooked one by one by It’s numerous visages, finding out who It actually is, and then engaging in a series of fights against the creature to put an end to the town’s murderous legacy. In film terms, this means that the second half translates into a monotonous procession of jumpscares - good ones for sure, but an obsessive ritual of them all the same. It creates a bit of a rut which does actually take the shock off of some of the better set pieces - one surrounding Beverly’s bathroom sink being a particularly bloody encounter - leaving them lacking in impact. Although the movie’s final climax more than makes up for these shortcomings, there’s no denying that halfway through It, a suspicion grows that this adaptation may not be the classic its trailers suggested.
These doubts are given further weight by another odd malaise that affects the film - its struggle to stick to its own path even after setting out so well on it initially. On one part, we have a film that insists it is faithfully retelling a horror classic. On another, it’s attempting to change that script by basing its entire story in a different era from the original. Further still, it’s being relayed through the lens of a modern horror - with all the technical stylings and trappings that come with such. That’s a lot of juxtapositions to juggle - and while It: Chapter One just about manages to keep them all up in the air, it doesn’t manage it without occasionally coming over as confused. Members of the Losers Club making the odd New Kids on the Block reference might offer a bit of light relief (haha, the 80s, amirite?), but it also introduces a disingenuous tone. School bully and additional Losers’ Club nemesis Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) might have traded his switchblade for a mullet, but it also reduces him to a mere angry punk instead of the delinquent psychopath he’s supposed to be. Even the dread-inducing mystique of Pennywise himself is in part undone by the film skipping over key parts of Derry’s history, as well as the monster himself arriving on-screen with the kind of predictable reveal sequences (complete with those generic ambient crashing noises) that modern horror seems to pride itself on. While the intense, epic final duel that serves as its climax might paper over a lot of these cracks - and believe me, it’s an absolute blast - it cannot hide its flaws completely. By trying to be jack of all trades and market itself to as wide an audience as it can, It: Chapter One comes across as diluted - and is definitely worse off for it.
Still, even if this movie stumbles at times, Andy Muschietti’s effort remains an enjoyable horror that at least regales upon a number of its book counterpart’s themes with a solid understanding and appreciation. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is still every bit as terrifying as he ever was, and the kids that stack up against him in the fight for their hometown are every bit the underdogs they need to be too. If that ‘floats’ your boat (ahem) then by all means check it out. Just remember to take my advice - don’t read the book beforehand.