WARNING: Contains spoilers for the novel of IT, the 1990 adaptation of IT and the 2017 film of IT
Book to movie adaptations are always going to upset a certain contingent of fans. It’s not hard to understand why, either; the adaptation is often seen by far more people than read the original work, and if it’s a bad one…well…
Few writers probably understand this as well as Stephen King, who must surely one of the most heavily adapted authors in the world. The man already has his name on literally dozens of terrible adaptations of his novels and it doesn’t seem to have hurt his book sales any – so what’s the issue here?
Well, when you’re talking about IT, it’s not so simple. The book was actually already adapted for the small screen back in the 90s, as a TV miniseries which became an instant classic. For a certain generation of horror viewers, it’s one of the most terrifying pieces of TV ever made. Sure, it hasn’t aged perfectly, but it’s a pretty faithful adaptation and it’s readily available for home viewing. A remake seemed like a dubious idea at best, and an abomination at worst. Tim Curry’s take on Pennywise has long since entered the horror pantheon, and despite not having aged terribly well in the fashion department, the miniseries still conjures up some impressive scares today.
But like IT herself, Hollywood seems to operate in 27-year cycles*. And so, the creature has again risen from beneath the sewers to terrify a whole new generation. Things have changed a little since we were last in the town of Derry, though. The children’s setting has been moved from the 1950s to the late 1980s, and the characters have also had certain background elements tweaked.
I am not a purist when it comes to book-to-movie adaptations myself, so for the most part, these changes are fine. The only one I didn’t really like was Beverley’s reduction to a “damsel in distress” role towards the end of the film. Aside from that, the plot follows the main beats of the novel, so there’s no real surprises if you’ve already read it. If you haven't, I won't give too much away; it's a kid's adventure story meets Stephen King's signature brand of disturbing small-town horror.
Proceedings feel a little cramped and rushed, but part of this is simply because there quite a few main characters. I may draw ire for saying so, but I suspect that at least one of the Loser’s Club could have either been cut or amalgamated into another character; a movie is not a book, and you don’t have the same space to work with in terms of giving characters equal time. With that said, all of the kids put in a great performance – there isn’t a weak one among them, and it’s almost a bit of a shame that we probably won’t see them in these roles again.
But the real question on everyone’s lips is really centred around another character, though – Pennywise the Clown, the titular IT. Revealed to be something of a Lovecraftian entity in the original novel, IT's origins largely go unexplored in this film, beyond the obvious conclusion that he’s some kind of supernatural monster -- but more importantly, how does this new version compare to Tim Curry's take on him?
Well, Bill Skarsgård does a good job, if not quite such a distinctive one as Tim Curry. My main objection is that most of the time it really seems like a stuntman or CGI double is there in his place; though Pennywise gets a reasonable amount of screentime, I didn’t really feel like Bill Skarsgård got enough time for himself to shine in the role. Part of the character’s appeal is that he’s menacing without necessarily doing too much; the implied threat is often more effective than the xenomorph-esque jaw dislocation. Still, his design will no doubt give kids nightmares for years to come – and that’s as good a measure of success for a horror villain as any, really.
IT has had something of a troubled production. Actors and directors have come and gone, and it becomes most evident in the updated 1980s setting -- or rather, the lack thereof. With Finn Wolfhard in a starring role, and the 1980s setting, comparisons with last year’s Stranger Things are inevitable -- you can't help but think they're aiming for some crossover appeal. Indeed, you sometimes find yourself wishing for the deft touch of the Duffer Brothers in handling the look and feel of the era. The period setting feels more like window dressing; aside from a few bizarre outfits and the lack of computers or mobile phones, it could have been filmed last week. The main concession we get are some vague allusions to The Goonies and Stand By Me. Neither is surprising, given that The Goonies came out around the same time the novel was released, and Stephen King wrote the short story Stand By Me was based on.
Part of the reason IT – both the novel and the TV adaptation – worked so well is because it tapped into the zeitgeist of the time. Clowns are always objectionable and terrifying, so King picked a good villain – but there is much more to its success than that. Y’see, back in the 1980s there was a big revival of interest in 1950s culture; early rock and roll, James Dean, all that stuff. Baby Boomers were getting nostalgic for their childhood, and the pop culture of the time reflected that in a lot of ways**. IT pushed all these buttons, and also tapped into a more disconcerting truth about the era, too – it’s fun to reminisce, but you’re getting older…and you might actually have been a better person back when you were a kid. Your best days are quite possibly already behind you.
This adaptation doesn’t really have, or even try to create that kind of resonance, and instead trades subtext for (admittedly effective) jump scares. The end result is that it’s creepy and unsettling, but it doesn’t really establish a distinct identity for itself. IT is ultimately a very competent film, and certainly worth a watch on the big screen – but it does feel a little disposable. Here’s hoping that Chapter 2 rectifies some of those issues, and showcases the true potential of the story.
IT opens in Australian cinemas on September 7th. You can view the trailer here.
*Not entirely, but just suspend your disbelief for the purpose of the line here.
**This is also part of the reason Back to the Future was such a hit, and why Chris Isaak had his breakthrough in the era.