I do not think it was possible to be a child of the 70s or 80s and make it to adulthood without experiencing, at one point or another, a Stephen King work. Whether on the printed page, the TV screen or the movie theater, the creations of the “Master of Horror” were almost a rite of passage in those days. As of this, there’s been 43 movie adaptations and 30 TV series and mini-series adapted from his 56 novels and over 200 short stories — and I’m not even counting the numerous sequels of various quality levels that don’t use any work of his. Regardless of whether they featured some supernatural entity or not, King always found a way to feature a memorable villain in his tales. Think of Randall Flagg stalking America in The Stand, Jack Torrance wandering the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Annie Wilkes standing over the bed in Misery or Kurt Barlow rising from his coffin in ‘Salem’s Lot. The man knows how to make a good villain. And right smack in the middle of it is Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
Now, if you were to look for coulrophobia (the term that is translated as “fear of clowns”) you won’t find it in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (It instead falls under the “Specific Phobia” category for fear induced by specific triggers which covers everything there isn’t a diagnosis for). What is interesting is that it almost appears as if this modern terror came to be popularized as a result of the novel It. Perhaps it was the right work at the right time. Poltergeist had that creepy clown doll that came alive. DC Comics was reconceptualizing The Joker at the same time towards a more menacing clown than he’d been in decades. New interest on the life and crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy led to a rediscovery of sorts of his Pogo the Clown persona. Pennywise fit right into it all — culminating in the epic interpretation by Tim Curry in the 1990 ABC mini-series. But the terror of It lied as much with the people of Derry as it did with the eponymous monster.
It focuses on seven eleven-year-old misfit kids who live in the small town of Derry, ME in 1988-89 and call themselves the Losers’ Club. They include Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis). Each one is an outcast for one reason or another: Bill stutters, Ben is overweight and new to town, Richie wears glasses and is skinny, Eddie has a number of ailments, Stanley is Jewish, Mike is African-American in a white town and Beverly is a girl accused of promiscuity. One rainy day, Bill’s brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) takes a paper boat his brother made for him out and runs into Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), a monster that feeds on the fear and flesh of the people of Derry. But that is not the only monster the Losers must contend over the next year. They have to face Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang of bullies. They have to deal with parents of all types. And perhaps worst of all, they have to do all of this alone.
One of the greatest aspects of King’s novel was the way in which it managed to isolate his protagonists from the world around them. By making the Losers’ Club his heroes, King found a way to explain why people would not necessarily believe them — adults would dismiss them as children at play while their peers would see them as the Losers being the Losers. The movie follows much of this idea and makes the fate of Derry and their own lives their own affair. Part of it is Pennywise’s power but part of it is that the small town of Derry makes its bed in ignoring the number of tragedies that seem to befall them every generation.
What the movie also gets right is the sense of children right as they are about to leave childhood. It helps that they have a solid cast leading things. Leiberher (of Midnight Special) and Wolfhard (of Stranger Things) are the most recognizable faces but all of the young cast acquit themselves well here. Lieberher’s Bill carries the burden of his brother’s death on his shoulders. Meanwhile Wolfhard is the comedian of the group and gets some of the best lines in the movie — at usually the worst moments. I’ll also highlight Lillis’ performance as Beverly because she has to do double-duty, portraying the more adult member of the Losers’ Club — bringing the rest of them along towards adolescence — as well as the girl who lives with a different kind of monster.
Speaking of monsters, Skarsgard’s Pennywise is not the same as Curry’s. That isn’t a surprise. Freed from the censors of prime-time network TV, Skarsgard is allowed to make Pennywise less of a silly, fun clown and more of the monster that King envisioned. He takes on many different forms — a leper for Eddie, a misshapen painting image for Stan, a bloody geyser for Beverly. (Aside: gee, I wonder what King was hinting at with these monster images for our characters). But for Pennywise, there is less immediate charm but that’s not a bad thing. You’re always aware of the threat, the danger, that the grinning clown signifies for our young heroes. He’s like a charming shark or a soft-spoken snake; grinning before eating. He gets some great jump scares in here also.
I will give credit for the young cast’s performances to director Andy Muschietti who showed similar deftness with young actors in his feature debut, Mama. Working off the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, Muschietti does a solid job of combining the two elements juxtaposing against one another in this story: the Losers’ Club fight against It and their own individual and collective growth and development from children into adulthood. And while at the heart, there’s the conflict with Pennywise, it is all the other issues the Losers are dealing which ground the story.
Muschietti manages to find the quiet streets and alleyways of small-town Derry and it is in these hidden corners that the story of the Losers and Pennywise plays out. Rather than making them dark or mysterious, it’s interesting how sunny and bright it all is. Pennywise isn’t a creature of the dark. He appears in the middle of the day and has no compunction in striking when his targets are alone; regardless of time or location. That also plays with that other half of the tale: Beverly’s home is dark and dingy, a reflection of her father’s nasty nature towards her while the office of Stanley’s dad manages to contain more shadows than a rabbi’s office normally should.
In that way, Muschietti and his team follow the more important aspect of King’s work: the monsters that are not supernatural which plague the Losers. Embodied in Henry Bowers, in Gretta (Megan Charpentier) and her friends, in Mr. Marsh (Stephen Bogaert) and Ms. Kasprak (Molly Atkinson), the Losers are forced to confront more than one danger in their year. And while there’s something terrifying in the manner of It, at least there’s comfort in knowing it is an other-worldly threat. How does Beverly deal with her abusive and lecherous father? How do Mike and Ben face off against Henry and his goons? Or Eddie manage his over-protective hypochondriac mother? Facing off against Pennywise is almost an easier quest for them. In doing both, the Losers are meant to shed their innocence and come to grips with the dangers and realities of adulthood.
I’ll have to potentially spoil somethings now before it is all over. So if spoilers bug you, just skip to the last paragraph. So…SPOILERS START
In splitting the large tome that is It into two chapters and focusing each one of the movies on a specific time period, I do wonder if some of the larger themes are lost in translation. The novel focuses not only on how fighting Pennywise brings the Losers’ Club together but also in how it impacts them as adults. Things do not necessarily turn out great for them as adults as they carry the scars from their fight for the rest of their lives. And dealing with that post-traumatic stress does factor in the choices they make as adults. While I do not doubt that they will be a factor in the soon-to-come Chapter 2, it was in that juxtaposition of children growing up facing a monster versus adults grown and dealing with the fallout and the monster again that the brilliance of the novel laid. The decision to split the book in two makes sense financially and creatively. But how they stick the landing will be interesting to see. SPOILERS END
Ultimately It is a solid adaptation of one of Stephen King’s best works. The novel and the movie are anchored by the burgeoning friendship amidst the Losers’ Club. The movie does great work in making us care for these children as they face off against something supernatural. In that metaphor for growing up lies a great deal of fear and terror. You cannot count on the adults because they ignore It or cannot see It. You might not even be able to count on others of your peers because they’re too busy desperately trying to be something else. But if you have friends, you can face off against a trans-dimensional monster that feeds on children’s fears.