Adapting a beloved novel and one that comes with a possessive fanbase is already tricky business. What makes it doubly tricky is that Stephen King’s 1985 bestseller “It” was made into a television miniseries in 1990. This was where Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown became an iconic performance that frightened an entire generation of viewers.
The feature-length IT is thus faced with an uphill task of refreshing the appeal of this retro classic. And while this cinematic update is not pitch perfect, it still captures the essence of King’s sprawling 1,000-page novel and highlights the book’s universal themes, making it relevant again for contemporary audiences.
The most distinct change is the shift in timelines – instead of 1950s Maine, the action now takes place in the 1980s, a more familiar era for most of us. In a small (fictional) town named Derry, seven pubescent teenagers bond over their shared experiences of being bullied at school, namely at the hands of a sadistic older boy named Henry Bowers and his gang.
Calling themselves The Losers’ Club, they soon realise that they are also being hunted by a shape-shifting monster that often takes the form of a cannibalistic clown named Pennywise, whose trail of murder and violence goes back centuries.
When they discover that Pennywise is behind the unexplained disappearances of numerous children in the township, the friends must band together to help one another overcome their worst fears and stop “it” from killing again.
What stood out for me about the movie is how powerfully evocative the narrative is. And this is mostly thanks to the care and effort that went into the treatment of the characters, especially the kids of The Losers’ Club who are the heart of this supernatural coming-of-age story.
Each protagonist has a substantial backstory that is primed to connect with the underdog in all of us: There’s stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jeaden Lieberher) who has not stopped looking for his missing little brother George; trashtalking Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard); lonely new kid in town Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), straightlaced Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) with his strict Jewish parents; hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer); outsider with a tragic past Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs); and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who has been unjustly branded a slut by those jealous of her good looks.
Not only do these characters’ struggles resonate emotionally, the kids are also impeccably cast and the chemistry between the actors is infectious. Standout performances include Wolfhard and Grazer, whose Richie and Eddie are harbingers of comic relief as they trade insults like bullets. Also noteworthy are Lieberher and Lillis, who deliver such heartbreaking performances as the troubled Bill and Beverly.
The camaraderie brings to mind that other great Stephen King adaptation, Stand by Me. Kudos to director Andy Muschietti and the writers for understanding that the scare factor of a horror movie goes up several notches if the audience is invested in your characters.
Also, because of the R rating (IT is rated NC16 in Singapore), there is room for Muschietti and team to make it as bloody and violent as the novel, which the miniseries didn’t quite pick up due to the restrictions of network television.
The movie does suffer from some common weak points of modern horror movies. Lack of subtlety aside, Muschietti is too dependent on jump scares. The movie feels more like a rollercoaster ride than a smart exercise in suspense and psychological terror. It’s thrilling to watch but it won’t haunt you like other more effective horror films such as The Witch and It Follows.
And this, in a way, extends to the newest incarnation of Pennywise who is now played by Bill Skarsgård (younger brother of Alexander Skarsgård and last seen in Atomic Blonde). Skarsgård’s killer clown is more cartoony Mad Hatter-esque and lacks the eerie subtlety that made Curry’s portrayal downright brilliant.
Admittedly, Pennywise’s shape-shifting ability now looks more fluid and terrifying, with the help of modern VFX. But this also presents a drawback: when overdone, Pennywise comes across more as an effect than a character. Skarsgård does give a transformative performance and he disappeared into the role but I’m just not fully convinced by this interpretation.
Superficial plot changes aside, IT is still an entertaining adaptation of a story that isn’t really about a monstrous clown. Pennywise is the personification of the deep-rooted fears that hide in our psyche and the overwhelming impact of childhood trauma. This evil exists because the town’s adults perpetuate or ignore their suffering and the film addresses these important themes.
IT has me hankering for more so thankfully, we’re going to get a sequel which will take place in the present day when the kids are all grown up. I can’t wait to see who will be cast as the adult Losers’ Club!
IT is out in cinemas now. Did you catch it? Tell us what you think below.