Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. 2017 was a potentially terrifying year for this Stephen King constant reader. You may have gotten my King backstory with my recent piece on revisiting the original IT novel, but the long and short of it is that I started reading King at a young age and obsessively covered his entire output starting at the end of elementary school. The cream of the crop in my eyes were his Dark Tower series and IT, both of which we got to see hit the big screen this year.
Dark Tower seemed pretty screwed from the beginning, but IT was looking solid. Both pictures had trouble getting into production, with Cary Fukanaga famously exiting the project during development, but where that was just the start of the troubles for Dark Tower it seems like IT was able to muscle through and deliver something that should make any Stephen King fan proud.
The greatest success of this adaptation lies in the casting, writing and performances of the seven kids in the Losers Club. Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise is wonderful, too, delivering a perfectly creepy performance that somehow manages to get everything right about the character from the book without copying anything Tim Curry did, but the real takeaway from this movie is going to be the relationship of these kids and that's exactly what this adaptation had to do.
You can change up a bunch of stuff from the book, and this movie certainly does that, but it's important you capture its essence. That's why I don't have a problem with Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. Sure, he took some liberties, but it felt right. He captured the tone of King's book so perfectly that I frankly can't understand how any fan of the book, King included, can't adore that film, at least on that level.
Andy Muschietti pulls that off here as well. The evil lurking beneath the surface of this small Maine town is felt in every picturesque establishing shot and minor character introduced. Beneath the smiles of the townspeople and the innocent Main Street USA exterior is something darker. That's tricky to pull off in a visual medium, but Muschietti, his DP and crew manage it.
There's a deep understanding of the source material on display so when a few character beats are changed or passed over I didn't find myself dwelling on it. For instance, they gloss over Ben's engineering passion, which is a cornerstone of the character in the book, but I never cared because the core of his character was on full display. He's still the loveable, kind boy with the world's biggest puppy love crush. Jeremy Ray Taylor is an open book with this performance and is so earnest and thoroughly good-hearted that he effortlessly nails the character of Ben Hanscom.
Another good example of tweaking a familiar character, but still getting at the heart of what makes them work is Jack Dylan Grazer's Eddie Kaspbrak. Of all the Loser's Club Eddie's the most changed from his book counterpart. Grazer's a little firecracker in this thing. He's got all the hypochondria you'd want him to have, but gone is the meek little pipsqueak side to his character. This kid is such a fast-talking smart-ass he's almost a mini-Joe Pesci, making him a great foil for Finn Wolfhard's Richie Tozier. Eddie doesn't take Richie's shit with a shrug and an aw shucks smile here. He dishes it back tenfold, which makes their friendship feel as real as any I experienced at their age.
Jaeden Lieberher's Stuttering Bill Denbrough is quiet, emotional and radiates a sort of kind intelligence that is absolutely crucial for this character to work. Here he's less of a strong leader type and more someone you want to follow because of his unwavering, incorruptible moral compass.
Sophia Lillis's Beverly Marsh is one of the best surprises of the movie to me. Lillis shows real deal movie star chops here. Bev's a complicated character that could easily just be played as the tomboy or the outcast, but Lillis manages to envelope all of Beverly's weaknesses and strengths into one clean, well-rounded character.
Finn Wolfhard's Richie Tozier is everything you want Richie to be. My favorite aspect of this iteration is that his shit-talking and bad jokes feels authentic. It doesn't feel like he's spouting off words carefully crafted to be a “bad joke” by a smart writer agonizing over the wording for a couple days. It feels like he's just fucking around with his friends, which is everything Richie needs to be.
Wyatt Oleff's Stan Uris isn't played as fraidy cat as I was expecting, but they do something interesting with how he's being tortured by Pennywise. It doesn't just appear as a clown. It also takes the form of the kids' deepest, darkest fears. All the kids are scared to one level or another in these encounters, but Stan is particularly disturbed by what's haunting him. You can see him cracking, especially towards the end of the story.
Chosen Jacobs' Mike Hanlon is perhaps the most underserved of the Losers Club. He is given more backstory moments than most of the other kids, but his importance within the group is lessened a bit. Mike's fascination with Derry's history is given to Ben in what I assume is an attempt to streamline the story by folding in his lonely library hangout time with an eye for research. That could have a major impact in the sequel since it was precisely Mike's obsession with this town's history that made him the one left behind to watch out for It's return while the rest of the Club moved on with their lives, forgetting their trauma.
Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise is likewise different-but-right. He looks unworldly, but when he's chatting up poor doomed little Georgie at the sewer grate you can see how he could lure young children into a false sense of security. Skarsgard is actually kinda charming and funny in this moment and then switches off. That's when he's the most disturbing... not when the teeth come out and the monster is glimpsed, but when Pennywise looks like a shell. His eyes unfocus, his face goes slack and you get a sense that whatever is controlling this image is doing the psychological equivalent of switching hands.
The glee Pennywise has while mind-fucking these pesky kids is so pitch perfect, not just for the character established in King's book, but for the characters established in this adaptation. It's such a great threat that you eagerly anticipate every new encounter just to see how creative and messed up it's going to be.
The point is IT manages to be faithful without being shackled to the material. That's the perfect balance you want to achieve in an adaptation, so while the book nerd in me can wish a little more time was spent on, say, Henry Bowers so he doesn't come across as a one-dimensional bully at the end of the day that feels like a nitpick instead of a crucial failing.
And can we also talk about how great it is to see a big studio horror film that's not afraid to embrace the R-rating in this way? This film is as well-made as The Conjuring and other more “high brow” ghost stories, but in a meaner, more fantasy-reality skewed package. It's a gory, bloody, profane, character-driven horror movie that's not afraid to actually be a horror movie that pushes boundaries.
There's an ambition here that could only be executed with a little cash behind it. My sincerest hope is that the current critical and pending financial success of this film inspires studios to take risks like this more often. If studio horror movies like It were the norm instead of the exception we'd be living in a much richer genre landscape.
Andy Muschietti and his team delivered us an adaptation that will surely rank among the best Stephen King movies ever made. Only time will tell if It can legitimately stand shoulder to shoulder with stuff like Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Shining (don't fight me on this!), Stand By Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption, but my knee-jerk opinion after one viewing is that it will.