I have to admit two bias’ before I launch into my thoughts on IT:
- The 1990 miniseries from Tommy Lee Wallace scared the mother-loving crap out of me and certainly influenced my idea of how this story should be told. I saw it when I was 9 and as far as I was concerned Pennywise was standing in my closet with Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers for a decent portion of my youth.
- Since overcoming those childhood fears of this story, I’ve read Stephen King’s source material twice. Like with any movie based on a book, it’s impossible not to compare what you’ve read with what you’re watching on the screen and not to have expectations. Having been a reader of the book, it’s likely my brain filled in gaps of information from the book when the movie omitted something.
Having stated both of those things, I have to say I would consider Andy Muschietti’s IT a slice of fun entertainment rather than a faithful adaptation or terrifying update on the story. As such, it neither really succeeds nor fails. Let me explain.
(May contain some spoilers ahead)
Stephen King’s novel has multiple bedrocks the narrative is dependent upon that are missing here. One is that the Loser’s Club has a power to them and they possess an otherworldly force that guides them through their story. This is hinted at but not substantiated in any way, which removes the transcendent, pseudo-religious element of the story. There is a question of destiny and cosmic involvement in the novel that makes the story so much larger. In a way the “power” is a metaphor for the power of childhood and imagination.
Another is that the power of IT is ancient and is more than just a physical threat, which is momentarily displayed towards the end of the movie but is never given its proper weight. (Maybe in Chapter 2, as Bill Skarsgard hinted at here?) In tandem with the power the Loser’s Club possesses, IT represents the fear present in childhood and not just a physical manifestation or a monster. These dialectical forces are pitted against one another and thus we are given a battle of childhood versus fear.
And the other lynch-pin of the book is the Mike Hanlon character. In the book he is the glue of the group and the one who figures things out. He’s not the leader (that’s Bill) but he is the character who weaves the tumultuous history of Derry together with the presence of IT, a part that was given to the Ben Hanscom character in the film. As important as he is being the sometimes-narrator and source of information for the reader, his relationship with his father and his family’s relationship with the Bowers’ family is key to several developments in the story. This is definitely the most egregious omission from the novel and I didn’t care for how they changed that character.
(And, briefly…..barely any inclusion of The Barrens?? There are over 400,000 words in Stephen King’s novel and I’m pretty sure “The” and “Barrens” together accounts for about 90,000 of them.)
These deviations will likely only bother fans of the book, but all of these elements added to the texture of the story and without them it feels like something is missing.
Now, no movie could ever tell every bit of the book. The novel is over 1100 pages and contains such detail and minutia of every blade of grass in Derry, Maine that it would take 10 feature-length films and the lyric camera of Terrence Malick to properly show the love of the landscape.
With all that out of the way, here comes the good: this movie is fun as hell!
The best part of the movie is the kids, which is unquestionably the #1 element they had to get right. If the kids weren’t people we cared about and identified with then nothing else would work. The important distinction is these are characters, not characterizations of these types of kids. They all display ranges of emotions and aspects of humanity that make them feel real.
The stand-out actors are Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier (constantly the funniest character), Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denborough, and the best revelation of the film, Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. Being the only female in a group of young kids requires a strong will, and the actress has a wonderful amount of gravity within the group with her own perspective and agency.
More than any single performance or character, it’s the interaction of the characters that is most essential: the big brother-little brother dynamic between Eddie and Bill, the romantic moments between Bill and Bev and Ben and Bev, the tension between Richie and Bill. If these relationships don’t exist then the story is just about a clown stalking a group of kids, which would not elicit any type of emotional investment in the film.
The characters who are under-served are definitely the parent-figures, each of them portraying an evil element of childhood and the dangers of beings kids, i.e. emotional abandonment, sexual invasion, misplaced ideologies of masculinity and femininity. They feel like bosses each kid has to defeat before they square off with the final boss, which is fine except that reduces the adults to caricatures when they didn’t have to be.
And, sadly, the other character not given enough depth is Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who is such an intricate element of torment in the novel, an extension of IT, that I think I would rather he wasn’t in the movie at all as opposed to being such a minor figure. He’s used in the movie to show that the kids are under constant threat and, at times, to guide the Loser’s Club toward each other, but his presence in the novel is almost more menacing and ubiquitous than even Pennywise. To see him reduced to a mere bully who loses his mind undermines what he is supposed to represent.
And now, for the part you’re waiting to read about….
Everyone’s favorite child-murdering clown, Pennywise!
First off, Bill Skarsgard has to be commended for taking on the part. It requires lots of make-up and costume prep and will undoubtedly be compared to Tim Curry’s original performance no matter how well he does.
The performance, itself, is what you might picture of an evil clown. The pitch of his voice dances through several octaves and his mannerisms are chocked full of evil grins and head tilts and everything else out of the villain handbook. Where they differed from the novel is in the amplification of the character. As opposed to a figure in the dark who might cause you to think “Did I just see that?”, he is larger than life in the movie and Skarsgard goes over-the-top to give that essence. It also doesn’t hurt that he has the facial structure to look genuinely creepy under that make-up.
Lots of credit goes to Andy Muschietti for his stylistic choices, as well. The craning, swooping camera and the canted angles all make for a fun-house effect that works for a story like this. It’s as if the entity of evil possesses the camera when Pennywise is near, often contorting the image into a hellish frame.
Also of note: Films can be touchy and often glossed-over when it comes to displays of sexuality and horror in the presence of kids, but this film does not exercise restraint and it succeeds because of it. A lesser film might have made suggestions about their sexuality and hinted at the horrors they’re facing, but here we see it on screen and I think that makes the horror more emotional.
I want this movie to be great and succeed (not just at the box office, which is going to be massive) because I know if they did the story right it would be such an incredible film. Despite my criticisms of some aspects of the film, I really enjoyed watching it and I have hope Chapter 2 will clarify some of the missing elements.
Here’s to hoping kids see Bill Skarsgard in their closet and under there beds from now on!
….that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art
– Walter Benjamin
This question came to me recently as I pondered the relevance of a “news” story I read about the production of the remake of Stephen King’s horror novel, It. The article purported to reveal the new look of the infamous villain, Pennywise. Being slightly interested, I clicked on the article. What followed was a report on a series of Instagram posts by the film’s director, Andy Muschietti, teasing images synonymous with Tommy Lee Wallace’s original television adaptation, as well as the film’s logo on a director’s chair, and then the money shot: a crude pen sketch of a demonic head on the front of a marble notebook.
The article goes on to say that this drawing may have no correlation to the film or the character whatsoever, but, man is it scary looking!
This got me thinking, did I need to know this information? Don’t get me wrong, I know the article was meant to generate clicks and nothing more (kudos, you got mine!) but I still have to question its mere existence. Film speculation, fan theories, and teasers are firmly entrenched in the digital space of film coverage. These tactics are used by websites to generate traffic, and also by studios to manufacture interest in their properties. In this instance, the website gets the clicks of curious genre fans and the studio gets positive attention cast upon its troubled production (the original director attached, True Detective helmer Cary Fukunaga, left the production after disagreeing with the studio’s vision for the film).
The same could be said of the recent reveal that a Star Trek character, Sulu, will be openly gay in the newest film. Did I need to know this before seeing the film? It generates interest, but at what cost? Think of how much power the revealing moment just lost by informing the audience before they see it.
No matter the intention of the coverage, this type of article affects the aura of the film, which in turn influences expectations.
This begs me to ask another question: what would my expectations be if this information was never written? I’m aware the all-consuming masses don’t regularly visit film sites that report this news on a daily basis, but with the far-reaching arms of social media wrapping around the whole of the population, most people are bound to find out sooner or later.
Think about the effect Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had on the audience when they first saw it. The shower scene was a shocking experience that truly scared audiences. And I have to think part of this is because people had no idea what to expect, aside from another suspenseful film from the master of suspense. The scene had a different kind of teaser, which was revolutionary at the time. The trailer for the film was a 6-minute Bates Motel walk-through with Hitchcock, himself. He took a tour through the motel and the Bates’ house and ratcheted up tension by pointing out the locations of the murders, important places within the two buildings, and areas where revealing clues might be found. The end of the trailer teases the shower scene perfectly without the revealing anything but a moment from the scene.
Here’s the trailer:
Consider that. How many directors could tell the audience exactly what was going to happen in a horror film, but still manage to scare the bajeesus out of everyone who saw it? Filmmakers forget it isn’t the horrifying act, necessarily, that makes things scary, it’s the action plus the way it’s shot, written, scored, lit, and acted.
So, I ask, what would our movie experience be like if we didn’t have the internet to spoil things for us? Modern trailers (most of which appear online before television) show most, if not all, of the story and beats of the film. Genre films tend to show the audience exactly what they are about to see: we know who the villain is and what they look like, the major action set-pieces, the climactic battle, etc.
The worst example of this is the conventions such as the San Diego Comic-Con, and Disney’s D-23 Expo. All of the major studios book presentation Halls to literally give away parts of their most coveted films, most of which gets published on the internet shortly thereafter for all to
Imagine if audiences went into Captain America: Civil War not knowing Spider-Man was going to show up, or not knowing which heroes were going to choose to be on Team Cap or Team Iron Man. Every trailer showed some footage from the big fight on the airport runway, as well as the Bucky-Cap vs. Iron Man fight at the end. If they just teased us with the concept that Cap and Tony were going to be on opposite sides of a fight and the rest of the heroes were going to have to choose a side, wouldn’t that be enough? Hell, my girlfriend and I saw that movie wearing matching shirts with the hero line-ups of both Teams. Spoilers are marketable now.
Those action scenes are still gloriously fun to watch, and they get away with it because the action is so well shot, but they lack an element of authenticity and true awe from the audience. There’s a restlessness in the audience who expects to see these familiar moments, as opposed to an excitement from an audience that doesn’t know what to expect. Psycho audiences had the luxury of being in the latter camp.
I understand completely that trailers are a major marketing tool and they’re used to generate excitement, which has been monetized in our digital age. Writers, websites, and studios make a living off of this type of marketing. The earlier they can get the excitement going, the more money can be made. But, this monetizing has stripped film of a different kind of aura: we know what to expect, how to expect it, and when to expect it.
Think about sitting down in a movie theater on September 18th, 2017. The title card pops up: Stephen King’s IT. In our age of mass media consumption, you will have seen countless trailers, read dozens of articles, set reports, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and possibly even seen whole scenes well before the film opens. In Hitchcock’s day, you’d be dying to know the answers to questions like: how terrifying is Pennywise going to look? What crazy shit will he do? How is he going to terrorize these kids? What will he sound like? Who is going to get killed? How will they stop him?
How does this process go in modern times? After you’ve seen all the promotional material the internet has to offer, you’ll sit down knowing the answer to most, if not all, of those questions and you’ll only have one question left: Any chance this lives up to my expectations?
Where’s the fun in that?