The first part of a double bill of films adapting Stephen King’s epic novel, Andy Muschietti’s It: Chapter One is a confident attempt to realise one of literature’s great horror novels for the screen…
The long-awaited screen adaptation of Stephen King’s It finally arrived in 2017 courtesy of director Andy Muschietti. The second time King’s epic novel has been developed for the screen, the first outing of the horror novelist’s titular monster saw the child killer brought to life by Tim Curry in one of his finest performances. 2017’s version sees Bill Skarsgard boldly embody one of fantasy literature’s classic villains. His own take on the monster – which cloaks its true self behind the façade of Pennywise the Dancing Clown – exhibits a telling confidence that emphasises the actor’s appreciation of the source material and an appreciation of the potential to make Pennywise not only a great literary villain but an iconic on-screen one too.
Director Muschietti, who took over production after at least two other directors tried and failed to bring their visions from pre-production into development, had the benefit of Skarsgard to at least ensure It: Chapter One had a chance to impress. Curry’s performance in Tommy Lee Wallace’s two-part TV movie remains a defining moment in his career, perhaps only bettered by The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He elevated Wallace’s faithful adaptation of King’s book and made it one of the best screen versions of the novelist’s work. It meant Muschietti and Skarsgard had tough acts to follow. Thankfully, instead of following the previous on-screen blueprint, It: Chapter One has its own sense of style and dark personality. Both film versions of It are faithful to the novel (which hasn’t always been the best approach to adapting King if you take Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as an example) and manage to capture the horror, humour, humanity and friendship that continues to make the novel one of its writer’s best stories.
A screen adaptation with a lot to live up to
And that’s part of the reason why this latest film version has pushed anticipation levels to new heights. That was proven by the commercial success of the film, becoming the highest grossing horror film in America of all time. But a troubled production and acknowledgement of Stephen King as the master behind its conception are not the only reasons why Muschietti’s film proved so popular. Indeed, you need to cast an eye to Netflix’s Stranger Things for further evidence behind It: Chapter One’s success as well as the reason why it finally completed production.
Stranger Things has enjoyed phenomenal success. The serial drama which mixes elements of fantasy, horror and comedy in a nostalgic 1980s setting owes a debt to the work of King and the screen adaptations of his work. Indeed, Stranger Things directly references novels and novellas by King with both subtle and not-so subtle nods to Carrie and Stand By Me, for example. The series also draws from a conceit that’s worked so well in fantasy cinema – teens, against seemingly insurmountable odds, coming of age. King captured a sense of childhood innocence as both reason for falling foul to an overpowering evil and defence mechanism against it. It’s a wonderful dramatic device and a key component of what makes the novel and films work so well.
Muschietti’s version begins in 1988 (another likeness to Stranger Things’ eighties setting and one of the film’s key changes between page and screen) when Bill Denbrough’s brother mysteriously disappears. The audience is privy to the seven-year-old’s demise after his play sailboat ends up in a storm drain in which a clown called Pennywise is hiding. The clown is sadistically charismatic, a charm that disarms the child, ultimately seeing him pulled inside the drain never to be seen again.
We flash forward one year to find the boy’s disappearance still unsolved and learn he’s not the only child to go missing. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), still feeling guilt for having given his brother the play boat that led to his death, begins to piece together what might have happened after his own near-fatal experiences with Pennywise. Banding together with his “Loser’s Club”, a group of pre-teen nerds, loners and outcasts, each with their own Pennywise stories, Bill leads them on the hunt to end the terror plaguing their small town.
The credentials to become iconic
Muschietti had previously proven his credentials with the fun horror Mama in 2013. Here, he underlines them. He’s playful with his star – undeniably Pennywise the Dancing Clown – while reinforcing the beating heart of the story, that being the friendship that bonds the Loser’s Club. You could argue we perhaps see too much of the Clown, and the various incarnations he takes to terrorise the children, but the character is especially effective when Skarsgard’s sadistic allure and disarming humour is allowed to shine. Therefore, it’s forgivable because the clown is as much a key player as the children. And when you have a villain as well-rounded as this, why not stick the spotlight on it.
Yet, a great villain is nothing without a sense of pervading peril. This is aided by a monster as “real” as the children themselves: Henry Bowers. He’s the school bully and like their interactions with Pennywise, each of the Loser’s Club has experienced the wrath of Bowers first hand. Actor Nicholas Hamilton does a decent mean-faced job of adding to the menace that attaches itself to these kids even if the character is far less interesting in the film. Within the story’s ensemble, Bowers misses out on some of the care and attention paid to the rest of the cast; he’s a caricature as a result.
The key members of the Loser’s Club largely don’t suffer from the same issue even if some characters get more time to enjoy the limelight. Stranger Things actor Finn Wolfhard is the standout as the bespectacled joker of the pack Richie Tozier while the mollycoddled Jack Dylan Grazer as the perennially fearful Eddie Kaspbrak is equally impressive. Both also give us the film’s best laughs; a sense of fun that proves horror can be enhanced, and perhaps made more effective, by offsetting fear with moments of laughter (John Landis led the way and set the benchmark with An American Werewolf In London).
The most interesting characters are, however, the conflicted Bill, at once trying to avenge his brother’s death while protecting his friends’ interests and their lives, and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the only girl of the group, whose life is marred by an abusive father and a vicious rumour about her promiscuity. Ben, a thoughtful admirer of history who discovers the monster seems to reappear every 27 years, forms the third part of a subtle love triangle that emerges between him, Bill and Beverly, adding another admirable element to the dramatic arc of these children.
This all conspires to dress the stage from which good battles evil. That’s the core of It. The film manages to get the components right. It’s a tangible threat that takes on an equally palpable rearguard. Muschietti concocts some wonderful jump-out-of-your-seat moments (Pennywise’s appearance on a projector while the children are viewing old photos is one) that’ll thrill seekers of rollercoaster ride horror cinema while those wanting a more suspenseful journey get plenty to cheer as well with sequences boasting carefully orchestrated tension.
The anxieties of peer pressure, school bullying and parental alienation also help to form the backdrop of the Loser’s Club’s formation. It’s another aspect that binds them and a welcome dramatic layer that resonates well against the fantastical evil of Pennywise. It also makes their plight a more immersive journey.
There’s more to this story
Of course, this doesn’t take away from the fact It: Chapter One, as the name suggests, is only part of the story. And the sense that something’s missing inevitably plagues those familiar with the book or 1990 film version. King’s novel is epic; indeed, it spans decades. For “Chapter One”, 2017’s It focuses solely on the summer of 1989 when the children first come into contact with Pennywise. The film vacates with the idea that the children’s stories are recollected by their adult selves who, having being recalled to their old hometown to do battle with Pennywise again, flashback to their horrific experiences. It’s a conceit – of old friends fulfilling a blood oath and reconnecting having lost touch – that makes the book so special. Perhaps this new film version would have benefited from incorporating that instead of making it two distinct parts (which we’ll see in 2019’s Chapter Two).
That said, the children’s tormented summer is a dark adventure unto itself. Undoubtedly, it makes for a stylishly scary screen horror story. For a novel the scale of Stephen King’s It, you have to refine the plot somehow and by concentrating on this unique, frightening coming of age tale, Muschietti gives us an emotionally evocative, entertaining thrill-ride that joyfully reminds of childhood imagination and those seemingly endless summers where memories are founded and unbreakable friendships made.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman
Starring: Finn Wolfhard, Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård
Released: 2017 / Genre: Horror
Country: USA / IMDB
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Top 10 Films reviewed It on DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film is released on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital January 15, 2018.
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