My biggest issue with the 1990 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It was its jettisoning of the weird, Lovecraftian depths King’s novel plumbed. For those of us familiar with the Macroverse, there has always been more to It than just Pennywise the Dancing Clown. It 2017 largely falls prey to the same problem. There is the barest hint of It’s true nature, but the main focus is kids on a spooky adventure. It’s quite an adventure, though. Andy Muschietti’s film is a slick, confident thrill ride, occasionally scary, sometimes harrowing, often funny.
The script, by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, shifts the action from the ’50s of King’s novel to the late ’80s. It’s the summer of Batman and New Kids on the Block. Seven teenagers are drawn together by ghastly goings on in Derry, Maine: stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), motormouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Jewish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), sickly Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), fat Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), black Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and girl Beverley (Sophia Lillis). Kids have been going missing (beginning with Bill’s younger brother Georgie), and the self-dubbed Losers come to believe that the malevolent clown Pennywise is behind the disappearances.
The young leads are, hands down, the best thing about It. Helped along by a script full of snappy dialogue, they embody a shared perception of formative years that is both familiar and heightened. Some of it is grounded in King’s own ideas of childhood, some of it in the peculiarities of the 1980s; but the swearing, the wisecracks about mothers and sisters, the nascent understanding of sex, it all rings true, and these young actors sell the hell out of it.
Rounding out the main cast is Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. For most people, I expect, Tim Curry’s 1990 performance is the definitive creepy clown. But, while Curry was theatrically menacing, Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a far darker, more chilling creature. His buckteeth and Loony Tunes lilt belie the terrifying predator lurking underneath the greasepaint. Skarsgård’s remarkably sinister performance is assisted by impressive makeup effects, which give Pennywise those teeth and a bulbous, disquietingly childlike head. The visual effects pull their weight as well, making Pennywise a disturbingly malleable villain, distending his jaw, extending his limbs, growing to fill to a whole garage.
The Losers discover that Pennywise is, in fact, a being they refer to as It, a shapeshifter which assumes the forms of its victims’ deepest fears. And so It is populated, not just with a creepy clown, but a host of fears made manifest. Again, the effects are marvelous, producing the likes of a jerkily shambling headless corpse, a horribly disfigured leper, and a genuinely terrifying Munchian painting come to life.
Despite the cornucopia of horrors, It keeps returning to Pennywise, and therein lies the rub. Familiarity breeds contempt, and in horror, familiarity breeds complacency. Skarsgård is fantastic, but Pennywise appears too often, to the point where he begins to lose his ability to scare and becomes another stock villain. The young leads’ engaging performances go some way towards maintaining the terror level, but ultimately, it isn’t enough.
What this adaptation needs is an invigorating injection of the novel’s Lovecraftian cosmic horror. There are brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them allusions (orange lights, a LEGO turtle), but for the most part It 2017 is content to join the likes of Paranorman and Stranger Things as another ghoulish kids’ adventure. I get the feeling that the filmmakers are leaving the truly bizarre elements of King’s book to the second in this proposed duology. That makes a kind of sense: have the kids deal with the relatively prosaic threat of the clown, and their adult selves deal with Maturin, the Ritual of Chüd, and the Deadlights. What this means, though, is that this first part remains overly familiar. Just a supernatural Super 8 or a petrifying Paranorman.
(Perhaps, as well, the filmmakers don’t want to explore King’s peculiar cosmology in fear of coming into conflict with the burgeoning Dark Tower franchise.)
Imagine for a moment that this isn’t an adaptation of King’s sprawling novel, that the book never existed and that this is a wholly original work, and It becomes a terrific horror adventure. It’s a ghastly, ghoulish Goonies, led by brilliant young performers and equally brilliant effects. But it could have been so much more. Maybe Chapter Two will have all the cosmic horror I could ever want, and I’ll eat my words. For now, though, It, while undoubtedly a great film, isn’t the adaptation I wanted.