How many films can you think of that entail a coming-of-age story, a mystery, thriller components, tragedy, some budding romance, studies of friendship in bloom and in turmoil, big dollops of humor, and, oh yeah, ferocious, blood-curdling horror? This adaptation of Stephen King’s immense novel “It” has ’em all.
But there’s also something it doesn’t have, which might make a difference only to those who have read the book and/or have seen the 1990 TV mini-series: It doesn’t have the adults that were so prominent in those versions of King’s tale. They began with a group of 40-year-olds dealing with and thinking back to a dilemma they had faced as kids, and the book and mini-series flipped into flashback mode with a young cast playing the same characters 27 years earlier. This new “It” only deals with the kids. The entire film is a flashback. But anyone coming to the film with fresh eyes won’t know that until an end credit adds something to the title: “Chapter One.”
Yet this comes off as one of the best screen renderings of a King book to date. It all begins with two brothers, Bill and Georgie (Jaeden Lieberher and Jackson Robert Scott) happily hanging out in their room on a rainy October day in suburban Maine. Bill makes Georgie a paper boat, Georgie takes it outside and sails it in a gutter, and watches it go down a sewer, into which Georgie peers, then gasps when he sees the glowing eyes and wickedly smiling mouth of Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård). What happens next won’t be revealed here, but it’s brutal, and you know right away that little Georgie isn’t long for this film.
Suddenly it’s next June, the last day of school, where Bill, seemingly adjusted to whatever happened to his brother is, along with his gaggle of dorky pals, under constant threat by the older Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) and his toady gang of bullies. A young girl at school, Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is having a similar problem with girl bullies.
These victimized kids are drawn together, partly because they self-deprecatingly think of themselves as a “losers club” and partly because even though they’re all similar, they’re also very different, each one of them dealing with their own personal quirk or personality disorder (one of the them has a fear of clowns!).
They’re also smart, and have come to get along quite well in life without much adult supervision (the adults are mostly relegated to the backgrounds of the film). When one kid named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), whose “disorder” is that he loves history,” looks into past disappearances in the town, the little group realizes there’s something really wrong around here, and they become just a little closer.
Yes, something is wrong, and it should do with Pennywise (played terrifically by Tim Curry in the mini-series, but made even more unhinged and gleefully terrifying by Skarsgård), an entity of some sort that comes around every 27 years to prey on children. (Note: The film is being released 27 years after the mini-series aired. Coincidence? All part of the plan?)
This strange genre mashup gets around to fun and funny and energetic scenes of the kids at innocent play, without a worry in the world, just thrilled to be 13-year-olds. But it’s always ready to introduce feelings of unrelenting dread and even shameless, in-your-face shockeroos. There are lots of creepy sounds – some are loud, some are soft, some are musical (cue the bending violin strings).
Unlike the network TV version all those years ago, when rules about language and violence had to be adhered to, those rules don’t exist here. The kids all casually and believably curse, and a few of the violent scenes go way beyond what any TV programmer would ever have dreamed of back then.
Uneasy fear, abject terror, and good old-fashioned bravery lead the kids to understand that when they’re apart, they’re in danger, but when they’re together, maybe they can fight off this evil, shape-shifting, sharp-toothed thing called Pennywise.
Though it’s only half of the book, the film boasts a totally satisfying ending that includes a strong hint of much more to be told. Warner Bros. has no doubt got a hit on their hands, so odds are good that more will be told. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another 27 years to see it.
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman; directed by Andy Muschietti
With Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer