WARNING: Spoilers may follow; minor, if you're already familiar with the story, major if you're totally new to It
As a lifelong fan of horror in general and Stephen King in particular, I have both read the book and seen the original made-for-TV movie miniseries. While not my favorite celluloid adaptation of a Stephen King novel (probably a tie between Salem’s Lot and Misery), it is very near the top. Tame even for a TV movie by today’s standards, at the time it was pretty impactful. Yes, it toned down the violence in King’s novel, but I’ve never believed that the gore factor was the strongest selling point for this story.
I haven’t loved everything he’s written, but I have long argued that King is a much better writer than he’s given credit for, largely because of his chosen genre. Few authors can really put you in the moment and make you see, hear, smell, and feel the story. He’s a very sensual writer, and when he’s cooking, he can scare the crap out of you.
But, for me, where he really excels is in capturing the feeling of being a child/adolescent. In both It and The Body (the novella that became the movie Stand By Me), the kids are the heart and soul of the storyline and both always hit me right in the gut with a mix of nostalgia and melancholy. This is largely due to the fact King never portrays his younger characters in a condescending or patronizing way. He shows great respect for these characters, and is always brutally honest. And they’re often the smartest people in the room. King clearly believes that children see, hear, and understand things that are beyond most adults. He may be right about that.
So the success of this movie, for me at least, hinged on the kids and whether this adaptation showed the same respect for them that King did in his novel, as well as whether the young actors were up to the task. (NOTE: In case you aren’t aware, the novel was split into two parts for the movie remake and this movie, Chapter 1, deals exclusively with the backstory of when the main characters first encountered the evil clown as adolescents.) I’m happy to say the remake hit it out of the park in that regard. All of the young actors are stellar. Better than in the original version, and they were all pretty good in that one too (it was the older actors that were a bit stiff in the TV version).
Jaeden Lieberher plays the main protagonist, Bill Denbrough, whose little brother, Georgie, disappears (i.e., is taken by Pennywise) during a rainstorm, thereby kicking off the story. Although It is truly an ensemble piece, Bill is the emotional center, and Lieberher more than proves himself up to the task. Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, the lone girl in the group, sparkles with the depth and gravitas of an actress twice her age. And Jeremy Ray Taylor, as the overweight new kid in town, Ben Hanscom, is simply brilliant. Sweet, funny, shy, and very smart, Taylor says more with his quiet looks and facial expressions than most actors do with pages of dialogue.
The movie really shines in the scenes where it’s establishing the child characters and building their relationships with each other. The one area where It fell short in that regard was with the character of Mike Hanlon. Although Chosen Jacobs acquits himself admirably in the role, I feel like his character was given short shrift in the movie. He’s only really seen in a couple of scenes early on, both of which happen outside the milieu of the rest of the group. And by the time he’s taken in as part of the group, the momentum is already full-tilt toward the confrontation with Pennywise and there’s not really much time to show him bonding with them. It had a rather tacked-on feeling, instead of the fully developed, pivotal character from the book.
For the most part, updating the storyline to the late 1980s worked and lent itself to some fun music choices for the soundtrack. There are several other changes from the novel, from locations/settings to details about the main characters. Although they are noticeable to anyone familiar with both the source material and the original movie, they don’t really hamper the story here. One general change, however, that didn’t work for me was in the final showdown with Pennywise. In the book, the love between the main characters proved to be the source of their power against the evil ravaging their town. In addition, each character had a personal object/tool that served as a personal talisman and weapon against the clown. In other words, they all had magical objects they could use against Pennywise.
In the remake, those talismen/weapons are either eliminated completely or not fully fleshed out. And in one case, with the character of Mike Hanlon, a new weapon is introduced that felt like it was chosen primarily for shock value, not because it was something of personal value to the character. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve read the book or seen the original movie, but I’m pretty sure the backstory of Mike Hanlon was changed considerably for the remake. And as far as I can tell, it was changed only so they could arm him with a particular weapon (an homage to No Country for Old Men, perhaps?) and employ it in both a nasty scene at the beginning of the movie and in the climactic confrontation with Pennywise.
I also didn’t love the beginning of the movie. The first several minutes of the film establish the relationship between main character Bill Denbrough and his little brother Georgie, as well as introduce us to Pennywise. I found it rather heavy-handed. The tidbit with their mom playing a creepy song on the piano bordered on silly. And I really didn’t care for the graphic nature of the scene where Pennywise attacks little Georgie. I didn’t think it was strictly necessary and it was a bit of a gamble. Even the most hardened horror fanatics generally draw the line at showing graphic violence against children. It did start the film off with a bang, and it wasn’t overly gratuitous, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. And followed closely by a disturbing scene depicting violence against an animal, I was worried I wasn’t going to like the movie.
Luckily, the film found more solid footing after that point. As previously mentioned, the scenes with the kids are (mostly) outstanding and there are many genuinely creepy moments. Given the density of the source material, it’s not surprising that the movie clocks in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, even if it’s only dealing with roughly half the book. I wish I could say I didn’t notice the length, but I did find myself checking my watch a few times toward the end. But all in all, it moved along at a good pace.
And now, for the million-dollar question: How is the new Pennywise? As someone who adores Tim Curry, his portrayal of Pennywise is nothing short of iconic. Although some found his rendering hammy and over-the-top, his irreverent and slightly campy take on Pennywise worked for me. And when he needed to bring the scares, he brought them and then some.
Pretty quickly into this movie, I realized that trying to compare Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise to Curry’s wouldn’t really be fair. The time period and the budget allowed the creators of the new It to do things that simply weren’t possible in the original. In this version, Pennywise is really a group effort between the actor and the special effects team. Both are stellar. For the most part, the CG effects are employed judiciously and seamlessly. And Skarsgård absolutely owns the role.
In the original, Pennywise showed a bit more humor and even playfulness. Twisted playfulness, to be sure, but there was still an element of the clown. Not so here, as Pennywise is played much more straightforward. And Skarsgård is creepy AF, portraying barely contained menace even when trying to seduce a young boy through a storm grate. And that might be my only real gripe with the new Pennywise: he’s too creepy/scary from the get-go. In the original, Pennywise’s costume and makeup design was mundane and innocuous enough that you could believe that children might trust him. Until the teeth came out, of course.
But in the remake, it’s harder to see how any child would not be frightened of him, even if he’s not doing anything particularly scary. Modern horror audiences seem to like to see evil characters who look evil, but I think it’s often much more interesting when something ordinary and seemingly harmless tries to kill you. (Example: the Annabelle doll as portrayed in The Conjuring and both Annabelle movies. Seriously, who in their right mind would buy a doll that looks that fucking creepy, much less give it as a “gift”? The “real” Annabelle was a Raggedy Ann doll. Much more scary, if you ask me.)
In summary, I ended up liking the It remake a lot more than I thought I would. Aside from a few storyline hiccups and creative direction head-scratchers, it’s a solid movie I’d easily watch again. The acting was top-notch, the effects were well done and rarely detracted from the storyline, and it was beautifully shot. Most importantly, it respected both the source material and its audience, and for that, I am grateful.