In conjunction with its horror element, the novel which IT (2017) is adapted from is something of a phenomenal experience.
On the surface, this might come across as a daft claim. I mean how impressionable can a novel about an interdimensional shape-shifting killer clown really be? Except in classic Stephen King fashion, IT the novel thrusts its reader into an experience far richer than anything initially expected. Amongst all the visceral gore and surreal scares within its 1138 page-count lies a world and assortment of characters packed with depth and emotional complexity. IT isn’t simply a tale concerning a creature from another world devouring fear-filled children; it’s a coming of age story surrounding a gang of outcasts who discover fellowship and identity through one another. It’s a journey into a world so crafted and emotive, it’s as if we readers have been with these characters for our entire lives.
In addition to his talent at crafting horror, King is also a master at world building. He can sketch out entire universes, decorate it with life and flourish it with characters we’ll never forget. IT is no exception to this rule. The primary narrative jumps between two time zones, 1957-58 and 1984-85, yet it’s the former of these two periods where the heart of this story truly lies. The world of Derry is a fictional setting King uses in many of his novels, however the specific space he crafts out here for Bill, Ben, Bev, Richie, Eddie, Mike and Stan is one readers will never forget. King captures the essence and spirit of a small town seen through the eyes of kids on the cusp of puberty. The secret dens, cherished spots, close-knit relationships, terrifying bullies and off-limit areas found in the lives and worlds of many teens is depicted here with perfect precision. As for the seven protagonists, their personas and individuality shine bright in every page. We know them, their world and the feelings they experience all too well. Readers may have not spent their earlier years trying to outrun the jaws of an extra-terrestrial killer clown, yet this is a universe that feels all too familiar. It’s a coming of age story about a gang of youngsters dealing with growing up in a North-eastern American town. Beyond the high-concept horror/sci-fi aspect is an experience many have endured themselves. This is King’s true talent; placing his readers in a realm so detailed it’s as if they’ve always been there.
In the novel, the character of Pennywise is more a personified nightmare than that of a traditional clown. It’s a life form which physically manifests as the deepest, darkest phobias held by young people . There’s even a sequence in which Bill ponders “what if this monster is eating kids because that’s what we’re told monsters do”.
The TV movie shied away slightly from the more shape-shifting, nightmare-emulating beast depicted in the novel. Instead, actor Tim Curry and director Tommy Lee Wallace chose to the present Pennywise via the standard “killer clown” trope commonly featured within 20th century clown-oriented horror stories. He was camp, aggressive and more a children’s-entertainer-turned-psychopath than he was a nightmare demon from beyond reality. The 1990s adaptation also attempted to make King’s original more accessible to a larger audience. This might be more down to the fact that it was picked up and produced by broadcasting company ABC. Seeing as a huge national network we’re adapting the story meant the producers would quite naturally try to branch out to as wide an audience as possible. Featuring a story in which a six year old’s arm is torn from his body; a bully starves pets to death by locking them in fridges (not to mention his habit of sexually assaulting fellow tormentor Henry); and the Losers club saving the world by participating in an underage orgie isn’t exactly the sort of content you can slap on the screen without scaring off at least 90% of a mainstream audience. As for the larger gore and horror making up King’s original did make it to the smaller screen in some form, it was toned down considerably.
Director Andrés Muschietti’s 2017 remake has opted to try and at least steer his adaptation a little closer to that of the original. It may well not contain the pet starving or kid orgie found in the original (for good reason), yet Muschietti’s reboot is a lot less restrained than the Curry/Wallace TV movie. This version is a bloody, aggressive and outright grisley edition of Pennywise. Whether this is down to audiences being less alienated by gore or because it’s not made for a mainstream network doesn’t deter from the fact that it’s a much more faithful adaptation of its source materials
Nevertheless, whether or not it’s as violent as the original novel isn’t merely a surefire way to help make a cinematic adaptation flourish. You can be as unrestrained as the studios will let you be, yet if the story doesn’t work and the characters don’t make an impression, then chances are the entire project will fall apart immediately.
So what is the final verdict? How does Muschietti’s 2017 retelling of IT stack up? Well, in short, it manages to get some things right, but does fall short in other areas. When it comes to the characters and emotional depth, IT (2017) hits the nail bang on the head. Sadly, in regards to the fear-factor, Muschietti tries far too hard to make an impression; resulting in a burnt out product.
Let’s begin with the positives. For one, the characters are well realised. Muschietti has successfully captured the essence of being a teenager down to a T. Plus the actors at the centre of all this are fabulous. They’re quirky, sharp and all have a distinctive personality setting them apart from one another. It’s hard not to be impressed how good all seven leads are, especially considering how difficult it can be to bag decent child actors. That’s not to say they don’t exist, it’s just they’re usually hard to find. Each one comes across as a genuine group of teens banding together during difficult times; fighting bullies, defending one another, and fighting grisly inter-dimensional beasts. Their friendship feels organic and believable right from the get go. Even Mike and Beverly – who are introduced later on than the rest – slip naturally into the Losers club without feeling out of place. Their late arrivals to ran the risk of having them coming across as forced additions to the line-up. Fortunately director Andres Muschietti has little trouble belatedly introducing them. Admittedly it would have been nicer to see their friendships fleshed out further – not to mention a closer exploration regarding the struggles of growing up in a world where a creature from beyond our dimension strives to devour them – yet seeing as films have a smaller time frame to tell their stories in than novels do, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Another great aspect to this film is the way in which the character of IT is depicted. Muschietti the concept of this beast in a far more chilling and effective manner than the 1990 TV movie. Instead of portraying him as a stereotypical 20th century killer-clown, It’s instead presented as a shape-shifter who primarily manifests as phobias and nightmares defending from children’s imaginations. Many of the sequences with Pennywise present show him more as a disembodied beast clinging to forms resembling the terrors of its victims (the clown being its anchored phobia). This is very much an element that reigns true to the novel, and it’s executed to great effect here. This isn’ta clown, it’s a monster who happens to frequently don the form of one. Behind that front lies a forever morphing demon.
The use of computer generated imagery and top notch prosthetics help out in this respect also. CGI offers the creators a chance to realise a version of Pennywise that’s never before been seen on the big screen. Stretchable limbs, the ability to shift in shape/size and a mouth which can spawn an army of razor sharp teeth in the blink of an eye. Furthermore the grotesque costumes amplify the otherness is this creature in was we’ve never seen before (the “homeless” form being the most striking example of this). A lack of CGI and striking make up work is no fault of the original TV movie of course. Financial restrictions and the period it was made within restricted ABC from such freedom. Still, it’s great to see King’s story finally realised in such a grisly-yet-superb fashion.
Unfortunately, where IT (2017) does let itself down is when it comes to the way in which it executes it most important aspect; the horror. In short, it’s far too boisterous for its own good. Now it’s obvious the content of this film is surreal and larger than life by its very nature, yet that doesn’t mean turning each scene into a bombastic firework display is the right way to go about providing scares. Instead of subtly building tension, toying with the psychological peculiarity of what’s playing out, or making use of the thematic undertones regarding fear (more on that last one shortly), IT decides to go all out fruity whenever it intends to frighten. It’s all dutch-angles, push-pull zoom effects, jump scares, melodramatic music, creepy clown music, flickering lights, hasty camera movements and boisterous jump scares. At times it becomes so noisy and optically chaotic, it’s as if Muschietti is shooting an action blockbuster, not a horror. Perhaps that was his intention, however this sort of execution gives the impression he’s trying far too strenuously to impress his audience. If only they’d toned down the shock-factor, over-dramatic audio and visual Mayhem, it would have made for a much more terrifying movie. The source material in which these horror scenes stem from are freaky enough in an of themselves. There’s no need for it to go this over the top to creep out its audience.
Having said this, there are two moments in which the boisterous approach to its horror does work. The opening sequence – when Georgie encounters Pennywise hiding within a storm drain – is one of these examples. Initially the scene begins quietly, builds tension for several minutes before exploding into a grizzly and frankly horrific climax. The sequence’s vicious conclusion is built up and well earned. The innocence and tense calm of its buildup also means the sudden shift to visceral carnage is genuinely frightening.
Another example of the rambunctious execution working would be when Bev is attack in her bathroom. The turmoil and disgust which makes up every aspect of this moment means there’s no other way you can really depict this scene. For it to work, the sequence has to be loud, it has to bellow at its audiences and it has to embrace hyper-violence.
Despite these two moments, however, as a whole IT Chapter One is hammed up to the nines. When it wishes to be sentimental it’s all pianos and sunny shots; when it tries to be creepy, it loses itself in close ups and Bev’s Dad drooling onto the camera; when it wishes to frighten us we’re flooded with jump-scares and hasty camera movement.
In fairness, the sentimental side to this overcompensating approach works well in some respects. As all of us who’ve lived through them know, being a teenager is an emotional period of our lives. It’s as if the world entire world is viewed through a cinematic lens. Presenting the film from a glamorised and picturesque – particularly when the Losers club are enjoying one another’s company – is fitting. You could argue the same could be said for the moments in which Pennywise attacks the Losers, yet this doesn’t deter from fact the hammed-up horror burns out the scares to the point of being comical and frustrating.
Beyond the scares and sentimentality, IT Chapter One has a habit of trying to make its audience laugh. Sadly, the humour doesn’t really work a majority of the time. It’s not that the cast’s delivery is a problem. Finn Wolfhard – who’s arguably the individual central to the film’s comical moments – is a perfectly charming and humorous performer. The main problem, it seems, is it tries to insert funny moments right in the midst of the horror. Neither the actors, writers, editor or director manage to pull such an aggressive tonal shift off. For the most part, it feels forced and out of place.
To sum up, IT Chapter One is an extensively glamorised movie which at times tries too hard to evoke specific emotions throughout. When it attempts to scare, it practically screams at its viewers; when striving to creep out, it drools down their necks; and when aiming to be sentimental, it’ll do all it can to tug every heartstring on offer. Whereas the emotional moments surrounding the Losers club shine bright, the same cannot be said for the excessively boisterous horror.
Certainly not a terrible movie, but a more subtle approach would’ve helped this one a great deal.