It (2017)

I remember driving my parents crazy when the novel It was released back in 1986.  I was 14, already a fan of Stephen King, and his new book present a challenge at 1138 pages.  It was a challenge I and others took up, namely seeing how long it would take to read it.  I managed two and a half weeks, if I recall, often staying up until one in the morning.  My mom and dad had had enough by the time I finished it.

I was the right age to connect with most of the characters and getting to be mature enough to understand some of the underlying themes.  Yes, even back in the 1980s a few of the scenes people are discussing now (which are not in the new movie) made me a bit disturbed, but I'll defend them right along Mr. King himself.  I just understood if a movie version ever got made (which I fully expected, since almost anything Stephen King wrote turned up on the big screen at some point) I knew those parts would be glossed over, despite them actually having importance to the story.

What I didn't expect is that the novel, like The Stand, would end up getting adapted for television instead.  I wasn't too upset, since Tim Curry was playing Pennywise and due to the length of the novel.  By the late 1980s and early '90s what could be shown on television, especially when it came to violence, was becoming a bit more lax.  Still, between budget and tight content controls, the story was heavily neutered.  Curry was great, from what I remember the kids were, too, but it was ultimately not the best that could be done with the material.

After 27 years we finally get a proper theatrical adaptation, and thankfully not edited down to PG-13 standards.  Though different in many ways, Andrés Muschietti has made a satisfying version of about half the book (the other half to be released in 2019, I believe) that stays as true to the source material as possible.

On a rainy day in 1988, which will ultimately lead to a major damaging flood in the town of Derry, Maine, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes a paper boat for his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to sail down the flowing gutter.  The boat gets away from him, falling into a drainage opening and into the sewer.  Georgie, afraid that Bill may be mad, tries to retrieve the boat, and his met by a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who claims that his circus blew away and ended up in the sewer.  He offers Georgie back his boat, but instead murders him.

In June 1989, Bill still believes his brother is missing and possibly alive, seeing as other children have recently gone missing as well.  As school ends he plans searching an area called the Barrens, where Derry's sewers empty out, for signs of Georgie.  His group of friends, who call themselves the Losers Club, consists of hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the abrasive Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff), the son of Derry's rabbi.  All four are outcasts, Bill due to his stutter and the others due to being different, and the target of a gang of bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague).

Also on the bullies' radar is new kid in town Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who is home schooled and works on a sheep farm with his grandfather.  Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) has her own set of girl bullies who treat her as an outsider because of rumors about her sleeping around.

While exploring the Barrens the boys come across a shoe belonging to the missing girl Betty Ripsom (Katie Lunman), and also run into Ben as he is escaping Bowers, who was amusing himself by carving his name in Ben's stomach.  Hockstetter enters another sewer opening in search of Hanscom, and becomes one of the missing children himself, while the Losers Club takes Ben back to town to patch him up.  While in the drug store they realize they do not have enough money to pay for everything.  Beverly helps them by distracting the druggist, and joins them in the back alley.

Meeting at the quarry for a swim, it comes to light that Ben has been doing some research into Derry's history.  The town has a rate of death and missing persons that eclipses that of most major cities, largely when it involves children.  The final member joins the club when they rescue Mike from Bowers and his remaining gang in an epic rock fight.

Now that the group is complete, they start realizing what is going on in Derry.  Each has had an encounter with something that they heavily fear, and almost all of them have scene the creature materialize at some point as Pennywise.  Following clues from Hanscom's research, they eventually trace his lair to the original town well, located in the basement of a run-down house that Eddie has to pass on his way home.  Their first venture in almost results in their demise as Pennywise is able to divide and conquer, but they escape due to Beverly and Stan's sudden intervention.   However, the Club comes to the point of dissolving when Eddie's mother (Molly Atkinson) blames them for Eddie breaking his arm while in the house and forbids him from associating.  A resulting fist fight between Bill and Richie seems to seal the deal.

This all changes when Beverly suddenly goes missing.  The boys regroup in an effort to rescue her and destroy It.  Unfortunately, Pennywise has begun to manipulate Bowers, and he is hot on their trail.  Also, the creature they are after is quite a bit more than an evil clown.

There has been a number of comparisons to Stand by Me and the new version of It.  That shouldn't be surprising, as Stephen King had been working on It since the late 1970s, and The Body, the novella which Stand by Me was based on, was largely similar to the portions of the original novel that take place in the 1950s.  The group of boys is similar, as are the violent bullies.  However, like the movie that was made from it, there were no supernatural elements.

Still, where The Body was largely a boys' tale, Beverly Marsh is important as the glue that holds the Losers Club together both in the book and in the movie.  It was nice that Bill Denbrough's stutter was added back in, and Jaeden Lieberher plays the lead nicely, but Sophie Lillis (looking quite like Molly Ringwald, so I'm glad that point was pointed out by Richie) is truly the most memorable here.  Beverly is perhaps the most important character, not as a damsel in distress or love interest, but as the one person who is most adult-like in the group.  Without her as an anchor to the group there would be no way of overcoming It.

Finn Wolfhard is getting some good notice as Richie Tozier, but he has already been noticed for his part in Stranger Things, which owes quite a debt of gratitude to King's work.  He's a natural choice, but I'm glad that the producers didn't do the safe thing at this point and try to get more of the cast members of that show.  While Chosen Jacobs does a great job as well, most of the role that Mike plays in the book has been transferred over to Ben Hanscom, and he isn't given as much to do despite some early set-up for his character.  Though overweight, happily Muschietti didn't treat Ben like Chunk from the Goonies.  Jeremy Ray Taylor does an understated job of being the one who truly has the crush on Beverly, but understanding how he is going to have to play second banana to Bill.

Jack Dylan Glazer plays Eddie largely as I saw him in the book, with a lot of hidden strength - especially when he finally confronts his mother.  Stan, by comparison, is the most timid and least able to deal with the situation, and is largely in the background.

On the bully side Nicholas Hamilton is often more frightening than Pennywise.  He is a real threat the boys have had to deal with, and Hamilton plays him as both a psychotic and a coward.  The true psycho in the group from the book, however, was Patrick Hockstetter, and here he is not developed in any way other than a disposable sidekick, which is disappointing as Owen Teague actually looked and reminded me of one of the bullies I had back in grade school.

I did not mind that this was updated to the 1980s instead of the 1950s, since the second part where the adults return to Derry is meant to take place in modern times (which, in the book, was 1985).  I'm sure there are some anachronisms (I lived through the '80s, and I jumble things up myself sometimes), but they happily don't go overboard with the references or try to be too cute with it.  The hairstyles, cars and behavior was pretty darn close to what I remember, which was nice since most films set in this time period dwell on aspects that largely existed only in music videos or trends that lasted a few months at the most.

So, what about Pennywise himself?  Bill Skarsgård wisely decided early on that he was not going to try to imitate Tim Curry's performance.  I would say that he is best when left to his own acting ability here, particularly when we first encounter him with Georgie or when he is tempting Bill's friends to abandon him.  While I am like a number of people who do not find clowns a bit funny (I happen to think each one is a potential John Wayne Gacey), it is not the makeup that creeps me out in this situation, but the performance that sells it.  Unfortunately, some of my criticisms of Andrés Muschietti's previous film, Mama, apply here as well.

Skarsgård underplays Pennywise in many ways, which in many ways is more like he was in the book.  Muschietti mucks this up with heavy use of CGI.  Sure, there will be aspects of It that this will benefit in the second movie, but here we are supposed to have a creature that feeds on children's fears, and those fears are often more grounded in reality rather than rubbery, cartoonish effects.  It is occasionally effective, but often unnecessary.  The only parts where the CGI really works to good effect are when Pennywise's size often becomes undefinable and disorienting, or when he does his dance toward the end.  On top of that, the movie relies on jump scares and loud music cues to remind us to be scared, when there is enough going on in the story itself to not let us forget.

Still, despite Muschietti not learning his lesson (hopefully he will for the second chapter of the movie), It is still a great throwback to movies of the 1980s, while successfully interpreting King's story for a current audience.

It (2017)
Time: 135 minutes
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Bill Skarsgård, Finn Wolfhard, Nicholas Hamilton
Director: Andrés Muschietti


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