Stephen King's IT is one of the most famous horror novels of all time, but its dense mythology and character story have also made it one of the most challenging works to adapt for the screen. Mama director Andy Muschietti has stepped up to that challenge, and manages to streamline the first part of of King's novel into an effective and entertaining coming-of-age horror tale.
The film takes place in the town of Derry, where people (especially young kinds) disappear en masse, every few decades. In the late '80s the town is hit again, and the tragedy gets especially personal for Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), when his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) goes missing. Half a year later, Bill is still searching for Georgie, and that search leads him and his misfit friends in "The Losers Club" to a terrible truth: their town is being terrorized by a horrific creature that can manifest illusions of a person's worst fears, and often appears as freaky clown named Pennywise. With the enemy in sight, Bill and The Losers Club must band together and conquer their respective fears, so that they can kill "it" before it gets them first.
Andy Muschietti scored a big breakout hit with his original horror work Mama in 2013, but with this IT adaptation, he proves that he is no mere one-hit-wonder of the genre. IT has its fair share of problems from a directorial perspective (like many bad edits), but on the whole, the film is beautifully shot and appropriately cinematic (thank Oldboy and Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung), featuring some memorably terrifying and creatively surreal horror sequences. When not playing with scares, Muschietti also delivers a great Goonies-esque coming-of-story, with unflinching scenes of human-on-human violence and darkness committed against children, which are almost more disturbing than the Pennywise frights. As an adaptation, IT feels like it captures the richness, darkness, and emotional complexity of the source novel, even though it makes some substantial changes to it.
The journey is worthwhile both narratively and thematically, thanks to the script by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective), Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation), and newcomer Chase Palmer. The screenplay for IT effectively distills King's expansive novel into a streamlined story of adolescent traumas and fears, with the path to overcoming those fears leading straight into the jaws of a terrible monster. Even hardcore fans of the IT novel should be satisfied with what this film does differently or some of the story points it leaves out, as the theatrical version still captures the spirit of the book, and hits a lot of the major plot points. The dialogue and interactions between The Losers Club members is especially strong, creating an authentic adolescent feel to the characters, and providing a lighter, funny, alternative to all of the dark, disturbing, material.
The cast is, for the most part, comprised of interesting and entertaining characters, played by talented young actors. Jaeden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis are great leads as Losers Club leaders Bill and Beverly, and they both carry a lot of the heavier dramatic moments in the film. Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard nearly upstages everyone as Richie, The Losers' resident loudmouth, bringing much-needed wit and levity to the film (with Jack Dylan Grazer's germophobe character Eddie being a close second). Some characters (Mike and Stanley) get short-changed, but in an ensemble this big, there inevitably had to be some prioritizing.
Finally, the question of how the new version of Pennywise the Clown works in the film can be answered, and that answer is: very well. Actor Bill Skarsgård steps up and owns the iconic role, mixing a playful boyishness with genuinely frightening creepiness, complete with subtle ticks and mannerisms that constantly tease the monster lurking beneath the clownish facade. With Skarsgård owning the role, IT easily hurdles one of the biggest challenges it was up against, and adds another great horror movie monster to the ranks.
In the end, IT is one of the best Stephen King adaptations out there, and is a great kick-off to the fall movie season. If you've been eagerly anticipating this one, it's well worth the trip to the theater, and you'll be eager for part 2 to begin, as soon as the credits on part 1 start to roll.
IT is now in theaters everywhere. It is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, and is Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language.