Director: Andy Muschietti
Writers: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King
Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard
Genre: Horror, Drama
After years in development, a few script rewrites, changes in directors, people tying red balloons to sewer grates as a marketing campaign, and that weird, unwanted fad last Halloween where people dressed up as clowns to terrify the public, It, the theatrical version, is finally here! It has been a long 27 years (it’s a special kind of number) since the TV miniseries, a production that many hold dear in their memories… and it should stay like that because a rewatch may destroy the sentimentality!
It is one of Stephen King’s most famous works, well regarded for striking fear into readers’ hearts and ruining the clowning business for generations. This has got to be the most anticipated, hyped, and heavily marketed film this year so far (at least until the next Star Wars), so how does it stand up to the book, to the miniseries, to expectations, and others in the genre? It definitely has a heavy burden to bear!
Violence/Scary Images: This is a horror film, so naturally the story is chock-full of scary images. In case you somehow missed the memo, It features a terrifying clown with sharp teeth that terrorizes the children of a small American town. There are also zombie-like creatures, deformities, and mutilated corpses, sometimes with maggots. There is also just a generally creepy vibe.
When it comes to violence, a lot of it is amongst the humans in the story. There is a strong case of bullying involving assault, stabbing, stoning, and grievous bodily harm. One character is a psychopath and the story involves violence against animals (though it is not shown). There are a few murders. The film does show the euthanasia of farm animals. There is also blood. Lots of blood. From trickling flesh wounds to entire ‘blood-splosions’!
Language/Crude Humor: The story revolves around several prepubescent children, some of which have potty mouths. The f-bomb and the s-word are dropped multiple times by them in particular. Teasing and quips also include suggestions about the sucking of genitalia and other things of that ilk.
Sexual Content: While not actually depicted, there are strong pedophilia/incest overtones. The young girl in the film is often seen in a sexual way by other characters – sometimes it’s part of the coming of age story where there is some underage kissing, sometimes she uses her sexuality as a ploy, and other times it’s entirely inappropriate. There is a scene where the children (boys and girls) go for a swim in their underwear.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None. Although one character is raised by a hypochondriac parent and needs to unnecessarily take prescribed pills.
Spiritual Content: One character is Jewish and a small excerpt from the Torah is read in a synagogue. While this religion is depicted, it’s certainly not explored in depth or made a major theme.
Other Negative Content: There are other petty crimes depicted such as shoplifting and trespassing, though they really pale in comparison to what is shown during the rest of the film!
Positive Content: It focuses on the strong, supportive friendship between a group of children that have otherwise been marginalized by their peers. They don’t judge each other, at least not by their social status or looks. There is a driving sense of justice behind the plot, along with major themes concerning the need to face your fears.
Stephen King’s classic has been around for so long that everyone is going to be coming into the cinema with a bit of baggage. Some will be new to the property entirely, though, with so much marketing, there will no doubt be certain expectations and opinions already formed. Others will be fans of the books, while some will have grown up with the TV miniseries, with a few holding strong views about one or the other. It’s an old fanbase, and over the years many have formulated an opinion one way or another that will impact on how they will approach this latest adaptation. So I may as well, with brutal honesty, lay out where I stand on everything, to give a better idea as to where I’m coming from. Though being fairly new to this franchise, I can’t say that my opinions reflect the majority…
Unpopular opinion #1: Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise isn’t untouchable.
Before I go on, let me preface by saying this: Tim Curry delivered a masterful performance as the sadistic clown, with his involvement in the project being one of the most memorable things about the TV miniseries. However, some credit needs to go to the role itself.
As an actor, I would jump at the chance to play Pennywise, and so would a lot of my workmates. It’s a fun role, one that isn’t seen too often. It’s true what they say; playing the villain is more enjoyable because you get to explore the darker nature of humanity in a safe, innocuous environment. When it comes to Pennywise, he isn’t just evil, rather he’s creepy yet inviting, sadistic yet hilarious. There’s a reason why he is a fan favorite amongst Stephen King’s villain line-up.
For the TV miniseries, I have no doubt that many famous actors would have had a blast playing the role. While every actor brings something unique, and no one can deliver Tim Curry’s version of the character except Tim Curry, I’m certain another actor could have adorned Pennywise and presented something equally as compelling. Not the same; different, but still excellent. All because Pennywise is such a wonderfully freeing character that leaves enormous room for creative exploration.
So I never had any doubt that the relatively unknown actor, Bill Skarsgård, had the acting chops to pull off the role of Pennywise the clown. The entire idea that Pennywise can never be played by anyone else but Tim Curry is nonsense, and the argument is reminiscent of all those naysayers that doubted Ben Affleck as Batman or Heath Ledger as the Joker. Do people forget that James Bond and Doctor Who change actors like diapers?
Bill Skarsgård is brilliant in this role. He brings a certain malevolence that was absent from Tim Curry’s version, one that contains a chilling amount of sadism behind his words of enticement. Yet this Pennywise is more firmly set in the typical horror genre; Curry had more freedom to move into comedic territory. Does Bill Skarsgård deliver an iconic performance? I wouldn’t describe it like that; rather he provides what is necessary for the story and does his job well. That said, Bill Skarsgård’s version is still very much on a leash, so it’s not an entirely fair comparison just yet – we haven’t seen everything that he’s got, and I’ll explain further later on in this review.
Unpopular opinion #2: Reading the book beforehand is a bad idea.
There are two major reasons why I believe this. Firstly, if you haven’t read the book yet and plan to see this film, just don’t bother, mainly for logistical reasons. The copy I own is 1116 pages long. It’s one of Stephen King’s longest works. Until 48 hours ago, I had only read 150 of those pages. I had the next two days off work and thought I could just plow my way through. Oh, how I was wrong! I regret everything!
After dedicating a solid 16 hours of reading, with my consciousness subsisting off Mountain Dew, I still didn’t finish the book before seeing the film. I had to read the last of it after the fact. I completely underestimated just how dense King’s writing can be. Now, I wouldn’t describe myself as a regular reader (there’s a reason why I write reviews for films and not books!), so I’m definitely not as fast as some, but even so, this isn’t a book that you can speed through.
With multiple characters, several generations of history revolving around the township of Derry, and flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, when King can jump forward 27 years in a single sentence without warning, you can’t skim through it. I completely underestimated the amount of time it would take, and I was only averaging roughly 40 pages an hour. If you’re anything like me and find that 20 pages is a good amount before taking a break in order to save some body part from stiffening up, then you’ll find It to be completely demoralizing with how little you physically achieve in each session.
To read the book comfortably, you’ll need two weeks (with each of those reading sessions still requiring a decent amount of time). While I have no doubt that the movie will have more than enough staying power in theaters, with It being the most marketed and overhyped film of 2017 so far, you’ll risk having the story spoiled long before you finish the book.
The second reason as to why you shouldn’t aim to read the book directly before seeing the film is that you’ll judge the movie by what is absent, and not with what it does present. I have so many friends that love to read the novel before the adaptation – I don’t know how they do this. I found myself constantly comparing the film to the book, my brain constantly critiquing “well that didn’t happen.” It’s no wonder people usually hate the film! What’s worse is that this is a horror. Half the fun is the unexpected, and I hated the fact that I knew where it was going beforehand. The director purposely changed things up in order to keep things suspenseful for those who have read the book, but still, my brain didn’t shut up with the comparisons until the story passed the point where I had read. Then I mentally relaxed… and it was an enjoyable ride!
Of course, the biggest question is: do you need to read the book in order understand the movie? No. The film manages to stand quite well on its own. However, there are some lines and small references that will feel rather random for those that don’t know the full context. For instance, the film will focus in on a bike named Silver for no discernable reason, and there are a few bits of dialogue like “Beep beep, Richie” and Bill’s tongue twister (that’s only ever partially said) that aren’t properly established. Apart from these few minor issues, the film is certainly coherent.
However, there are some parts that weren’t adapted well. Most notably is Henry Bowers’ character. The film certainly gets across the message that he is a bully, but there is little depth behind his psychopathy, so he becomes a mindless archetype. The book obviously explains his motivations, which is sorely missed in the film. Meanwhile, Mike Hanlon’s role of providing exposition is given to Ben Hanscom instead in this movie adaptation. In some ways, it works, but it does leave Mike with little to nothing to do, apart from being the token African American. Beverly Marsh is irritating at first, presenting as an eye-rolling manic pixie dream girl stereotype, though thankfully the movie eventually gets around to fleshing her character out further. Eddie’s mother feels rather out of place, as though she came from a Roald Dahl novel instead of a Stephen King.
The film is on the lengthy side, with a running time over two hours, though it certainly doesn’t feel that way as it keeps a lovely pace. But a few extra minutes establishing Bill’s grieving process would not have hurt. At the moment, the film falls into the cliché where characters make incredibly dumb decisions, but understanding Bill’s motivations better may help smooth over the story’s faults. In general, a lot of the characters feel truncated, but there’s enough development for the film to function. Hopefully, there will be a director’s cut that will include additional scenes, elevating this film from being excellent to being exceptional.
Unpopular opinion #3: The book isn’t necessarily better than the movie.
It’s really hard to say that one is better than the other. They are simply different. The book is strong where the movie is weak, and the film is strong where the novel is weak. The TV miniseries straddles the best of both worlds, though it hasn’t aged well.
Naturally, the book outshines the movie when it comes to context and backstory. There are pages, and pages, and pages of history (and then about three pages of something scary happening at the end of a 30-page chapter). While Stephen King’s writings can be superfluous, as though he is partaking in NaNoWriMo, It is one of his more beautifully structured novels with a great deal of thought behind it. Due to time constraints, the film can’t follow the same wonderfully interwoven tale consisting of two (and sometimes three or four) timelines.
Yet… the novel isn’t that scary. The film is. The novel provides a magnificently deep tale, but it takes so long that it sucks the horror out. Sure, context is great, but how much do you really need to understand that they’re dealing with a monster (a term that is normally used to define a creature that lacks a proper definition)? It’s a monster. Behind King’s chronicles of Derry’s history, there’s a nugget of a tale that the film narrows in and perfects. It streamlines the story and removes the parts that don’t work.
Most notably, the film removes the cheese! The idea that a fear-inducing creature can be overcome by a destined group of children armed with the power of friendship is a storyline that’s reminiscent of a season finale of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This film wisely tones it all down. The story is set further into the future (which excitedly means that Pennywise may incorporate more technology in the sequel), and the scares have been changed from the now-corny monsters of yesteryear to horrors that are more unique to the characters, ones that will age better, unlike the TV miniseries. It has also removed a lot of the really random story aspects of the book, especially the sexual content (thank goodness) most likely in order to earn itself an R, not an NC-17 rating.
While some will complain that it’s not an exact replica of the novel in film form, It takes the absolute best moments, capturing the essence of the book; any more and it would make a terrible movie.
Unpopular opinion #4: The adult section in the TV mini-series was better.
Have I crossed the line? It’s practically a truth universally acknowledged that the first half of the miniseries centered around the children is infinitely better than the second. It’s most likely due to the fact an adult-like creature chasing around vulnerable children is a lot scarier than It pursuing grown men. Yet what I really appreciated about the adult storyline is that it tapped into how childhood fears can shape a person’s life, along with that desire to connect with one’s younger self.
It also contained Pennywise’s sadistically hilarious taunts.
Going back to Bill Skarsgård’s performance, he hasn’t had a chance to really show the clown’s comedic side as the movie focuses purely on the childhood storyline. While the majority of fans will be pleased about this since it’s the preferred half, they may also be disappointed that Pennywise doesn’t crack too many jokes. After all, that infamous library scene is in the adult portion of the story!
While the film is essentially only half a story, it does well to present a complete character journey. It’s to the point where I’m fearful that the sequel will fall victim to simply rehashing the same lessons that have already been learned in the previous movie. Though while this film does a great job fleshing out a few of the characters, tapping into the themes of the innocence of childhood, and establishing a few ground rules concerning the main villain, there’s still a lot of room to grow in terms of providing more context. I’m excited about the sequel, particularly to see how Pennywise will change tack.
Most of all, I’m looking forward to the story coming full circle and for it to develop more depth. At the moment the themes of this first film are on the shallow side, as though it aimed to be more of a coming of age story though it got a little side-tracked on the way. It’s a good story, though there’s not much to mull over once the credits roll.
Unpopular opinion #5: It may well be the scariest film of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best in the genre for 2017.
It is a particularly special film for me, as it marks a personal milestone, being the 100th movie I’ve seen this year. Overall It sits in the upper third in terms of quality – there have been better films this year, sure, but there have certainly been worse. Though how does It compare to others in the genre?
Sitting at the top is Get Out. With its snarky political awareness and clever use of symbolism, It with it’s shallower themes simply doesn’t compete. It’s amusing – in the book, Stephen King, through Bill’s character, does a massive rant about how one only needs to tell a good story in order to be successful, as opposed to pretentiously making everything a social commentary. In some ways it’s true – It will make more money than Get Out. But ultimately Get Out is the film that will be studied, while It, once the hype dies down, will eventually fade in its influence.
That’s not to say that It is a poor film; rather the horror genre has raised the bar in recent years and is going through a renaissance. The editing and cinematography is snappy and eerie in It, while the production design is wonderfully creepy despite the story’s push into a more modern era. Yet It Comes At Night is a master class in filmic storytelling, while I doubt anything can top The Cure of Wellness in terms of set design. It may be the most anticipated in the genre, wrapped in decade’s worth of nostalgia, but Raw and Killing Ground will have you leaving the cinema with a bone-chilling icky feeling that will last for days.
But when it comes to traditional measures of ‘scariness’, It tops the list. There are many jump scares, none of them cheap. The film is loaded with that creep factor, if it can be turned into a unit of measurement. It’s unnerving. Sometimes it plays by the rules of the haunted house subgenre, and other times it subverts the traditional tropes. When it comes to jump-in-your-seat scares, with your heart pumping that extra bit of adrenaline, then those other films mentioned don’t compete. Yet fear is subjective. To compare like with like, it’s hard to say whether It delivers more than Annabelle: Creation – that will come down to personal preference. The performances of the children in both films are phenomenal, and in the case of It, they’re at times better than the adults!
Personally, I prefer cleverness over scares. But if you’re looking for a solid, scary film, where you jump and laugh it off with your friends, then It will definitely hit the spot. It’s the quintessential scary clown movie and nothing is going to take that title away from it anytime soon. Considering the limitations of adapting such a humungous literary work, the movie does incredibly well in streamlining the most important parts and conveying the essentials, which will please most fans. It’s not perfect, but the sequel may round out some of the film’s more notable weaknesses.
+ Gives the story a much-needed update in regards to the timeline. + New scares are fresh for old fans and won't age the film in the long run. + The parts in the novel that would have given this film an NC-17 rating are omitted. + Acting. + Features the best parts of the novel. + Nice pacing despite the lengthy running time.
- Little development is given to the bullies. - Mike has lost his purpose. - No adult storyline, therefore Pennywise doesn't taunt too often. - Minimal establishment; some lines will seem random for those completely new to the story.
The Bottom Line
It strips the colossal novel back to its bare bones, presenting an updated, streamlined story that features the best parts of the childhood half of the narrative. While there will always be room for more context, the film delivers just enough, giving audiences both a terrifying version of Pennywise and a heart-warming group of kids. Some characters are more developed than others – I’m hoping a director’s cut will sort that out. If you’re looking for a scary clown movie, then this is IT!