IT (2017), the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King novel, does what King stories do best: it creates believable characters, puts them in harm’s way, and then makes you squirm as they fight for their lives.
IT takes place in the late 1980s in the town of Derry, Maine. A young boy named Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is outside playing in the rain when he encounters what appears to be a clown in the sewer. The clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) speaks to him, and since Georgie is only a child, he doesn’t find it overly strange that there’s a clown talking to him from a sewer, which is too bad, because Pennywise attacks and kills the young child.
The story jumps ahead one year, to 1989, and follows Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his group of “loser” friends as they deal with bullies and parents who are either useless or harmful. It is not a good town in which to be a kid.
There’s Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a young hypochondriac who can’t stop talking about germs and illnesses, Richie (Finn Wolfhard), who can’t stop talking, period, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the new kid in the neighborhood, overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor).
And then there’s Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the one girl in the group, who they all secretly have a crush on.
All of these kids are severely bullied. The main bully in town is Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) and he and his friends pretty much terrorize Bill and his friends on a regular basis.
The adults in their lives aren’t any better. The worst is Beverly’s father, who sexually abuses her.
It’s these constant threats which draw these kids together. Bill is obsessed with finding out what happened to his younger brother, and as he and his friends investigate, they learn that the town of Derry has a history of people disappearing, especially children. Soon afterwards, they start having strange visions and dreams of the evil clown Pennywise, and they realize that the threat in their town, the thing that is preying on children, is in fact Pennywise. And since the adults in town are useless, they decide that it is up to them to seek out and destroy this evil.
IT is a very good movie that actually works better as a drama about a group of friends dealing with the threats in their lives than as a straight horror movie because it’s not really that scary.
Directed by Andy Muschietti, who also directed MAMA (2013), a horror movie from a few years back that I liked a lot, IT does have a decent number of horror scenes which work well, but its scariest scene might be its first scene, where young Georgie first encounters Pennywise in the sewer. This is a frightening sequence, a great way to start the film, and while Pennywise does have some decent moments later, none are quite as potent as this first one.
Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Stephen King. Of the three, Dauberman has the most extensive credits. He wrote ANNABELLE (2014) and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), the second film being much better than the first.
The dialogue here in IT is excellent, as are the characters.
This is the second time IT has been filmed. It was a four-hour mini-series in 1990 starring Richard Thomas, John Ritter, Harry Anderson, and Annette O’Toole. It was well received at the time, but it is somewhat dated today. It’s most memorable for Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise.
Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise here in the 2017 version was good enough to make me forget about Tim Curry while I watched this movie. Taken as a whole, I thought this new version was better than the 1990 TV rendition.
The driving force behind this 2017 movie is Bill and his friends, both the way they are written and the way they are acted.
The child actors are all excellent, and they’re in the part of the story that for me, works best in this film adaptation of IT. These kids are bullied and abused, and what happens to them in their everyday lives is every bit as disturbing as what happens to them when they encounter Pennywise. As a creature that preys on children, Pennywise is symbolic of the everyday evils these kids face in the real world.
When these kids bond and their friendships grow stronger, that’s the part of the film that works best, the relationships between this group of kids. And these child actors are more than up to the task of making it all work, and work well.
Jaeden Lieberher is excellent as Bill. A few years back, Lieberher stood out in ST. VINCENT, a comedy with Bill Murray that I liked a lot. Lieberher is just as good here. He plays Bill as a sensitive boy who in the quest to learn what happened to his little brother becomes resilient and strong-willed, the perfect leader of this group.
Sophia Lillis is also excellent as Beverly. Like Lieberher, she makes her character sensitive yet strong. These kids have been beaten back in life at a young age by those around them, and yet they somehow find the strength through each other to seek out and take on the evil Pennywise. Like the rest of the young actors in this one, Lillis is also incredibly believable in this role.
I also enjoyed Jeremy Ray Taylor as the newest kid in town, Ben Hanscom. Finn Wolfhard makes a funny wisecracking Richie Tozier, even if he did look like he just rode his bike off the set of STRANGER THINGS. I also really liked Jack Dylan Grazer as the young hypochondriac who can’t stop talking about germs and illnesses. And I thought Nicholas Hamilton made Henry Bowers a very disturbing psychotic bully.
I absolutely loved Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise, but his best scene is his first one. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if Pennywise disappears from the movie, because he’s in a decent number of scenes, but he doesn’t do enough in these scenes to give them the full impact they should have had.
Another thing I didn’t really like about this movie is I thought that it trivialized some of the awful things happening to the kids, especially the storyline with Beverly and her father. He’s obviously abusing her, and their scenes together are creepy, but this is serious stuff, and it deserves more serious treatment than a couple of quick scenes in a horror movie.
Likewise, bullying is a serious matter, and while the bullying scenes in IT are certainly brutal and effective in that they show how cruel and sadistic these older boys were towards Bill and his buddies, there was just something lacking in these scenes, something less authentic. Part of the problem is they were similar to a whole host of other bully scenes in other movies. The scenes with Bill and his friends are crisp, refreshing, and real. The bully scenes are not.
IT is a creepy drama about a group of kids who are terrorized by the adults in their lives, by their peers, and by a menacing supernatural entity known as Pennywise. It’s sure to satisfy both Stephen Kings fans and horror fans alike.
About the only people who should stay clear of this one are those of you who live in mortal fear of clowns. Yup, that wouldn’t be a good combination.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.