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It (2017)

Andres Muschietti made his directorial debut in 2013 with Mama, which was probably more famous for being a Guillermo Del Toro production than anything else. In the time since, Muschietti has been attached to Robotech, He-Man, Shadow of the Colossus, and other geek-friendly projects doomed to spend eternity in development hell. He was also attached to direct the Snow White and the Huntsman sequel for a time, and even the ill-fated 2017 Mummy reboot before creative differences (read: “We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing!”) forced Muschietti off that project.

With a resume like his, Muschietti was a natural choice to direct It (2017), which had been in development since 2009. This particular iteration had previously been shepherded by Cary Fukunaga before budget disputes sent it collapsing at the last minute. I don’t know if Muschietti was the best they could find on short notice and shorter pay, but that might explain a lot.

That said, at least Muschietti got the film made, which is no small accomplishment in itself. That he made it into a damn good film is even more impressive, especially considering this is only his second picture.

It would be hard enough adapting a 1,000-page book at the best of times. But here we’ve got a 1,000-page book that’s easily one of the most iconic works in the prolific bibliography of a grandmaster novelist, and it’s already been the subject of a massively popular miniseries adaptation. Alas, the miniseries hasn’t really aged all that well.

After all, we’re talking about a story in which an eldritch demon murders children in gruesome ways. The limitations of television rendered the whole premise toothless, and resulted in special effects that really haven’t held up. Throw in a deliciously over-the-top performance from Tim Curry, and you’ve got an adaptation that’s more campy and hilarious than genuinely terrifying. I’m sorry, but there’s a line between scary and funny, and whatever the hell this is, it’s nowhere near that line.

So here we have a big-budget R-rated adaptation of the same source material. And two huge decisions (on top of the decisions to give it an R rating and a budget) were made right off the bat that change the whole game in a big way.

First off, the time frame is shifted up 30 years: Now, the kids’ timeline takes place in the ’80s instead of the ’50s. This was an essential step. For one thing, Stephen King’s book was heavily built on childhood nostalgia when it was first published in 1986. Shifting the time frame to recapture that same kind of nostalgia makes all kinds of sense. Moreover, the kids’ storyline is built on mummies, werewolves, slime creatures from outer space, and other such beasties of 1950s cinema. These may have been the stuff of nightmares to kids growing up in the era, but so many decades of homage and parody have rendered them more comical and quaint than scary. Updating that aspect of the story was imperative if this was going to be genuinely frightening in any way.

The other big change is in excising half the book entirely. Instead of flashing back and forth between time periods as in the book (and the miniseries), this film takes place entirely in the kids’ storyline, with a planned sequel to cover the adults’ storyline. I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, this is actually kind of a brilliant way of condensing such a massive tome. Especially since most of the relevant stuff happens in the earlier storyline anyway. Plus, flashing back and forth between storylines multiple times in quick succession is the sort of thing that’s easier to follow in a book than in a TV show or movie, especially the way King paced it (again, the miniseries showed this the hard way). Moreover, removing the flash-forwards leads to a lot more tension, because there’s so much more uncertainty as to which characters will live to adulthood. Even if you’ve read the book and you think you know which characters live, the movie includes a couple of deaths to catch you off-guard (and pre-emptively cut material from the second film in the process).

On the other hand, so much of what makes the story great is in the material about how past and present affect each other. At its heart, this book is all about children and adults, kids and parents, how they influence each other, and how one becomes the other. It’s all about forgotten childhood memories, how they can come back without warning, and how maybe some of them are better left forgotten. All of this amazing stuff is lost when we don’t have the two storylines bouncing off each other. Though maybe they’ll find some way to bring it back for the sequel, I dunno.

And anyway, another significant part of the book — particularly the childhood segments — is about coping with death, facing fears, embracing creativity, coming of age, maturing and developing sexually, and so on. All of this is well-represented in the film. The, uh… *ahem* squickier scenes from the book were either modified or cut entirely, especially where Bev was concerned (I’m going to trust that those of you who’ve read the book know the scene at the end that I’m talking about, because no way am I recapping it here.), but the film as a whole is surprisingly bold in a lot of places where the development of these kids was concerned.

Beverly (here played by Sophia Lillis) perfectly represents the girl that every boy had a crush on and had no idea what to do with. The local mothers and teenage girls all see her as a wanton slut, the grown-up men (particularly her abusive father, played to creepy perfection by Stephen Bogaert) see her as a thing to be kept pure and spotless even as they nurture their own perverted fantasies about her, and Bev herself wants to be nothing more than to be an innocent kid hanging out with her platonic male friends. Her body is changing, she’s caught between unwelcome attentions and heartfelt crushes, she’s the victim of so much physical and psychological abuse at home, and it’s all so much that she has to get away, have a smoke, and play in the mud so she can forget it all.

All of this is perfectly translated from the book to the screen, and Lillis does a phenomenal job with the character… right up until the climax. Bev was always one of the strongest and most proactive characters in the entire Losers’ Club, but while the book made Bev into a crackshot with a pivotal role in destroying It, the movie inexplicably made her into a damsel in distress. That could’ve been any other character, and it probably should’ve been.

Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is still the loudmouthed comic relief with outsized specs, and it’s a testament to Wolfhard’s comedic talent that he can spout juvenile sex jokes and “yo mamma” insults ad infinitum without wearing out his welcome. Shame he’s a shitty voice actor, though — that was kind of a huge part of his character.

Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is still an asthmatic under the oppressive thumb of his overbearing mother (played to the cheap seats by Molly Atkinson), but his asthma is downplayed in favor of full-blown overly neurotic hypochondria. He also bounces nicely off of Richie to provide some additional comic relief.

Stan (Wyatt Olef) is still the Token Jew and still very much a neat freak. Stan was always the character with the strongest and most brittle grasp on reality, the one who had the hardest trouble dealing with things that should not physically be possible, and I absolutely love how Olef portrayed that in his expressions and tone of voice. However, Stanley isn’t a bird-watcher this time. Just as well — driving back monsters by yelling out the names of birds is easily one of the stupidest fucking scenes in the book, and the miniseries showed how dumb it looks onscreen.

Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the most distinctly changed from the book, which is probably just as well. Here, he works in the family business helping to butcher animals and sell meat, which provides the Losers with a nifty new weapon against It. More importantly, his character arc revolves around a new scene that plainly and directly addresses overcoming fear. Even better, the message is delivered in a way that dovetails neatly with the implied racial history of the characters, but without getting too preachy or heavy-handed about any particular racial message.

All of this is a huge upgrade for a character who was little more than the Token Black Kid in the books. But as an adult, the Mike of the books quite notably had a role as the expert on Derry’s town history. A role that here falls to Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor). I guess that kind of makes sense, since Ben was always such a bookworm in the source text. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of Ben’s prodigious talents with architecture and engineering. In the book, Ben’s ability to put things together was easily his most valuable defining trait as a character and a member of the team, and I have absolutely no idea why it got cut from the film entirely.

Otherwise, I’m glad to say that Ben is still the good-hearted, socially awkward, surprisingly courageous fat kid we all know and love from the book. What’s perhaps even more impressive is the portrayal of his love triangle with Bev and Bill (we’ll get to him in a second). With nothing more than a sideways glance, Ben makes it instantly clear to us that he sees the chemistry between his two friends. He’s happy for them and he understands how they’d fall for each other, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to see his crush fall in love with someone else. Astonishing work.

Which brings us to Bill, played here by Jaeden Lieberher. He still stutters, but of course it’s not as debilitating as it is in the book or this movie would be a good half-hour longer. And he’s still the de facto leader, but the reasoning has changed a bit. In the book, Bill was the leader because he was coolest under pressure and he knew how to get things done. Even in spite of his stutter, he had the charisma to get the others falling in line. There’s no doubt that Lieberher has that same charisma, but it’s used in a different way here.

While Bill of the source text was definitely still mourning the loss of his kid brother (George, played by Jackson Robert Scott), this adaptation of Bill is straight-up obsessed with finding George alive. It’s all he ever talks about for minutes at a time. So it is that Bill has a personal vendetta against It, something he can channel his charisma into, rallying the others around a cause. It also provides a neat development arc, as Bill slowly learns to accept the death of his brother. The downside is that we lose a lot of the character’s cool under pressure. It really did start to get annoying, watching Bill go blunder after George’s ghost for what felt like the hundredth time. I’m still not entirely sure if this works better than it did in the book, but the point is, it works.

Moving on to our antagonists, there really isn’t much to say about the people of Derry. There are a few implications that the adults are all acting under the subconscious manipulation of It, but nothing anyone would pick up on if they didn’t know the source material. Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) is suitably portrayed as pure unrelenting evil, and his buddies are somehow given even less dimension than they had in the source material. Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague) is probably the most obvious case in point, as his sociopathic hobbies are entirely gone and he gets killed off way earlier.

But of course those aren’t the villains you want to hear about, are they?

While Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise may be iconic, he didn’t really have much but contacts and fake teeth to show when he was well and truly monstrous. Compare that to the Pennywise played by Bill Skarsgaard (yes, another one), who’s assisted by all sorts of makeup and special effects to show varying degrees of monstrous. He can be sweet and only mildly off-putting, he can be patient and savor every moment of torture, he can dance or contort himself in impossible ways for intimidation, or he can straight-up eat someone with anatomically impossible jaws. All of this makes for a Pennywise with so many unpredictable shades of grey in a spectrum far wider than any 1980s budget could’ve allowed, while the miniseries’ Pennywise seemed to be stuck at eleven from start to finish.

The drawback, however, is that so much of film Pennywise is dependent on CGI and makeup that it could’ve been anyone else in the role and not much else would’ve changed. Compare that to the miniseries Pennywise — you know as well as I do that nobody can play a Tim Curry role like Tim Curry. In the miniseries, the actor owned the role. In the film, the role owned the actor.

All of that said, these are still two perfectly valid interpretations of the same character. I personally prefer the unpredictability of the film version, with the wider variety of ways in which Pennywise can scare and threaten the kids, but that’s just me.

Really, the horror aspect of the film was beautifully handled all around. I was particularly fond of how certain aspects of Derry history (The Black Spot, the Iron Works incident, the Kissing Bridge, etc.) were folded into certain scares and set pieces. That was a frankly ingenious way of fitting more material into the film without sacrificing much of any runtime. I was also hugely fond of the scene in which Pennywise threatens the kids through a photo album, here updated so he instead threatens them through a slide projector. It’s intensely scary, superbly crafted, brilliantly adapted, and it frankly shouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does.

Even so, the scares do suffer from some common horror cinema problems. A lot of the characters act stupidly at times, the score from Benjamin Wallfisch is annoyingly heavy on loud musical stings, and I’m getting¬†REALLY damn tired of watching doors automatically slam shut into someone’s face. There’s also that move in which Pennywise seems to shake side to side really fast while he’s charging forward, almost like he’s vibrating. He doesn’t do that very often, but it always looked way more stupid than a straightforward lunge.

Still, major kudos to the visuals and all the unsettling ways the scares were set up. Additionally, good on the filmmakers for learning from the miniseries and figuring out that brightly colored balloons simply cannot be made to look scary. I’m sorry, but there’s simply no way to make yellow and pink balloons look even remotely menacing. But blood-red balloons… well, they still look kind of stupid, but it’s definitely as close to scary as balloons can be made to get.

In other scenes, I’m sorry to say that the “Apocalyptic Rock Fight” is still nowhere near where it needed to be. The book made it sound like the goddamn Battle of Normandy, and I was desperately hoping for something with that level of chaos and pain. No such luck. The filmmakers put in so much effort trying to compensate with rock music and slo-mo, but it still looks unintentionally ridiculous.

I was also sad to see that the dam sequence was cut entirely, since it’s such a crucial bonding moment for the Losers and a huge moment for Ben in particular. However, it was replaced with a scene of the kids swimming around in a quarry, and it was a pretty decent replacement. I was also kind of sorry that Bill’s big scene with the bleeding photo album didn’t make the cut, but it’s not like we didn’t have enough of him mourning Georgie anyway. Plus, we still got a terrifying scene in which Bill deals with the death of his brother, taking advantage of the creepy cellar that was a huge missed opportunity in the book.

The film also throws in Silver, the Paul Bunyan statue, the Aladdin Theater, Freese’s (by way of Richie’s T-shirt), and other little details for the fans to pick up on. But then we have The Turtle, a pivotal yet totally nonsensical part of the source material’s mythos. We do get the odd mention of a turtle here and there, but it’s nothing that would be picked up by anyone who hasn’t read the book, and it sure as hell doesn’t hint at any grander cosmic mythos. In fact, the bigger and more abstract parts of the backstory were omitted entirely, probably for the better.

Easily the hardest part of this movie was always going to be describing precisely what It is, how It works, and how It can be defeated. And for the most part, it looks like that can has been kicked down the road until the sequel can deal with it. For right now, the film simply concerns itself with putting our kids in the path of a malevolent mind-reading shapeshifter, focusing on the action as much as possible with minimal room for explanation. So it is that through the kids’ actions and Its’ actions, judging from what works and doesn’t work, we can get a pretty decent idea of what the rules are. It’s a very simplistic idea and I’m sure it wouldn’t work half as well for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but it’s enough to get by.

Overall,¬†It (2017) is a film that stands apart from and equal to the source material. The filmmakers succeeded in making the story their own and making it work in a new medium, occasionally sacrificing the letter of the text without ever diminishing its spirit. The cast is uniformly wonderful — especially among the Losers’ ensemble — and all the disparate elements of nostalgia, comedy, horror, and coming-of-age drama all mesh together superbly well.

I have no problem giving this a strong recommendation, but it bears remembering that a lot of this praise hinges on the assumption that we’re getting an equally good sequel to wrap up certain plot threads and introduce a lot of the book’s more potent themes. So it’s a good thing the sequel hasn’t been formally greenlit, Muschietti isn’t locked in to direct it yet, none of the actors have been cast, and a screenwriter has just now been hired.

…Wait, what the fuck?

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