IT: You’ll Float Too

As of this writing, I’ve read 38 of Stephen King’s books, and IT is by far my favorite. The story of a shape-shifting, ancient evil being dwelling in the sewers beneath the streets of Derry, Maine has been terrifying readers since It was first published in 1986, and with the release of the new movie, It is set to traumatize a whole new generation. Before we get started, let me say that I will do my best to avoid spoilers for the new film, but there will be spoilers for the book. So yeah, spoiler alert for a book that was published thirty years ago. Also, for anyone who has a phobia of evil clowns, be aware that I will not be including any images that directly show the evil clown. It’s okay, you’re safe.

But you know who isn’t safe? The main characters of IT. The most obvious challenge of adapting King’s book for the screen is Its intimidating length. The novel is well over a thousand pages long, and every aspect of the story is richly detailed. Aside from Its length, the other challenge is the way in which King tells the story. Every time I think about the way King structured the novel, I am blown away. Basically, there are two main sections of the story. The first follows the main characters, who call themselves the Losers Club, as they face It for the first time as children, and the second follows the Losers as they confront It again as adults.

Image: Warner Bros.

You would think that the book would be divided into two sections, the first about the Losers as kids and the second about them as adults. But that’s not the way King does it. He doesn’t tell the story chronologically, instead bouncing back and forth between the two time periods. As the Losers grow into adulthood and move away from their hometown of Derry, they forget their experiences with It until the one member of their group who stayed in Derry calls them individually to tell them that It is back. As they return to Derry, parts of their pasts begin to come back to them, so the reader learns about their history along with them. That is a brilliant way of constructing the story, and it keeps the reader guessing for the entire time, which is no easy feat when you consider the length of the novel.

This too presents obvious problems for adaptation. It would be impossible to make one movie out of the novel and follow the structure King used, unless the movie was like five hours long. No one wants to sit in a theater for five consecutive hours, so clearly compromises must be made. The book was first adapted into a two-part television miniseries which aired on ABC in 1990. The miniseries famously starred the great Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, one of Its favorite incarnations. Watching the miniseries today, it’s not very scary. It’s campy and sometimes creepy, but by today’s standards it’s fairly tame. Curry is great as Pennywise, but since the miniseries was on ABC it had to adhere to broadcast standards, so it feels like a neutered version of King’s story, and most of the gore and hardcore terror of the novel is missing.

The new film is R-rated and does not have such restrictions. As such, it is free to revel in the gore and nightmarish imagery of King’s twisted imagination, and does so with aplomb. If you have a phobia of clowns, do not under any circumstances ever see this movie. It will scar you for life. This is the single scariest movie I have ever seen in the theater, and I audibly gasped a few times while watching It, which is something that simply never happens.

The makers of the new film have wisely decided to focus on one part of the story. The film only tells the story of the Losers Club as kids. This is only half the story, but makes sense in terms of adaptation. It does make me a little sad, since the way King structured the novel was one of my favorite things about It. But like I talked about earlier, filming the novel the same way it is written would be nearly impossible, so the filmmakers get a pass. Since the movie is currently making bank at the box office, a sequel is looking increasingly likely, and I am 100% on board with the same creative team making a sequel, because they nailed It.

Whew. That was probably the longest intro to any post I’ve ever written. So, what is It actually about? As great as Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise is, it seems to have given people who haven’t read the book the impression that It is simply about an evil clown terrorizing children. While there is an evil clown and It does terrorize children, to think of It as just an evil clown story would be doing It a grave injustice.
There is a reason the book is about twelve hundred pages long, after all. It is a story about friendship, love, childhood, memory, overcoming trauma and fear, and being stronger together than you are by yourself. The book is terrifying and gruesome and disturbing, but It is also deeply moving. King has a wonderful understanding of his characters, and their interactions and relationships feel completely real, as both kids and adults.

Image: Warner Bros.

The characters are some of the best King has ever written, and all of them have qualities which make them unique. Stuttering Bill Denbrough is the de facto leader of the group, who has the most personal grudge against Pennywise. Richie Tozier is a loudmouth whose trash-talking and inability to shut up frequently lands himself and his friends in hot water. Eddie Kaspbrak is a hypochondriac who lives with his overbearing mother. Stan Uris is the son of a rabbi, and is the one who has the hardest time accepting the reality of Its existence. Mike Hanlon is the only black member of the group, and the only one to remain in Derry as an adult. And then there are my two favorites: sweet, chubby Ben Hanscom, who is the new kid in town and is frequently bullied because of his weight. Last but not least is clever, pretty Beverly Marsh, the only girl in the group, and whose father is a bit too concerned about her, if you catch my drift.

They all have their own encounters with various incarnations of It, and realize that they must band together in order to defeat It. It is not just an evil clown. It is an ancient, otherworldly being who is able to change Its form according to whatever Its victim is most afraid of. At first, the Losers are not sure if they have encountered the same thing, since they all experience different terrifying versions of It. But why does It like the damn clown so much? In the book, the implication is that the clown is the lowest common denominator, the thing that everyone is afraid of, so when It appears to the Losers as a group, It takes the shape of Pennywise, the most terrifying clown in history. Stephen King himself has said he will never write a sequel to It because Pennywise scares him too much, which is saying something coming from a guy who has been giving people nightmares since his first book was published in 1974.

Another brilliant thing about the book is the way King subverts people’s expectations of a horror story. In most cases, the reader or viewer of a scary book or movie is not overly concerned with the kids in the story, since the kids usually survive. King blows this out of the water in the book’s very first chapter, a hauntingly unforgettable scene in which It brutally murders Bill Denbrough’s six-year-old brother Georgie. And when I say brutal, I mean brutal. IT RIPS GEORGIE’S DAMN ARM OFF AND HE BLEEDS TO DEATH. The book takes no prisoners, and quickly establishes that the kids are not safe. They are in mortal peril, and the book uses this to ratchet up the tension and the horror.

I am happy to report that the film does the same. The movie closely follows the parts of the book that it covers, and while there are a few minor changes the overall adaptation is very faithful, and does an admirable job capturing the spirit of the book. The movie was originally going to be directed by Cary Fukunaga, who directed the brilliant first season of HBO’s True Detective. Fukunaga left the project due to creative differences and was replaced by Andy Muschietti, an Argentinean director whose only previous feature was a 2013 horror film called Mama. I haven’t seen the feature version of Mama, but I have seen Muschietti’s original short film upon which the feature version of Mama is based. The short film is on YouTube, and it is creepy as hell. Muschietti does an excellent job with It, and presents some of the most nightmarish and horrific images I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. Well done, sir.

Also excellent is the movie’s young cast. Making an R-rated horror movie starring a cast of mostly-unknown child actors is a risky proposition. But Muschietti’s efforts have paid off tremendously, since not only is It a hit critically and commercially, but Its young cast is also excellent. If the relationships between the Losers didn’t work, then the movie itself wouldn’t work, but all the young actors are fantastic. They have great chemistry with each other and there is a genuine sense of camaraderie and friendship between them. You have no trouble believing that they would die for each other. Kudos to the casting director for the movie, it must have been hard to find the right actors to play the Losers, but they’re all great. The movie also omits the book’s most controversial scene, and if you’ve read the book you know which scene I’m talking about. I think we can all agree that leaving out that scene was the right thing to do.

But of course we must address the elephant in the room. What about Pennywise? After all, Pennywise is the most famous character in the movie. In the new movie, Pennywise is played by Bill Skarsgard, who is the son of Stellan Skarsgard and brother of Alexander Skarsgard. Being an actor runs in the family I guess. Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise is, in a word, TERRIFYING. Skarsgard said in interviews that he was aware of Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise, and chose not to incorporate any of Curry’s mannerisms into his own performance. A wise decision, since the new version of Pennywise is bone-chillingly frightening, without a hint of the camp of Curry’s version. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is a soullessly evil monster without a shred of pity.

Image: Warner Bros.

The movie caught some flak online for its marketing, which some people thought showed too much of Pennywise, believing that the less he was seen beforehand, the more frightening he would be onscreen. Fair enough, but he is still terrifying, and the marketing did not show any of Its other incarnations. After all, Pennywise is but one of many. All of the movie’s versions of It are very scary, and many of them are different from Its forms in the book and miniseries. The filmmakers did this so the movie would feel fresh and would surprise viewers, and they succeeded. It is scary in whatever form It takes.

It is not a movie for everyone. It does not hesitate to depict graphic violence directed against children. This is evident from the opening scene, faithfully adapted from the novel, in which It relieves poor Georgie Denbrough of his arm. The sight of a young child screaming in pain as blood gushes from his severed arm is upsetting to say the least. But damn if it isn’t effective.

Another of my favorite aspects of the novel is King’s understanding of being a kid. The book explores how kids are better equipped to fight It, because they can accept Its existence in a way that adults can’t. When Georgie Denbrough first sees It in a storm drain in the book’s first chapter, King writes that were he ten years older, Georgie would not believe what he was seeing. But Georgie is six, not sixteen, so when he sees a clown in a storm drain, he accepts that It’s real without question. If an adult encountered a clown in a storm drain, he or she would make up any number of excuses to explain the sight, and would probably question his or her own sanity before accepting the reality of what their eyes show them. But as King points out, a kid does not have this problem. The movie, remarkably, captures this.

It is not all monsters and gore. The movie gives the kids time to just be kids, and is surprisingly funny at times. It shows them bonding and having fun, especially in a lovely sequence where they all jump in the lake and just horse around with each other. Their friendship feels genuine, and their relationships reminded me a bit of the kids in E.T., or JJ Abrams’ Super 8, although It is far more graphic than either of those two films. I’ve also heard comparisons to the kids in another film based on a King story, 1986’s Stand By Me. I haven’t seen Stand By Me, but I have no reason to doubt the comparison.

It is a tremendous film. I’m not going to see it again in the theater, since seeing It on the big screen once was enough, thanks. But I will be buying the Blu-Ray and watching all the special features. The movie only tells half the book’s story, but it does so extremely well, and feels like a complete story in and of itself. It leaves the story open for more, but still gives the viewer a sense of closure, and doesn’t end on a cheap cliffhanger. The acting is great across the board and the film looks terrific. The movie isn’t able to explore all of my favorite aspects of the book, since many of them are tied onto the book’s nonlinear structure, and the movie also doesn’t go into much detail about the origins of It, but these are inevitable consequences of adapting such a long book, and could be further explored in the sequel.

Image: Warner Bros.

It is one of the best-ever adaptations of Stephen King’s work, of which there are more than you realize. It is terrifying and disturbing, but unlike many modern horror films, the characters feel real and the viewer cares about them, deeply. King’s messed-up story is one of my favorite books of all time, and this is a worthy adaptation of what I consider to be a prolific writer’s masterpiece. Clearly I’m not alone in my reverence for the story, since the movie made a whopping $117 million over its opening weekend, far exceeding expectations and breaking several box office records.

Bring on Part 2. I can’t wait, although I might be watching from behind my hands.

Coming up next, another one of my literary heroes gets an adaptation. This time it’s American Assassin, starring Mitch Rapp, a kickass CIA agent from an excellent series of spy novels by the late, great Vince Flynn. See you next week for spies and assassins, and a whole lot of butt-kicking along the way.

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