One of the challenges of adapting an established property is taking on the baggage that your audience has with that property and I feel like my experience with Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of It kind of illustrates that point. I have never read Stephen King’s 1986 novel but I saw the film with Kat who has read it several times. Conversely, she has only recently seen the 1990 ABC miniseries adaptation directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, a film I have fond memories of seeing in middle school for the first of several times. A lot of this comes from our discussion on the ride home: credit where it’s due.
One of the few things I was aware of going in was the fact that the setting had been changed from the late ’50s in the novel and 1960 of the earlier film to the 1980s and this change is actually one of the movie’s canniest decisions. I’m a little younger than the characters are portrayed–about Georgie’s age, actually–but I’m close enough that identifying with kids in the late ’80s has a more visceral impact than the earlier setting would have. And it’s to the movie’s credit that it nails the millieu–the look, the tone, the speech all feel authentic in a way that’s kind of just beyond remembering concretely. Which, of course, is a huge part of the story of It.
What deflated me about it, though, is that is precisely the part of the story that this adaptation most ignores. I’m fine with the fact that there is no intercutting of time–it allows the film to have a narrative flow without feeling like it’s trying to cram too much in, a major problem in the miniseries (especially the first/primarily-childhood half). But very little attention is given in this adaptation to the fact that these characters, as children, experienced something the adults around them could not. Only one brief scene between Beverly and her father calls any attention to this point. The film does an excellent job of establishing the adult world as equally, if not more terrifying than the fantastical one but it otherwise maintains a clear distinction between the two. Which feels like missing something crucial about the story: the power of what one is willing (or able) to believe; that a werewolf could leap off a movie screen* or, more importantly, an inhaler could spew battery acid. The characters in this movie keep reminding themselves (and each other) that “it isn’t real,” instead of committing to the idea that it is, which undercuts both the non-jump scare factor and the poetry of the metaphor. The climactic fight scene thus becomes a rote how-many-times-can-we-hit-it-fest instead of a daring act of faith. It takes away a lot of the impact.
(*This is another, comparatively minor gripe: there is no use of metacinema despite it being written right into the source material. It’d be a fun way to pull the audience into the film and further blur the line between fantasy and reality, if this version were interested in doing that.)
But for someone coming fresh to this version of the film, I can absolutely see why it’d be hot shit. The cast is fantastic, for starters. All seven kids are engaging to watch–a feat in and of itself–topped off with an awesomely unsettling performance from Bill Skarsgård that plays off Tim Curry the way Heath Ledger played off Jack Nicholson. The moments where the nightmarish CGI scales it back and lets him simply act the part are some of the strongest moments in the entire thing.
And the imagery is nightmarish, in a way that reminds me more than anything of Poltergeist, another film that blends horror with Spielbergian-adventure (its own little subgenre particularly en vogue at the moment). It skews a little more outright horror; accordingly there are more shocks, more gore, etc–but in a way that is aggressively fantastical and that allows the two elements to play off one another well. The movie sustains a remarkable energy across a pretty long running time (about 135 minutes) and does it with a colorful, warm visual style that’s usually pretty interesting to look at. The use of period music is precise and restrained–the whole thing is very easy to get caught up in.
It still has some problems, narratively, and their names are Bev and Mike. The former is played too often as a damsel in distress and the latter feels somewhat tacked on and tokenistic as result. Both these issues are especially egregious in light of the source material–Bev is the only one able to hurt It! Mike is the one who keeps them all together and guards the story and the history, not Ben!–but feel a bit off-putting even without taking that into consideration. But neither of those problems are anything new or particular to this movie; they’re part of a bigger discussion of cinema in general. Again, it’s an easy film to get caught up in.
Ultimately, I think a large part of my ambivalence comes from knowing it’s incomplete. The film itself does acknowledge this at the end, but only in a loose way: subtitling itself “Chapter One” on the ending title card. What I’m really curious to see is how the filmmakers build an adult half of the story on the version of the world created here. What I’m hoping for is something akin to the Kill Bill films, where Part One is flashy and interesting, but only really starts to reveal what substance it has when contrasted with the very different Part Two. I can see that as a possibility here. I’m wary, but I am curious.
But brass tacks: should you go see it if you haven’t already? End of the day, I’d say yes. It’s definitely a ride that does manage to tug at some heartstrings while simultaneously shredding other nerves. It’s definitely ambitious–multi-film adaptations of epic novels are commonplace now, but it’s still a risky prospect. If nothing else, it’s very contemporary; bringing the box office roaring back after the most lackluster summer in a couple of decades means it’s going to be one of the films this year is remembered by in popular culture. And I don’t mean for it to come off as though I was not mostly entertained throughout. It’s just I went in looking for a little more than I got. That’s why reboots and adaptations are difficult.