IT: Unpacked Thoughts

Went to see the new film adaptation of IT last night. As I posted on Facebook when I got home: “Still unpacking thoughts. First blush: I think I liked ’91 version more.” So this post are those unpacked thoughts.

First, a preamble — IT is my favorite of King’s novels. For all of the love that I have for his Dark Tower cycle, I feel that IT is his true masterpiece. I read it when it was originally released, and was stunned by King’s ability to make me feel nostalgia for a time that I had never personally experienced (1957-1958 — which is when the book’s childhood sections take place). So any adaptation is going to face an uphill climb for me.

The 1991 TV miniseries is certainly flawed as an adaptation, limited both by time and by the standards-and-practices requirements of broadcast TV, but I felt that it conveyed the heart of the book well — and absolutely nailed Pennywise, in the performance of Tim Curry. I’d say it’s the second-most successful King adaptation ever made, only slightly behind the original TV miniseries version of SALEM’S LOT, directed by Tobe Hooper.

So… this new one.

Well, first, it’s perhaps a bit unfair to judge, since it’s only half the story. They decided to focus purely on the childhood sections of the book. This is actually my first problem with the adaptation. The nested narrative of the novel was kind of the point — the narratives kind of blend into each other the further the plot progresses, so by the end, the present and the past are blended (appropriate for a monster who largely exists outside of time and space). The 1991 TV version kept them more distinct, with the childhood story in the first night’s broadcast… but even then there were flash-forwards to the adult Losers throughout that first half. Keeping the narrative entirely separate misses the theme of the entire work.

Plus, the new film moves the childhood segments to the late 1980s (keeping within the 27-year cycle of the creature’s life) — but whereas the book was awash in period detail of the late 50s (to the point, as I state above, that it successfully made me nostalgic for a period before I was even born), the movie feels just generically modern. Aside from a few movie titles seen on a marquee, posters in the kids bedrooms, and some ridiculously on-the-nose music cues and references, there is no real sense that this is the 80s at all. To draw a comparison to another work featuring one of the IT cast (Finn Wolfhard, who plays Richie Tozier), STRANGER THINGS does a better job of setting time and place. Honestly, to me, IT felt like a movie set in the 80s made by people who didn’t actually remember it. The director, Andy Muschietti, was born in 1973… but he spent the 80s living in Argentina, so perhaps that might explain why the film doesn’t feel like 80s America.

Another major issue I have with the film is that it almost entirely sidelines Mike Hanlon — to the point of taking away his major contribution to the story and giving it to another character. In the novel (and the 1991 miniseries), Mike is the one who fills in a lot of detail on the cursed history of Derry, and the appearance of Pennywise throughout the years. He shows them an album of photos and clippings that had been kept by his father. He is basically the group’s historian — and later becomes the town Librarian, who stays in Derry, standing vigil, while the other Losers move away.

The film takes this entire role and gives it to Ben Hanscom (the group’s “fat kid”) for no apparent reason. Mike barely gets any lines as a result — reducing him to the “token black kid”, contrary to his role in the novel (and his deep backstory, involving racial animosity and violence in pre-civil-rights-era Maine — is also nearly entirely missing in the film). Comments from the filmmakers have also been made that they’re considering, in the sequel, having him also be a recovering junkie as an adult, as a way of showing the toll that staying in town has had upon him… but taking what is perhaps the strongest character, the one who stays, and making him (the sole Black character) a recovering junkie? That’s a horrible idea — and another example of how it seems the filmmakers don’t actually understand the work they’re adapting.

Those are my major beefs with the movie. The other area in which it falls down for me is Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise. He just lacks the presence of Tim Curry in the role — especially in his voice. There’s too much reliance upon jump-scares and shaky-cam with Pennywise rushing at the camera, to make up for the fact that Pennywise should be terrifying standing in broad daylight, doing nothing but looking at the camera. Again, I realize that this is perhaps another unfair comparison. Bill Skarsgård is nowhere near the caliber of performer that Curry is, but then who is?

I’d give this adaptation a solid C+, or maybe even a B-minus if I’m being generous. Not terrible by any means, and probably worth your time, especially if you’re not already familiar with the story. But for me, it comes in at third place, behind the 1991 TV miniseries in second place, and the brilliant novel in first.

2 Replies to “IT: Unpacked Thoughts”

  1. Interesting. IT was one of my favorite King novels (Pet Sematary is #1), but I didn’t watch the mini-series and only remembered the basics of the story before watching the new film. I enjoyed it more than you did, on its own merits, but I didn’t LOVE it and hadn’t been able to formulate why until you nailed a couple of reasons.

    I was a teenager in the 80s and the 80s of the new film felt very shallow, as imagined by someone who’d only seen movies from the 80s but didn’t experience the period themselves. I liked Skarsgård’s Pennywise, weird and creepy but never terribly scary, which made the jump scares awkward and distracting, actually releasing the satisfying tension that usually preceded them.

    I didn’t recall the changes to any of the characters, particularly Mike, but was surprised that a 2.5 hour movie had so little actual character development. Plus, the elimination of the parallel adult storyline removed some of the tension about their fate in this movie, making the ending a bit less satisfying.

    One thing the movie did well, though, was its presentation of Pennywise and the kids’ fears, especially during the final battle. Even though I’ve never seen the whole miniseries, I’d seen pieces over the years and I knew it shares the most common weakness of King adaptations: the monster’s reveal. We watched a clip of the adult’s final battle on YouTube and it was cringeworthy, both for the dated special effects and the terrible acting.

    Curry aside, the new film’s talent is a huge upgrade over the miniseries, and that made a big difference for me, even if I didn’t LOVE it. Overall, a solid B, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the sequel.

  2. The handling of the fears was well done, with one exception — Richie. In the book (and the miniseries) his nightmares are of movie monsters — the same ones he cracks jokes about when they go to see them (his humor as a cover, which they do an otherwise-good job of telegraphing in this film). He gets a solo encounter with It, appearing as Michael Landon’s Teenage Werewolf (the film they had seen in an earlier scene). Here, they just handwave his fear as “I’m scared of clowns”, and he doesn’t encounter It until the slide show scene. When I saw the movie marquee saying “Nightmare on Elm Street 5”, I was hoping beyond hope that they’d gotten a license and would do a bit of “It as Freddie”, replacing the Teenage Werewolf, but alas, it was not to be.

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