Stephen King is an author that is often regarded as a modern master of horror. Among the works that have helped him earn such a title is his 1986 novel, It. Telling the story of seven friends reuniting in their home town to battle a cosmic evil they had previously fought as children, the book is dense but gripping with every page. It captures well a lot of recurring themes in King’s writing, such as childhood trauma and its impact on adulthood or conquering evil through mutual trust. In addition, the novel gave the horror genre a great new boogeyman to fear with Pennywise, a creature capable of forming itself to look like the things people fear but whose most prominent form is a clown. It is no wonder how the book became so popular, even getting a television miniseries adaptation in 1990 that starred Tim Curry as Pennywise. Now, at long last, It has been brought to the big screen. However, it would seem difficult to adapt such a dense novel into a single movie. As such, this film instead focuses on those seven friends when they were kids, with a sequel planned to cover the portion of them as adults. The result is a really good coming of age story with some good scares as well.
In the town of Derry, kids prepare for fun as the summer of 1989 rolls in. However, one child does not have fun on his mind, and that is Bill Denbrough. Ever since the disappearance of his younger brother Georgie on a stormy day back in October, Bill is convinced that Georgie must still be alive somewhere. With the help of his friends, like the motor mouth Richie Tozier, hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak, and shy Stan Uris, Bill intends to find some evidence that Georgie is still alive somewhere. Along the way, they end up adding more friends to their numbers, befriending new kid Ben Hanscom, local girl Beverly Marsh, and home-schooled outsider Mike Hanlon. However, there ends up being something that unites them more than just friendship: they all find themselves terrorized by personifications of the things that they fear. Realizing that they are the targets of something that can shape itself into what people fear (with its most recurrent form being Pennywise the dancing clown), they learn that whatever this thing is might just be responsible for the decades of missing and dead children that plague Derry’s history, including Georgie. With no adults doing anything about this deadly history, these seven friends decide to step up and try to stop this creature, and just maybe find the truth about Georgie.
Plenty of adaptations have been done of Stephen King’s work, but It ranks among the better attempts to bring his writing to the big screen. Certainly, it does deliver on some strong jolts of horror, in particular thanks to Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise. His turn as Pennywise is one that captures the sense of a starving predator, one that relishes his meal as his prey feels fear. From his teasing and at-times puppet-like movement to the soft-lilting voice that can effortlessly shift to a growl, Skarsgard brings this classic monster to life with a seeming ease. However, there are moments with scares that don’t land quite as well. Occasionally, the film leans a touch too often on striking with a jump scare or having Pennywise rush his target with a yell. The stronger scares come through more in the surreal torment that Pennywise performs on the children or in scenes when Skarsgard gets to carry through with the creepiness, such as when he lures Georgie from the shadows of a sewer drain. Even the normal lives of these children capture some of that horror better, such as the psychotic bullying from Henry Bowers or the creepily possessive nature of Beverly’s father. In fact, that leads me into what helps this movie shine like it does: the coming-of-age story.
In attempting to adapt such a dense novel, one whose story unfolds during childhood and adult years, the choice was made for this movie to put the focus on the main characters as children. By making this choice, the story for this film is one about these misfits facing the darker edges of life that can emerge as one grows up. True, they do face certain terror from the hands of a shapeshifting creature responsible for a history of horrors. However, their fears stem from more than that. They emerge from the horrors that haunt their everyday life. Sometimes, it comes from bullies like Henry Bowers and Patrick Hockstetter, who torment them and see them as misfits. Other times, it stems from adults like their own parents, such as Eddie’s mother constantly needling him with health concerns or Beverly’s father displaying an unsettling attachment to his “little girl”. Life offers plenty of things for these kids to fear. However, it is with their mutual friendship and trust that they can grow, facing the things that they fear and not giving in to the terror. Thanks to strong writing, a good dose of humor to lighten up between the scares, and a cast of child actors who deliver some excellent performances, the coming-of-age story captures the feel of similar tales from the 1980s. For some, the result might seem slightly jarring when it shifts hard between these portions and the more overtly horror sections, but the whole film is still a good piece of work. To borrow a reference to another King adaptation, it is as if Stand By Me periodically swerved hard into a horror story.
Among the many works of Stephen King, It is often regarded as one of his best novels. Now, It has arrived on the big screen as a terrific coming-of-age story that shines even if a few of the scares might not land.