Since the mid-70s, somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty Stephen King stories have been adapted into movies. While a few actually outshine their source material (including 1986’s Stand By Me and 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption), others have landed with a resounding thud. (Anyone remember 1985’s Cat’s Eye or 1998’s Apt Pupil?)
The author’s ridiculously long 1986 novel It is the latest to see life outside a bookstore (though certainly not the last; his novel Gerald’s Game gets the Netflix treatment in less than a month). It was first adapted in 1990 as an ABC mini-series—a cheesy, heavily-sanitized version, known these days solely (if at all) for Tim Curry’s creep-tastic portrayal of Pennywise, the homicidal, hellish clown at its center.
Now director Andy Muschietti (Mama) has given It its (oh, for the love of pronouns!) first big-screen treatment, and the movie delivers across the board, instantly catapulting itself right up next to The Shining in the firmament of King-fueled fare. Scary and intense and largely faithful to the young-kids half of book (the adult half comes in 2019), the film is a sterling example of how to do King right. Not only does It deliver the requisite slow-burning chills and more than a handful of jump scares, it gives ample time to the non-clown challenges (and also joys) of being misfit pre-teen kids one summer in small-town Derry, Maine.
The de facto leader of the Losers Club, as they call themselves, is Bill (a solid Jaeden Lieberher), a stutterer who’s still dealing with the eight-months-earlier murder of his little brother Georgie. He’s joined by chatterbox Richie (scene-stealer Finn Wolfhard), always-nervous Stan (Wyatt Oleff), and hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). Later they add Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Bev (a radiant Sophia Lillis), and the motley crew is complete.
Being the new kid in town, Ben often retreats to the library, where he avoids the local bullies by learning about his town’s history. Gradually he pieces things together, discovering that an unspeakable evil descends on Derry every 27 years, and that the terrifying Pennywise is behind it all.
Beyond dealing with the ubiquitous clown who preys on each of their darkest fears, the kids also each endure all manner of real-life distress, from Bev’s creepy, leering father (sexual abuse is certainly implied, though never shown) to the cadre of mean-as-a-polecat toughs who literally and figuratively scar the Losers every chance they get. In the book, those moments played an even bigger role than the homicidal clown, and it’s a testament to the screenwriters devotion to King’s words that the same is true here.
Speaking of the screenwriters, first-timer Chase Palmer and True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga (who was also tapped as the original director) took a first crack back in 2009, but after Fukunaga and Warner Bros. parted ways, Annabelle’s Gary Dauberman worked with Muschietti to re-tool the script. The upshot is that I have no way of knowing who contributed what, but the end result is a surprisingly deep and touching story, marked with equal parts nostalgia, sweetness, and a blood-crazed Bozo. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes, in fact, is a sunny afternoon spent in the old quarry swimming hole, as the kids have a moment reminiscent of the “cherry-flavored Pez” scene in Stand By Me. It’s a small, angst-free part of It that not only humanizes the kids but grounds the film, making the climactic kids-against-clown sequence in the Derry sewers that much more powerful when we get to it.
The end result is a film that is not only among the better King-derived adaptations but horror movies in general. Better yet, it’s one of the best, most entertaining and well-crafted films of the year. It is scary good.