Stephen King’s books are most famous for their monsters, but they’re resonant for their characters. The best Stephen King movie adaptations—Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, The Shining—are, uncoincidentally, the one where the characters are most vivid. The ones that failed—of which there are dozens—for the most part focus in on what Stephen King is most famous for: his fantastical horror scenarios, with ghoulish monsters and people with strange abilities. The scenarios are unforgettable, but the people in them often are. As quickly as those characters fade from your mind, the films themselves do as well.
How the book crafted scares
IT—the novel—published in 1986, quickly built a reputation as his scariest book, and has since that time held it. A light Google of ‘scariest book of all time’ will give you IT, again and again. What makes it so highly esteemed, and so scary?
Let’s start with the set up. Remember Stand by Me? Recap: A group of friends go off into the woods to look for a dead body, and one of the boy’s adult selves narrates the story, looking back on the time in his life when he had friends like he’d never have again. But what killed the body out there in the woods? What if it was a creature of intense evil, who had been preying on their small town once every 27 years? That’s IT.
Stephen King’s novel IT built its fear by spending nearly 1200 pages on its characters and setting. We see the creature briefly in the book’s opening sequence—he introduces himself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown to a young boy named Georgie from the sunken side of a storm drain before quickly tearing off his arm and devouring him. Then, for the next 100 pages, we’re 27 years in the future, and each of the characters, now grown up, gets a call—they have to go back to the town they grew up in to finally kill the creature they failed to finish off all those years ago.
There are a lot of ways to be scared, and stories employ different kinds of fear at different times. For many of its early pages, IT spends its time with these: dread, and trauma, and the way the two are often intertwined.
Each of the main characters of IT, who we meet separately, were traumatized badly when they were young, not just in their encounters with the monster Pennywise, but in their own lives. Sure, Pennywise killed young Georgie, but his death would haunt his older brother Bill Denbrough, who wasn’t even there to witness it, for the rest of his life. Eddie Kaspbrack grew up with a mother who always told him he was sick, who made anything dirty seem dangerous. Bev Marsh is abused by her father, and, later, by her husband.
The novel captures each of those feelings of trauma so clearly because it has drawn its characters so three dimensionally. The dread, then, builds naturally. Even when the novel brings us back to when the gang—the ‘Loser’s Club’—is young, Pennywise doesn’t need to show his face for us to feel continuously on edge—just knowing he’s out there is enough. And knowing what this monster has done to these kids, and, as we read, the town itself throughout its recorded history, is enough for us to dread experiencing those moments for ourselves.
Time for a return
IT—the 2017 film—comes out at a time when pop culture is primed for it. Netflix’s Stranger Things, a worldwide sensation since its release in 2016, owes gobs to King, and specifically, to IT. It too featured a veritable loser’s club, out there looking for a lost friend, and the monster that took him—in the 1980s, when King’s books were most popular. Even real life has owed much to IT, as, all over the world, scary clowns have popped up in small towns, creating overnight folklore that doubles as IT fan-fiction.
The film, directed by Andy Muschietti in his sophomore effort, is right at home in the pop culture space that the book helped build. Our Loser’s Club is back—all lucky seven of them—but rather than being set in the 1950s, they’ve been moved up to the 1980s, so as to keep the same pop culture distance from our times as the book did on its publication.
The film, ironically, owes a lot to Stranger Things—even casting the show’s lead actor Finn Wolfhard to play the group’s loudmouth wise guy Richie Tozier. It’s as nostalgic for the small town American 80s as Stranger Things is, and, like Stranger Things, it has a strong visual sense, both in close ups and long shots, making sure that the town of Derry, and the nooks and crannies there-in, feel like a fully-drawn character in its own right.
Failing to frighten
There’s one big problem here—IT is not scary.
That’s not, of course, for lack of trying. Muschietti and his team, notably including cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who has shot the legendary Korean films of Chan-Wook Park, clearly put huge amounts of effort into making this film overflowing with what their idea of scary is—darkness, blood and ghouls, in heavy supply.
Unlike the last time we saw Pennywise on screen, in the doomed 1990 TV adaptation gamely played by Tim Curry, this Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) just looks like a monster. You can’t see him for a second and think otherwise, with his inhumanly oversized head, dropped brow and menacing stare, complete with a comically evil slow-rising grin. His mouth opens up to reveal rows and rows of sharp teeth like a nightmare worm. 1990’s Pennywise stood in broad daylight. 2017’s Pennywise is a deformed creature who exists in shadow, the one you imagined lay under your bed to pray on your fears—he just doesn’t lie there long enough. Each time one of our loser’s club finds him or herself alone, Pennywise is there.
With a novel of IT’s length, it goes without saying that much of it is not going to make it into the film. The 1990 miniseries did it in three hours—though it was originally supposed to be eight to 10, until the TV station lost confidence in the project. This IT does it in two and a half. To achieve that, it drops the structure of the novel, and half of its story, leaving the rest for a sequel. Gone are the Loser’s Club all grown up—all we get here is the chronological story, from young Georgie’s death, until the gang’s final encounter as children with Pennywise.
With this choice, IT robs itself of its greatest tool for building dread that the novel had—the hindsight-based, backwards and forwards structure that allowed us to dig into the trauma and fears of each child based on who they became as adults.
Assembling the Loser’s Club
Does that make the filmmaker’s job impossible? No. The story of the Loser’s Club vs. Pennywise is still great on its own. But to make it work, the film would need a script that could bring to life each of its characters with dazzling brightness, have their every conversation ring true, and cast actors able to imbue their characters with a rich inner life that a script wouldn’t have time to give them.
It accomplishes only some of this. Sophie Lillis, who plays Bev, puts everything one could ask for into her character, turning in a near star-making performance. She lights up every scene she’s in—you’ll buy in completely. To a slightly lesser extent, Jack Dylan Grazer, our hypochondriac Eddie, does the same—bringing a comically exaggerated energy to the part, with surprising pathos. Jeremy Ray Taylor, as the overweight loner genius Ben Hanscom, has a sympathetic charisma in his tried-and-tested sad-sack role.
The rest don’t click. Stranger Things’ Wolfhard is mismatched in a role built for a mid-80s Stand by Me/Goonies Corey Feldman. Every crude quip makes you feel the script, not the character—and while sometimes having an actor play against type reveals new layers, this one takes away layers that had been there before. Beep beep, Finn.
Chosen Jacobs, who plays Mike Hanlon, fails because he doesn’t have much of a part to play. His rich journey has been cut from the story, as have key aspects of his character. Gone are most of his memorable moments, as well as the bookishness that leads him to becoming the town’s librarian, historian, and the book’s de facto narrator. Ben Hascom is now the one who studies the town’s history—Mike just works in a slaughterhouse. We get hints at the town’s racial tensions and the racial persecution that Hanlon has dealt with—but one of the book’s best characters has become an invisible man.
The interactions amongst the Loser’s Club don’t feel nearly as natural as in the novel, or in Stand by Me, or even in Stranger Things. The dialogue is often clunky and the characters gel together in fits and starts. When it works, it’s the most successful thing in the movie. It’s those moments that will stay with you after the film ends, if any manage to.
Skipping the build
The two-and-a-half hour run time doesn’t leave any time to slow-build scares or atmosphere. Instead, Muschietti and co. structure the film as a series of Pennywise confrontations, which quickly feel formulaic: the kid establishes what he’s afraid of, the kid finds himself alone, he’s confronted with his fear, he’s scared, and then Pennywise shows up to put the jump-scare cherry on top.
These scenes offer surface-horrifying images to try to shock and disturb you—a deformed woman that comes to life from a creepy painting, an puss-oozing dirty hobo, a zombified little girl. Pennywise does his goofy grin, climbs out of a shadow, and then, with a pause for effect, runs at the kid (and camera) quickly, while loud music tells you jarringly to be very very afraid. It’s all very maximalist, to the point of self-parody.
Without the build, without the dread, and without the trauma, however, these scenes work only as cheesy, campy fun—the kind that might get one person in the audience to shriek, and everyone else to giggle. At the most, you may feel uncomfortable—but your fear won’t hit you where it should.
IT the book it is about fear itself—the kind that settles deep down in your gut and never leaves. It stays on the list of scariest books because it finds its way down there too. IT the movie is more built for your GIF collection than your subconscious.