Film adaptations of Stephen King’s writings have been, over the years, a mixed bag. When they’re good, they’re The Shawshank Redemption; when they’re not, they’re The Dark Tower, reviewed a little more than somewhat unfavourably by Simon in Crave! episode 45. And while there are myriad factors that determine whether a King adaptation will be worth seeing, a very general rule, one honoured more in the breach than in the observance, is that his short stories and novellas tend to make better source material than his longer novels.
So we come to It. Given the affection in which the 1990 television mini-series is held, the phrase “hiding to nothing” must surely have been in director Andy Muschietti’s mind when he took on the project. He’s taken a typical early-mid-period King novel, one with intertwining timelines and complex themes, and teased out a fairly by-the-numbers horror story. Set, as so many of King’s most terrifying works are, in a smallish town in Maine — in this case, once again, it’s Derry — It tells the story of a series of disappearing children, and a group, the Losers’ Club they call themselves, of early-teen boys, and one girl, including Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), whose little brother Georgie’s disappearance we see at the beginning of the film. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is not only nerdy but chubby with it, and he too has seen Pennywise, the scary clown that had taken Georgie. And Bev (Sophia Lillis), the subject of Ben’s secret affections, has seen her own manifestations of the evil that is overtaking Derry.
The setup, then, is fairly standard King. What makes the first half of the film work is the dynamic between the four central mates of the Losers’ Club — Bill, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and Richie (Finn Wolfhard, last seen in Stranger Things, Netflix’s homage to Stephen King). Each of the characters is drawn with just enough detail to make them believable and engaging, and each is played with innocence and warmth by a young cast with surprising depth and talent. Eddie’s the hypochondriac kept on meds by his controlling mother; Richie’s the foul-mouthed joker whose attempts at filthy humour are routinely swatted down by his mates but who simply doesn’t care. The characters work well together, and as more are added — Ben, Bev, Mike (Chosen Jacobs), all of whom have seen some form of evil and terror — the sense of childhood and endless summer remains, even as the grown-ups, and even the older teens, who inhabit the fringes of the story become increasingly malevolent.
But about half-way through the film, Muschietti seems to remember that it’s It he’s remaking, not Stand By Me. And so it’s time for the scary bits, which had been largely hinted at, had mostly lived in the shadows, until this point. Now it’s time for the full-on battle with Pennywise the Clown, played with no great subtlety by Bill Skarsgård, and here’s the big problem. As long as the terror lurks in the shadows, as long as it’s not given shape or form, as long as you’re left simply to imagine what’s hiding behind a curtain or a door, then it’s genuinely scary. As soon as Pennywise stands, or dances, or gurns, in full view of the Losers, then he’s demystified, and his impact is sorely blunted. So what we get is King by the numbers, a straight-forward battle between a non-specific evil monster — Where did it come from? Why is it evil? Never mind that, look at the teeth! The teeth! — and the young teens that King draws so very well.
And so the horror story plays out. And it’s really not done terribly well. There’s a reasonable selection of jump-scares, and some well-developed visual effects, but it’s protracted — it could have done with being about half an hour shorter — and lacks coherent storytelling logic.
In the end, then, It falls between two stools. It’s not The Dark Tower by any stretch — no matter how baggy the second half might be, the central performances are so engaging that it’s hard not to be won over by them — it’s also not Stand By Me, which Muschietti clearly had in mind as he directed It. It is, however, apparently the first of at least two in a series. King’s original book told two stories — the Losers’ Club as children, and their reuniting as adults. This film only tells the former story; as it closes, the words “Chapter One” appear on the screen. And that’s probably the most terrifying thing about It.