As a coming of age parable, IT succeeds at being both horrifying and emotionally-resonant, even while adapting only half of King's original story.
Adapted from the best-selling Stephen King novel of the same name (first published in 1986), the movie version of IT spent a number of years in development under the watchful eye of filmmaker Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) before ultimately making it to the big screen with Andy Muschietti (the director of Mama) at the helm. The change in directors was no doubt of concern to fans of both King's source material and the horror/thriller author's body of work in general, given that movie/TV adaptations of King's literature have (to put it simply) a spotty record, at best. Despite its drawn out pre-production process and change in creative personnel, IT is one of the better cinematic interpretations of King's writing and certainly the best produced in modern times. As a coming of age parable, IT succeeds at being both horrifying and emotionally-resonant, even while adapting only half of King's original story.
On a rainy September day in the city of Derry, Maine, circa 1988, young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) mysteriously goes missing after he sets off playing with a paper boat that his older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), made for him. Several months later, at the start of the summer of 1989 (and the end of the school year), Bill sets out with his friends - who together form a group known as The Losers' Club - to try and find his younger sibling at long last, despite his parents having already decided that Georgie is dead and gone.
However, in the process of searching for Georgie, The Losers' Club - along with new recruits in the forms of the socially-stigmatized Beverly (Sophia Lillis), home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacob) and new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) - discover the terrifying truth about Derry: that it is the home of a seemingly immortal creature that can shape-shift and feeds on children by taking on the form of one Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). When the Losers come to realize that Pennywise gains strength by feeding on their own fears, it falls to the young outsiders to band together and battle their demons from both within and from the outside world, if they are to stay alive.
In terms of narrative, IT is more of a troubling and creepy fantasy allegory along the lines of Muschietti's directorial debut Mama than a "scary" piece of filmmaking. In that respect, though, the movie is faithful in spirit to King's source material, despite making some significant changes to the text - in particular, updating the time period in which the members of the Losers' Club are preteens from the 1950s to the 1980s. Muschietti isn't operating on quite the same level yet as the best modern mainstream horror directors (see James Wan, David F. Sandberg) when it comes to delivering scares through tension-fueled sequencing and/or building up to the spooky moments (e.g. jump scares). However, because it offers both more overtly disturbing imagery and narrative substance than many other studio horror films nowadays (even the R-Rated ones), IT manages to be more "horrifying" than its peers, despite being less "scary."
The IT script, which is credited to Fukunaga and his writing partner Chase Palmer, as well as Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation), explores the same themes of childhood grief and trauma as King's original novel does, as well as the timely-as-ever idea that evil must be actively confronted through mutual cooperation and trust, lest it be allowed to flourish. Muschietti's film adaptation does justice by these elements from King's novel, thanks in no small part to the charismatic and compelling young actors who bring The Losers' Club's various personalities to life. Between determined Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), kindly Beverly (Sophia Lillis), wise-guy Ritchie (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard), intellectual Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), courageous Mike (Chosen Jacobs), practical Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the Losers bring both heart and humor to the proceedings here, making it easy to cheer for them as they battle terrors of both the fantastical and everyday variety during their adventure.
While IT explores the pain and suffering of The Losers' Club with enough depth (some, like Bill and Beverly, more than others) to make their experiences and the characters feel grounded, it has less success at making both the adults that populate Derry and borderline-psychotic local bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) feel equally three-dimensional. Because IT only hints at the effect that its namesake has had on the town of Derry and the people who have long resided there (including, Beverly's own abusive father), the human villains in the film come off as being kitschy - as though they've been lifted straight from an actual 1980s coming of age movie, themselves. Pennywise's backstory and the mythology behind the creature isn't revealed in full here either (more on that later), but Bill Skarsgård nevertheless succeeds in leaving his mark on the role by putting a radically different (read: more chilling and inhuman) spin on the monster than Tim Curry did with his memorable performance as "The Dancing Clown" in the 1990s IT TV miniseries. However, whereas Curry succeeded in being a scene-stealer in the '90s small screen version of IT, the opposite is true for the movie, e.g. Skarsgård's Pennywise is overshadowed by the Losers' Club and their personal struggles.
Both Skarsgård's Pennywise and the setting of IT (2017) are, naturally, more polished in their presentation and design compared to their counterparts in the '90s TV adaptation. Thanks to costume designer Janie Bryant (Mad Men) and production designer Claude Paré (The Age of Adaline), the 1980s backdrop of IT is convincing and manages to include nods to the pop culture of the time in a more organic fashion that, arguably, something such as Stranger Things does. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (Stoker) likewise uses strikingly dark colors and shadows to create slick horror movie scenery (including, the sewers beneath Derry and the infamous Neibolt Street house) that looks far better and bigger than the film's modest budget might suggest. That being said, the movie admittedly has mixed success when it comes to using CGI to realize Pennywise's fantastical characteristics and the creations that he conjures from the Losers' imagination. Like Mama, IT is most effective when it applies its digital effects with a more subtle touch.
It's no secret that IT only adapts half of King's original novel for the big screen (as was mentioned earlier) - and though the film by and large works as a standalone narrative, it noticeably leaves a few smaller story threads dangling and questions unanswered, for IT: Chapter Two (as the sequel presumably will be titled) to pick up. The decision to split up King's massive source material into two separate parts was a smart call, since it allows Muschietti to deliver a solid horror filmgoing experience here - without having to sacrifice much of the substance of King's book in the process - along with the promise of a second installment in the IT film saga that should only enrich its predecessor (and vice versa). Sine the film mostly lives up to the current expectations that are surrounding it, there's fair reason to think that IT: Chapter Two, with Muschietti back at the helm, will float equally well.