IT (MA). Director: Andy Muschietti. Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Bill Skarsgård. 135 minutes
Stephen King's 1986 horror opus IT is notoriously hard to adapt for the screen. Clocking in at well over 1000 pages, the novel is marked by a cocaine-fuelled narrative incontinence and baffling metaphysical diversions that don't readily lend themselves to a few succinct hours of screen time. With a hefty cast and attention to world-building worthy of King's reputation as the Dickens of 20th century New England, adapting the material requires a judicious eye.
A famous 1990 television miniseries split the novel's disjointed timelines into two parts; it is memorable for the great Tim Curry's portrayal of the sadistic Pennywise the Clown, but also notorious for its low-rent script, special effects and adult cast. The new Hollywood version by Argentinian filmmaker Muschietti takes a similar approach, focusing on one half of the narrative, and leaving the second to a likely sequel. This mostly works, but presents its own problems.
The novel concerns a group of characters who come up against the very embodiment of evil, which dwells in their city of Derry, Maine, and awakens every 27 years to terrorise its citizens. IT's preferred incarnation is Pennywise, but IT also has a penchant for taking on the form of whatever a particular person fears the most. The novel follows the characters as they confront the evil as preteens, then again as adults when IT revives for its next cycle of terror.
King interweaves these two timelines, offering both a rich and elegiac portrait of childhood, with its associated joys and terrors, and an exploration, literal and allegorical, of the lasting effects of childhood trauma, and the painful necessity of finally facing it down. Social misfits, who as children are perpetual victims of bullies and various abusive or negligent adults, the so-called Losers Club is also a monument to childhood friendships forged in necessity and mutual compassion.
Muschietti's film focuses on these childhood experiences. And if the story's supernatural horrors are executed with a distinct lack of subtlety, as a coming-of-age story it is effective, and affecting. The individual talents and shared chemistry of the young cast help ground the story in reality, making their navigation of horrors both human and inhuman, and the empowerment and solace they find in their relationships with each other, authentic and touching.
In short, the film distils what works best in the novel, with reasonable success. Yet for better and worse, some things have inevitably been lost along the way. Wisely, the film eschews the novel's most contentions sequence; less wisely, it turns Beverly Marsh (Lillis) — the Losers Club's sole female member, and the central figure in that culled controversial scene — into a third act 'damsel in distress', undermining the story's one strong female character.
"Most egregious is the film's treatment of Mike Hanlon, the one black character in a story dominated by white males."
Most egregious is the film's treatment of Mike Hanlon (Jacobs), the one black character in a story dominated by white males. In the novel Hanlon serves as a second, periodic narrator. He is the one member of the Losers Club who remains in Derry during the 27 years between IT's appearances, and becomes the keeper of IT's and Derry's history. As written by King, Hanlon's narrative voice is rich and sober, providing a contrast to the rather folksier tone of the rest of the novel.
Muschietti's film, though, largely sidelines Hanlon. The key task of studying and documenting IT's previous appearances in Derry is instead sheeted off to 'fat kid' Ben Hanscom (Taylor), presumably to flesh out a character deemed more important to the filmmakers' take on the story. While the love triangle subplot between Hanscom, Marsh and the Losers Club's spiritual leader Bill Denbrough (Lieberher) is amplified, Hanlon is entirely absent for large portions of the film.
When it comes to creative license, a necessity when adapting a novel of the scope of IT, every decision comes with costs and benefits. In an era where creators of popular entertainment are increasingly, and rightly, held to account over matters of representation, it is strange and disappointing that decisions would be made where the cost is to reduce a major, richly written character to a mere side note, and in so doing to diminish diversity, in a story that already sorely lacks it.
Hopefully the sequel, where we will meet the characters again as adults as they reunite for a final showdown with the dark things that haunted their childhoods, restores the character to his proper, fundamental pre-eminence.
Tim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.