A young boy opens the door to the cellar, that musty lair of childhood fear. The door, of course, creaks. He stretches to reach a light switch that proves to not work, considers fleeing until the scratchy voice of his older brother drifting from a walkie-talkie pushes him forward. From the creaks to the boy’s whisper-quiet chant of “I am brave, I am brave,” it is a familiar moment to all of us, in part because we’ve seen it before, but more crucially because most of us have likely lived some version of it as well. It’s this notion that near-perfectly encapsulates everything that works about “It.”
New Line Cinema’s “It” is the latest attempt to corral Stephen King’s seminal 1,200-page doorstopper of a novel – a portion of it at least – into a cohesive cinematic experience. The previous attempt was 1990’s made-for-TV version with a cache of goodwill hinging almost entirely on the iconic performance of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. This latest adaptation is very much its own beast and in many ways a very different take on King’s novel.
In the broadest of strokes, “It” is the story of a group of seven adolescent children drawn together by circumstance over one long summer in 1989 and beset by a preternatural evil lurking in the sewers and preying on children. Led by Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a melancholic and thoughtful boy intent on finding his missing-and-presumed-dead little brother, a group slowly forms over the course of the film: a Jewish boy named Stan (Wyatt Olef), an asthmatic mama’s boy named Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a shy new kid named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a home-schooled kid named Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a motormouthed nerd named Richie (a manic and scene-stealing Finn Wolfhard), and a tough girl named Beverly (Sophia Lillis). Over the course of the summer, each has his own run-in with Pennywise the Dancing Clown (a deliciously creepy Bill Skarsgard using his tall and lanky frame to full and unsettling effect). Pennywise is a malevolent creature preying on the children of Derry, Maine, through their greatest fears.
In between these encounters, the Losers – as they come to call themselves – ride bikes, play in the woods, and have run-ins with a particularly unhinged group of bullies. It is the Loser’s Club, in all their foul-mouthed pre-teen glory, that is the true beating heart of the film. Their camaraderie and chemistry feels genuine and goes a long way toward lending “It” the coming-of-age trappings that largely defined the novel. They are distinct individuals with distinct motivations and the film smartly takes the time to linger on the small moments that define these characters, whether they be Ben’s furtive glances at Beverly or the way Richie’s every line seems to tumble out of their own volition.
This is a nostalgia-fueled setup that will likely bring last year’s hit “Stranger Things” to mind, which itself drew more than a little inspiration from Stephen King’s It. The parallel can be drawn partly because “It” also features “Stranger Things” alum Finn Wolfhard – who seems to be tripping across the 1980s like a multiversal proto-nerd – but also because the script wisely chose to eschew the Universal-era monsters and trappings of King’s novel in favor of a more Amblin-inspired Spielberg vibe. The result is a film that couches its scares in a sepia-toned haze of summer breaks, adolescent friendships, and the secret places of childhood. This more than anything else is the key to why “It” largely works. The film is not a straight adaptation of the novel; given that King’s sprawling epic covers some 1,200 pages, how could it be? However, the film does manage to capture the spirit of Stephen King’s novel – that peculiar period between childhood and adolescence, the particular closeness of childhood friendships, and the lingering irrationality of childhood fears. That is all there in one form or another and for that fans will hopefully be grateful.
Of course, “It” is not without its flaws both as an adaptation and as a horror film. There are moments when the film’s relatively scant effects budget shows its seams, and there are a handful of character decisions that may rile fans of the novel. Taken as its whole, however, “It” works. As a film, it is surprisingly funny, incorporating the hopeful optimism that often lurks beneath the surface of Stephen King’s novels. The scares are genuine and for the most part well-earned and the young cast has charm and camaraderie to spare. For the novel’s thirtieth anniversary I wrote that, “It is a sprawling, intimate, sometimes-messy, often-unsettling yarn that takes on terrors both real and imagined. At turns bawdy and elegiac, profound and crass.” Fortunately, for King fans, that description applies nearly as well to this film.