*Mild Spoilers for It**
I’ve known about It for as long as I can remember. It was that massive brick of book that sat on the shelf at the public library, daring me to secretly check it out and sneak it home, where I could read it under the covers at night. It was also that early 90s TV movie starring Tim Curry that my parents wouldn’t let me see, and that I didn’t see until I watched it during a slumber party. Growing up, It was the epitome of horror, not only because of the scary clown, but because children were the target of his evil, and It was not afraid to depict child murder.
It really went there, and many 90s kids won’t forget it. Many of us flocked to movie theaters last weekend and forked over cash to see the latest adaptation of It. I, for one, was almost giddy with excitement. I wanted to be scared sh*tless. I wanted to recapture some of the terror I felt reading the novel. I’ve grown up, but I still remember the exquisite and sickening pain of growing up, of realizing the evil in the world.
But this adaptation didn’t make me feel that.
Maybe I’m being a little bit hard on this movie. That’s only because I care so much. It’s hard not to compare the film to the book and it’s not hard to buy into the hype as a horror movie fan. It’s not every day that a hugely influential horror novel is adapted into a major motion picture with a $35 million budget and the backing of a major studio. Forgive me for trying to hold this movie to the standards set by its own hype.
Let me clear—It was not a bad movie. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Tons of people responded positively to the movie and its box office take has smashed records in less than a week. That success is deserved. But I can’t ignore the obvious flaws, the most consequential of which is that It should not have been a movie at all. It should have been a limited series or a mini-series, which would have addressed many of its flaws and bolstered its strengths.
The resounding triumph of It is the quality of the acting from the overwhelmingly young cast. Horror fans are uncomfortably familiar with child actors that can’t deliver and derail a movie, so it was a big relief that the Losers’ Club turned out to be stacked with talent. They all knocked it out of the park.
I believed every single one of these children’s performances. Each kid felt like an individual person. Nothing felt inorganic or forced, and they all had great chemistry with each other. These kids hit all the right notes—awkward posturing, swallowing fear to stick up for themselves, pining after the one girl in the group, or grappling with massive personal problems. There was a lot going on in the movie, and it moved quickly through a lot of plot, but the child actors kept the movie grounded and reminded us of the humanity and vulnerability at the core of the story.
I can understand how easily a child actor can adopt similar characteristics from his or her cast mates or to lose sight of their own character. But these kids? These kids are professionals, able to create and inhabit distinct characters while following direction on what was probably a very stressful and difficult shoot. While some of them were criminally underdeveloped (which I’ll get into later), I loved how each of them was able to carve out a niche for themselves onscreen. I wanted more of them. Lots more.
On the same note, Pennywise was pretty damn good. I’ll admit that I was NOT feeling the character design in early stills of the film (the initial design seemed like a rip-off American Horror Story: Freakshow) but I admit I was wrong.
Somehow, that aggressively frilly and poofy costume created a disquieting effect. When Pennywise was stalking children, popping up from flooded basements, and prancing around with those creepy red balloons, the whole package of his ridiculous costume and Bill Skarsgård’s creepy facial expression and demonic voice was incredibly menacing. A fantastic interpretation of the character.
And speaking of Bill Skarsgård, he was excellent. He carried the movie, providing the focal point in a movie that tended to veer all over the place.
I can’t imagine how difficult a time he had acting underneath all that makeup and in that costume, but Skarsgård made it look quite effortless. He brought intensity, malice, and a jubilant wickedness to his portrayal. You really understood how much It delights in tormenting and devouring children. At the same time, the monster is unpredictable, with boundless depravity. Skarsgård gave us all that, threatening in his horrifying smile, even if the movie failed to explore just how evil It is. Skarsgård’s It succeeded in creeping the hell out of me.
But creepy wasn’t good enough.
I found the movie frustrating because it wasn’t very scary and we didn’t get to spend enough time with the characters. Where was the same kind of biting, stinging pain and betrayal we’ve come to expect from It? How could this be? How could an adult version, R-rated version of It be this blah?
Here’s the thing—It, as a novel, is well over 1,000 pages. Those pages are packed with tons of character development and plotting and escalating dread that explodes into moments of true horror.
This film was a good film adaptation of the novel. But it should never have been a film adaptation. There’s no way the film could develop all the characters or explore the mounting tension in two and half hours.
Of course, there were messed-up moments and solid jump scares. The scene with Bev in the bathroom was disgusting. The portrait monster attack was pretty effective. The slide show scene in the garage was AMAZING. And I CANNOT BELIEVE that they showed Pennywise ripping off Georgie’s arm and then showed poor Georgie trying to crawl away. That shit was upsetting.
But It ran up against the limitations involved with a film, mainly time constraints. Any film adaptation of a novel will struggle with what to include and what to cut. A novel like It, even when adapting one half of the story, presents a unique challenge.
I am sympathetic to this dilemma. The screenplay made some good choices. The Ritual of Chüd? Probably best that it was cut. Exploring It’s Lovecraftian evil? You could easily save that for the sequel, no problem, especially because Pennywise was still pretty evil. Child orgy? Excise that nonsense.
We got a shallow look at each child’s struggle, but what about the really heartbreaking stuff? What about Bill’s neglectful, resentful parents? Limited to one brief scene between Bill and his father. Bev’s abusive father? All mention of his physical abuse is ignored in favor of focusing on his creepy, incestuous behavior towards her (which is still horrific). Perhaps most disappointingly, what about the vile, pervasive racism that the audience knows Mike experiences? Nowhere near as visceral as it could have and should have been.
The vast majority of each child’s trauma is condensed to fit into the movie, but a lot was lost in the process. This is understandable, because when there are seven separate children to explore (eight if you count Henry Bowers). That’s a lot of characters to get through! Again, it is a testament to the strength of the performances that the child actors were able to make these characters seem like fully-formed people.
In horror, characterization is essential to scaring the audience. If you aren’t invested in a character, what’s the point? It is scary because we are terrified for the children. In the novel, we get to know the kids intimately. We learn their dark secrets, the heavy burdens foisted upon them by irresponsible adults, and the personal hells they trudge through day in and day out. We learn how their trauma has shaped their individual world views. We come to care about them, to empathize with them. Having such a deep understanding of each character underscores how evil Pennywise really is. He exploits each child’s personal struggle, relishing the pain of the particularly damaged children and thereby finishing the work of Derry’s adults.
But in this film, there is barely anything presented to be exploited. We don’t see near enough of Eddie’s manipulative isolation of her son. We don’t get to see Richie have a one-on-one encounter with It. And we don’t see enough of Henry Bower to understand why he finally snaps and murders his dad. Sure, we get some loaded scenes, but I found it hard to shake the feeling that I was missing key components of each character’s arc, despite what I knew from the novel.
Stan spoke a heartbreaking truth: ““When you’re a kid, you think that you’ll always be… protected, and cared for. Then, one day, you realize that’s not true. If you open your eyes, you will see what we’re going through. ‘Cause when you’re alone as a kid, the monsters see you as weaker. You don’t even know they’re getting closer. Until it’s too late.”
Where did these moments of betrayal occur for each child in the film? Where did they realize that their weaknesses marked them as prey? Not everyone got those moments, and if they did, the film’s lightning-fast pace didn’t allow time for reflection. Important scenes zipped by, neglecting nuance in favor of checking off plot points. Other scenes seemed to drag on without adding much.
I couldn’t feel terrified for kids I barely knew. I was worried for them and invested in their survival, but not enough to be terrified on their behalf. How could I be expected to understand the depth of Derry’s failure to protect and care for its children? Or grasp the gravity of It’s evil? Filmmakers can’t expect the audience to make major changes from the source material only to depend on it to color the spaces left blank in the film’s narrative.
Again, It was not a bad movie. The movie was a very good film adaptation that succeeded in streamlining a lot of plot points and juggled a lot of important characters with help from a dynamic and talented cast. It was compelling, creepy, and heartfelt where it could fit it in.
Yet the fact remains that fitting the appropriate degree of development for that many characters in a two and half hour movie was always going to come up short. The characters and the struggles deserved more. It should have been a miniseries or a limited series. Only a long-form story-telling structure could have accomplished all the heartbreaking horror one expects, given the hugely influential and formidable novel.