The standard complaint when it comes to adaptations of Stephen King books is that the film and television productions don’t live up to the skin-crawling terror that comes when reading one of his stories. It’s a gamble many writers and directors have taken, but only a few (“Salem’s Lot,” “Carrie,” “Misery”) have proved to be winners. With others, most recently “The Dark Tower,” the scariest thing is how badly they have been made.
The team behind the 1990 TV miniseries version of King’s 1986 novel “It” had a hit on their hands until the final moments. Having four hours to tell the stories of a group of friends in the ’50s and ’80s who come together to face their ultimate fears gave the production team enough time to get across a lot of the common themes in King stories: how early events in our lives shape us, the influences of family, the dark side of small town life and the bonds of friendship, to name a few. The only gigantic flaw in the TV production was the embarrassingly awful series of special effects at the end, which turned a marvelous tale of horror — driven by one of the great performances in Tim Curry’s career as the creep clown Pennywise — into a joke.
Producers of the new version of “It” have circumvented both problems. Instead of telling the story the way King wrote it by bouncing between two time periods, this new “It” focuses on the friends as 13-year-olds. The later years would be told if there is a sequel.
Those who have not read the book or seen the miniseries will find “It” to be a creepy fear factory running on the energy of Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. Without the work of Curry as a comparison, Skarsgard’s performance stands alone because of the brilliant blend of comedy, horror and psychological manipulation that makes this clown as memorable as the first encounter with Jason or Freddie.
Without any background from the book, there’s no anticipation that the story will become a psychological study of how badly young people can be scarred when the stuff of their most terrifying nightmares comes to life. Focusing on the youngsters filters out all of the deeper meaning in the way Pennywise terrorizes the group and reduces the film to a rather generic horror movie. It’s a very good generic horror film — as long as you aren’t making comparisons to the book.
Those who haven’t read King’s work will more likely see strong comparisons to the massively entertaining Netflix series “Stranger Things.” Both projects feature a group of outcasts who split their time dodging bullies, trying to lead a normal teenage life in the ’80s, riding their bikes all over the community and fighting a creature that is at its heart pure evil. There’s even a direct link, as Finn Wolfhard stars in both “Stranger Things” and “It.” In the end, “Stranger Things” has an advantage because the streaming show’s running time of eight hours allowed for deeper story lines.
Again, those who have not seen “Stranger Things” won’t be making such comparisons.
An element that works with “It,” even in the abridged version, is the sense of loneliness and helplessness the friends — who call themselves the Losers’ Club — face. They all live in a world where the adults are either oblivious to what is happening or are so twisted in their own minds that they are doing more harm to their children than any creepy clown who lives in the sewers could ever do.
Pennywise is terrifying, but he’s not the biggest monster in the film. The story thread that follows Beverly (Sophia Lillis) dealing with her overly aggressive father is chilling to watch as it unfolds. The only way it could have been better (as anyone who has read the book can tell you) is if the story had been expanded to show the aftermath of Beverly’s abusive home life.
The parents had to be either absentee or unhinged for the actions of the Losers’ Club to stay within the parameters of logic. They all witness unholy things — perpetrated both by Pennywise and others living in the small community of Derry, Maine — but never have the option of turning to adults for help.
Director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) delivers the script by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman (based on the novel by King) less as a horror film and more as a study of what would happen if a murderous clown showed up to pursue the “Stand By Me” gang. He lets the tale unfold in the same kind of small-town quietness that Steven Spielberg has used so well. Muschietti exploits that unrealistic quaintness to make the madness happening to the young friends an even starker contrast to their real world.
He gets great performances by all in the cast, from the heartsick Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) to the germophobe Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). These young performers manage to play their characters as heroes, while never relinquishing the elements that make them seem like the kids next door.
When it comes to the new adaptation of “It,” the amount of enjoyment will depend on familiarity with the source material. Being unaware makes it easier to enjoy this well-made standard horror story. Knowing what the story could have been but isn’t is the stuff of which complaints with past King adaptations have been based.