Send in the Clown: A Review of the film IT
Well, here is the good news. If you are looking for a moderately frightening film with a killer clown and almost zero character development, then the screen adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth novel IT will certainly achieve the chill factor that you seek. If, however, you are a fan of the thrilling book, revel in its themes and carefully constructed characters, and truly hoped for a film that could capture the essence of King’s tome, you will have to look elsewhere. This film has too much clowning around and not much by way of substance.
Like the red, foreboding balloons that drift through scenes of supposed impending horror in this anemic piece, possibilities float by, tempt us, and then burst into thin air with a pitiful pop. This film, on the surface, sort of looks like IT, sort of feels like IT, and things happen that make you say, “I think I’m watching a film version of IT,” but these are only fleeting occurrences that dissolve into the ether as each blatant disregard for these beloved characters shakes us from the illusion. To begin, very little trouble is given to capturing the characters as they appear in the book. The members of The Losers Club are boiled down into generalizations and clichés. There is almost no backstory to establish why they are losers, only the broadest stereotypes to assure us that they are. It’s like The Goonies, but without the pirate ship. Some of the kids’ plots are switched-around and given to other characters and some characters (Stan Uris and Mike Hanlon particularly) are given almost nothing to do as-a-result-of these arbitrary shifts.
It is important to point out that King’s book never put horror at the forefront of the storytelling. He let it linger in the background, ever-present, but just on the periphery. In fact, IT was always more about developing friendships and conquering one’s internal fears. The real story is about these kids: who they are and how they need each other. The real story is about how we, as a society, collectively turn our heads when we see evil instead of standing up against it. The clown is a metaphor for any evil that pops up and paralyzes us with fear. Pennywise the Dancing Clown feeds on each child’s fear, taking the shape of whatever that is and then that fear eats at the child (literally) until they are either consumed or they overcome the paralysis it causes (growing up). IT knows its victims intrinsically and that is what makes him so powerful. For the film to work, we need to know these characters inside and out. For us to understand how the clown succeeds, we must understand each of the seven losers to see how they tick. This is where the film almost entirely fails. Only two characters are given any marrow: Beverly Marsh (a perfect Sophia Lillis) and Ben Hanscom (earnestly played by Jeremy Ray Taylor), but even they are given short-shrift. I know, dear readers, that you will chide me for expecting too much out of a film made from an enormous, intricate book full of character studies. I insist, however, that a slightly longer film (another half hour) and the necessary effect could be achieved. We just need more time to get to know these adolescents and feel for them.
Do not, for a minute, think that I blame one or any of these young performers for the mediocre storytelling. Each one is quite winning in their respective roles, overcoming their lack of dimension by simply being kids. Not once is there a performance that is cloying, overdone, or unbelievable. Finn Wolfhard (known for his work on the Netflix series Stranger Things) is handed the best one-liners as the jokester-loser Richie Tozier and he delivers them just like an awkward, smartass tween. I wish there had been more opportunity for him to play-off Jack Dylan-Grazer’s twitchy hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (their relationship in the book is quite complex and funny). Jaeden Lieberher as the stuttering leader of the group Bill Denbrough (a character who has lost his brother Georgie to IT) is far more understated than one might expect. It is a judiciously-restrained performance that has just the right tone, even if we aren’t allowed to know too much about him. Chosen Jacobs and Wyatt Oleff, as I mentioned before, are given very little to do as Mike and Stan (respectively), but they both offer glimpses into what could have been. The powers that be are just too dead-set on getting to the clown. They are mistaken to think it’s he that powers this story and makes it compelling.
One other point I would like to make before I move on to Mr. Pennywise. In the book, King makes a big deal about time, place, and tone. I think a grievous mistake has been made by changing the story’s setting from the 1950s to the 1980s. The book had a feeling of innocence, an America that could only have happened pre-1960s, before Vietnam and Nixon. It was that world of Eisenhower-era suburbia and small town charm where everyone knows everybody. It matters that these kids are born of that era, a time where innocence was protected, parents kept you safe, entertainment fostered imagination AND ideals, and a kid was free to wander, unfettered, until the streetlights turned on. It is in that security and innocence that something as innocuous as a clown could suddenly be a monster. By the 1980s, we were a different brand of people. We were in the world of Adam Walsh’s abduction. Parents kept us close to their sides for fear we would be found dead in a gutter.
King also speaks of certain locations in the book and makes you feel like they possess magic. The Barrens, the town library, even the sewers are given a great deal of time and explanation in the book. Obviously, that cannot happen in the film, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have no energy here. The library is not a special place for Ben to escape to; it is a sterile, gloomy building that is void of the charm it has in the novel. The Barrens are not a closed-off place of adventure, canopies of green hiding the shitty water these kids will play in just to escape the bullying Henry Bowers and his delinquent friends. They do not inspire the jungles and fantasias the kids imagine in the book. The sewers, which are an intricate maze, miles of tunnels, are quickly navigated to bring us back to the damn clown. The talismans, safe havens, and paths of adventure are stripped from the film, thereby taking the adventure out of the adventure. It’s just going to be a horror film. They make that clear early on.
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Clown IS frightening. There is no doubt about that. I will admit that I jumped a few times and shuddered at others. What Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Clown IS NOT a Pennywise the Clown that looks or sounds like anything the book describes. Pennywise is frightening from the start of the film. In the book, he plays with the kids like a clown would, luring them in, making them trust him. Frankly, poor Georgie Denbrough was an idiot to go anywhere near that clown because Skarsgård's performance was unsettling and unbalanced at the outset. No kid, in their right mind, would have stuck around to get that paper boat with that drooling crackpot looking back at him. No kid is THAT trusting. In all fairness to Mr. Skarsgard, it is impossible to erase the memory of Tim Curry as Pennywise in the 1990 miniseries. It’s unfortunate that Skarsgard must endure such comparisons, but there you go. In the end, the 1990 miniseries was far more faithful to the book and characters, and we all know what a milquetoast event that watered-down version was (well, most of us).
I will close this review with full disclosure: Stephen King’s IT is probably my favorite book of all-time. I think it a beautifully written coming-of-age story that I relate to on many levels. I was one of those kids. I was what the world would have designated “a loser.” I was afraid of a lot of things and my adolescence was an exercise in hell, but also an experiment in hope. I relate far too closely to the characters of Bill Denbrough, Eddie Kaspbrak, and Stan Uris to maintain full objectivity here. I will never allow their stories to be marginalized in favor of a good scare. Maybe I would never be content with a film version of IT, but I swear to you, if you love the novel as passionately as I do, you know that there is a better film than the one director Andy Muschietti and writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman have ushered to the big screen. Too many liberties are taken here for my taste. I hope others will find more to enjoy than I did. If you set your heart and what you know about the novel aside (or can), you may just enjoy an adequate horror film. For some, that might be enough.