Decades have passed since I read the book or saw the miniseries, but I do love Stephen King’s It. The moment that the movie was announced, I knew that I was going to see the latest adaptation of his wildly popular novel during opening weekend. While the filmmakers shamelessly depart from the novel’s story by setting It in the 1980s to appeal to my age demographic, children of the eighties who remember when Batman was Michael Keaton, but now have enough disposable income to experience their nostalgia at movie theaters, and splitting it into two separate chapters to get that Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit money, I do not mind. This adaptation is faithful to the spirit of the book, and there is plenty of material to create two separate films.It is neither perfect (a five) nor mediocre (a three), but I hesitate to give it a solid four. A strong ending will bring audiences back to theaters and make them forget any earlier weaknesses. This film begins by letting you know that it is deliciously merciless, but then loses momentum at the denouement, the final confrontation, just when it is needed. At 2 hours 15 minutes, there was probably a hot ten to twenty minutes that should have been cut or something was missing that should have tightened up the narrative. While Bill Skarsgard’s embodiment of Pennywise is creepily perfect, the attacks get to be repetitive (eat them already), and towards the end, when the kids kept getting separated, it was slightly annoying. A friend who was unfamiliar with the original story said that she wanted to know more about the titular character, I did not feel similarly because I had filled in the holes with accumulated debris from jumbled memories of King’s various stories and my imagination. If the film elaborated a bit more on Ben’s research and Mike’s knowledge of the town’s history, I would have preferred it to revisiting the poignant loss of Georgie. While Richie is memorable, he and Stan’s fears are under developed. I do plan to watch It again with subtitles at home because a lot of the dialogue is overlapping and gets swallowed in the Dolby Surround sound.
The movie captures perfectly how the town is infected by this evil either through active consent or malignant neglect. Even though the opening scene is a perfect image of fraternal love and childhood, Pennywise feels like it is in the corners of their room, the living room and naturally the basement even after the younger brother turns on a light to confirm that nothing is there. Always trust your first instincts.
It is part of a long King career of puncturing and interrogating our image of the perfect America, small New England towns and childhood summers. The film imagines Derry as a white sepulchre willfully ignoring history, cruelty and the murder of their own children while pretending everything is normal. I thought it was intriguing how the film implicitly makes all the adults seem strange and marked by Pennywise: the woman to the left of Ben in the stacks as he is reading in the library, Bev’s dad (he wears a red t-shirt), the pharmacist, Eddie’s mother (side note: she looks related to the pharmacist), the two adults who drive by Ben and drive onto the covered bridge, Bill’s mom and even his dad who works with the sewer system. You can rationalize away some of the behavior as reasonable reactions to life or coincidence, but collectively, I thought the movie communicated a message that we take for granted, but never fully explore because it is terrifying.
If Pennywise rises every twenty-seven years, then at some level, most of the adults know about It, but survived by serving him, actively ignoring or forgetting It with the exception of Mike’s grandfather, who seems to want to arm him against the threat, but never explicitly says so. They do not get attached to their children because they know that their kids can be killed, or they are willing to sacrifice their children to survive or because on some level, they like It and also enjoy the brutality. There is a brief shot of an old lithograph or drawing of a woman holding a baby at a well. There is literally something in the water. This idea is explicitly confirmed by Pennywise in a proposal.
King’s book and the film seem to suggest that even the colonial foundation of this town, this country, is rooted in dehumanizing others and thus ourselves in order to be able to sacrifice others to evil and survive. There are no Native American legends of It attacking them. Pennywise is one of the founding fathers, a settler. The town’s charter, if there is one, includes a deal with the devil. If you think that the film’s implicit condemnation of the community is too outlandish, look at the riots that broke out at Penn State after Paterno was fired for protecting Sandusky, a pedophile rapist or how long before people were actually willing to admit that the Catholic Church was covering up mass rape and pedophilia throughout the world. These are only the stories that we know about, but they are systematic and about communities willing to either look the other way or actively participate in protecting institutional abuse. King’s story is a happier one because at least a powerful primeval evil being is influencing Derry. Child sacrifice is not a thing of the past. Slavery of others in the South makes more sense when you see what people in the North are willing to do to their own children. The children of Derry are visually equated to the sheep at the slaughterhouse blissfully waiting to be devoured. No one is free from the original sins of this nation.
The film does not make a distinction between the terror that the children face at the hands of human protagonists and It because it is the same threat taking different forms literally and figuratively. It actively equates the two then explicitly makes that point near the end of the film. Evil is evil no matter whom inflicts it or what face it wears. The resulting harm and damage are the same to the victim. I also appreciated that evil usually occurred openly during the day. Evil also adapts to exploit individual circumstances. The ways that the human antagonists and Pennywise attack the seven protagonists are largely the same, particularly Ben, Beverly and Eddie. The attacks on Beverly are explicitly rooted in gender and sexuality, and her awareness of her appeal and fear of how others turn something natural against her made her an intriguing character, but making her the damsel in distress instead of a collective active participant in slaying the dragon as she did in the book was a huge misstep that may explain why the end lacks the same punch as the novel.
What makes the seven young protagonists different is that while they and the entire town is susceptible to attack, they do not cope by continuing the legacy of cruelty, but intervening and actively fighting evil in all its forms. Unlike Derry and its inhabitants, they see each other as individuals even when they do not know each other well. This dynamic is explicitly true with respect to Ben and Beverly, but also the group and the “homeschool kid,” Mike, the black kid. Even when they can only infer danger, they actively call it by name and intervene even though they are equally as assailable. They choose to act instead of ignore. They form a community in which they can be themselves, take collective responsibility not because they caused it, but because they recognize and empathize with everyone’s susceptibility, and confront evil, which includes acknowledging its historical role, revealing its personal effect and then facing it together.
It is only the first chapter, and I eagerly look forward to the second in which as adults, the seven protagonists will have to resume their fight against evil. In the meantime, if you need something to tide you over, I would highly recommend watching the miniseries, Stephen King’s Storm of the Century.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.