It ★★★★

Why are so many Stephen King adaptations so very, very bad? There are a lot of them - I grew up in a period where the number of Stephen King movies released in any given time period would dwarf the number of superhero movies people complain about oversaturating the market today - and almost none of them are good. Some of them are downright HORRIBLE, in fact.

Most Stephen King adaptations are bad because they don’t understand Stephen King, or at least what makes King the storyteller that he is. It isn’t the supernatural or horror premises that makes King’s best work so good, it’s the characters and the setting. King places character and setting before all else (to see this concept taken to its most extreme, check out TOMMYKNOCKERS), and he uses his horror elements as inciting incidents more than anything else. CUJO’s already a full narrative before the rabid dog shows up, it’s just a domestic drama about a cereal guy and his cheating wife.

This is why the King adaptations that most fans feel warmest about - even when they acknowledge they’re no good - are the TV miniseries. THE STAND contains about a tenth of the power of the novel, but the characters work in their own diluted way in that miniseries. The original IT fucking STINKS, but the casting is good and the characters have room to breathe. There’s an essential King-ness to those bad miniseries.

The feature film version of IT (one day to be known as IT: CHAPTER ONE or, in these acronymonial times IT:CO or ICO) is successful because it splits the difference between movie and miniseries. The film presents only half the original novel (the best half, it’s worth noting), thus giving itself more room to breathe in its two hour running time than it would have had if those two hours were forced to tell a story set in the past AND a story set in the present. Things still feel a touch rushed - there are so many main characters in this that some get short shrifted - but Gary Dauberman’s screenplay has some space in which to establish the members of the Loser’s Club and the cursed town of Derry, and to do so in a story that feels very whole and complete.

Moving King’s 1950s setting up to the 1980s, IT follows a group of middle school dorks who, on their summer vacation, discover that their hometown of Derry, Maine is a site of ancient evil, one that comes in the form of a terrifying clown that feeds on children. These kids - the Loser’s Club, they call themselves - must not only deal with Pennywise the Dancing Clown in all his personalized forms, they must also deal with all the problems of adolescence, including overbearing moms, psychotic bullies (it ain’t a King story of youth if the bullies aren’t slightly meaner than Amon Goeth), and surging hormonal issues.

The kids are well written - as someone who was only a few years older than them in 1989 I found their dialogue and attitudes to be incredibly correct - but more than that they’re fabulously cast. Director Andy Muschietti has discovered a whole new generation of actors who you should get used to seeing in a bunch of stuff, especially Sophia Lilis, whose Bev is going to spawn A LOT of creepy Reddit threads, and Jeremy Ray Taylor as sad fat kid Ben. Jack Dylan Grazer, as the hypochondriac Eddie, is a heartbreaking delight. Finn Wolfhard, star of the IT rip-off STRANGER THINGS, is extraordinary as Richie Tozier, the wise-cracker of the group, but you can’t give Muschietti credit on that one. The other kids - Chosen Jacobs as Mike, the black outsider, and Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Uris, the Jewish outsider - fall victim to the film’s jam-packed nature. They’re great (there’s a gravity to Jacobs’ performance that, I believe, makes up for Mike Hanlon being one of the more underwritten characters in the King canon), but they’re clearly batting clean-up in terms of importance.

What’s interesting about this version of IT is how it reduces, in my opinion, Bill to third spot. In the novel Bill, who grows up to be a novelist, is the Stephen King stand-in (he’s basically STAND BY ME’s Gordie, the Wil Wheaton character) and the center of it all. He’s still central here, but Dauberman’s script recognizes the two most interesting characters on the table - Ben and Bev, who will both undergo massive changes between this film and the next, where they’re adults (spoilers: Ben gets really hot). IT 2017 recognizes that while Bill is the King character and the leader, Ben is the beating heart of the whole thing. Ben also, for reasons I don’t fully understand, takes on Mike’s main role in the story as the historian who puts together Derry’s history. I’m not sure what that means for the sequel, as in the novel Mike grew up to be the town librarian, a job more suited for the movie Ben.

Intriguingly, that’s just one of the major liberties Dauberman’s script takes with the narrative of the novel and yet somehow remains identifiably IT. The kids don’t experience It in the same manifestations as the novel, whole sequences are elided (I truly miss the kids having a hallucinatory experience to discover the nature of the monster), some of the characters are truncated, the time period is obviously changed, but the spirit remains the same. This is a striking example of how an adaptation can remain spiritually faithful to the work, even while changing lots of things around.

The horror sequences in IT are uniformly terrific. Muschetti’s feature debut, MAMA, was a soggy mess with great imagery, but with the skeleton of King’s novel supporting him, Muschietti is able to hang his creepy and scary imagery on something solid. And man, is his imagery ever creepy. IT has plenty of jump scares, but IT also has sequences of deeply unnerving tension, passages that leave you unsettled without screaming in your face. And when the screams in your face do come, they feel incredibly earned. IT moves from set piece to set piece, building up and releasing tension in such a way that you feel fairly exhausted by the end of the film.

At the center of the horror is Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgård, and holy shit does this Pennywise work. I know a younger generation grew up afraid of the miniseries Pennywise, played with aplomb by Tim Curry, but that clown isn’t scary. THIS clown is scary, and he’s scary in a way that feels totally otherworldly. The film does subtle things, like letting Pennywise’s eye slowly drift to the side as he coaxes a child into his sewer lair, that creates an aura of unknowable menace around the clown. Skarsgård goes for it, alternating between a being that is showing the children a form that will frighten them - and thus being very broad at times - and also the reality of that being behind the greasepaint.

IT comes at a strange time in the pop culture cycle. It’s following STRANGER THINGS, a hit that was built largely from the DNA of King’s novel, and it is coming into a landscape choking with 80s nostalgia (the looming monstrosity that is READY PLAYER ONE is the culmination of this, the orgiastic bacchanal that finally picks clean the bones of that fairly shitty and crass decade). Taking IT out of the 50s makes sense, but it also puts the film in danger of being all-too familiar to audiences that have glommed on to the work it influenced.

But IT isn’t saturated in 80s nostalgia. It’s certainly there, and IT: CHAPTER ONE has a serious sense of place, but perhaps it’s the fact that Muschietti didn’t grow up in the US that makes this film feel more like a movie set in the 80s than a movie ABOUT the 80s. Muschetti doesn’t try to do the JJ Abrams thing of shamelessly aping the Amblin style, and the movie has fewer pop culture references than I expected. It has fewer pop culture references than THE NOVEL, which sees It taking the form of all sorts of things the kids see on TV, including Michael Landon’s Teenage Werewolf. IT is a Warner Bros film set during the summer when BATMAN came out… and yet none of the characters make a Joker reference.

That’s a sign of the film’s quality (although I could have handled It taking the form of a slasher or something that reflected the kind of horror we consumed in the late 80s) - it’s more about the story and the characters than the shameless pandering. And the film’s monsters are pretty damn good even if they’re off-brand; Muschetti introduces a new monster in the form of an impressionistic painting that comes to deformed life to terrorize Stanley. The leper that haunts the Neiboldt Street house is a modern classic design, a truly disgusting work of special effects art.

What is intriguing is how this lack of nostalgic pandering impacts the themes of the story. In the novel the kids reconvene as grown-ups and discover they’ve forgotten most of the experiences they had in their childhoods. We live in a culture where forgetting your childhood is not allowed - everybody is supposed to still like all the stuff they liked when they were nine, and we still make cartoons, TV shows and movies about all those same properties today, as well as very expensive collector toys - and so King’s themes of nostalgia covering trauma will play differently, perhaps. Or perhaps they’ll be more powerful, as they speak to some weird generational trauma that has forced millions to treat the crap that was marketed to them with the same warmth and love healthy people reserve for their friends and families.

IT’s other main themes - coming of age, friendship and the importance of facing fears - come through intact. As does the theme that runs through so much of King’s best work, the idea that true evil isn’t really hidden in a scary house in the bad part of town but rather that it’s everywhere around you, that it’s out in the daylight nodding and smiling at you when you pass by its store or when you cross in front of its car at an intersection. Evil in King’s work isn’t just supernatural, it’s deeply human, and it’s an inch below the surface at all times. When I was talking about the things bad King adaptations don’t get, this is maybe the number one thing - King is a big proponent of the banality of evil. IT gets it.

IT is a remarkable film. Filled with life and heart, it’s also scary and fun. IT is one of the great King adaptations, a movie that truly understands why he’s the master of horror, and embraces the stuff that makes King King (even, as I mentioned, over-the-top psycho bullies). But IT makes it’s own way, makes it’s own Derry, and so IT doesn’t feel stale or like a rehash. IT is perhaps the absolute rarest of movies, the horror epic, and by the end of its two hour plus runtime you’ll feel like you’ve been on an adventure, like you’ve binge-watched a version of STRANGER THINGS that actually gets it right. You’ll wish you had more time to hang out with the Loser’s Club, but at the same time you’ll be satisfied.

But you won’t get as far as your car before you begin thinking about who they cast in the sequel, who plays the adult versions of the Loser’s Club. And you’ll wonder how Dauberman and Muschetti are going to take the weaker half of the novel and make it work, and maybe you’ll wonder if stuff that was held back from Chapter One is being used in Chapter Two. You’ll be doing all your fancasting and your speculating, and then when you get home and get into bed and turn off the lights your mind, which is still thinking of IT, will flash an image of Pennywise in front of you, and even though you’re a grown adult you’ll check the closet and maybe leave the hall light on. Because hey, you never know… and IT is just that good.