Like many readers, I came to Stephen King’s writing in the early seventies, when his debut novel, Carrie had just been released. I read a lot of his books and I thought that It was one of his best later efforts, despite the inclusion of a lamentable (what-was-he-thinking?) scene towards the end of the story that seemed to have strayed in from an entirely different genre. And of course I saw the 1990 TV adaptation, memorable for Tim Curry’s spirited performance as Pennywise but not much else. This new release, however, has certainly caught the public imagination. In a year where overall box office takings are dramatically down, the film is already proving to be a major hit with the public.
The town of Derry is plagued by a string of mysterious disappearances – most recently, young Georgie Denborough (Jackson Robert Scott) has chased a paper boat along a rainy gutter and into the clutches of a homicidal clown. The event leaves Georgie’s older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), riddled with guilt and obsessed with finding his lost sibling. Bill teams up with a bunch of fellow outsiders from his school and together they start to uncover Derry’s infamous history – one that appears to feature a list of similar disappearances going back for centuries…
What made the source novel so good was that King really knew how to write about teenagers – and that’s certainly the element that new director, Andy Muschietti, gets right. There are appealing performances from all of the young actors in this version, especially from Sophia Lillis as Beverly and from Finn Wolfhard, channeling his inner Corey Feldman as motormouthed geek Richie Tozier. Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is also fabulously creepy in the early scenes, but inevitably, the more we see of him, the less scary he becomes. This means that I really enjoy the first hour or so, but by the time the young protagonists had pursued their supernatural quarry down into the sewers, I am enjoying proceedings a whole lot less. Somebody should have whispered in Muschietti’s ear the old maxim that less is more. But no, he keeps piling it on, and all the menace he’s worked so hard to create runs straight down the drain. Interestingly, it’s the same problem that plagued his earlier film, Mama.
And it’s not just the over-reliance on effects that niggles here. What passed for plotting back in the eighties is starting to feel decidedly heavy-handed in this day and age. I could have done without the cartoonish gang of bullies terrorising the weaker kids in town (or at least had their over-the-top antics dialled down a couple of notches) and, while I appreciate the whole thing is a metaphor for kid’s coming to terms with their true identities, the points don’t need driving home with an economy-sized sledgehammer. As for the decision to turn the book into two different films, one dealing with the nineteen eighties and another featuring the kids all grown up and returning to Derry to confront their old nemesis? Well, given the success of part one, the creators are doubtless rubbing their hands at the prospect of pulling it off a second time.
Whatever I think about It hardly matters. It’s already a massive success and one that clearly chimes with a wide audience. King will, I’m sure, be pleased at what’s finally been done with his book. After so many cack-handed adaptations of his work (including The Lawnmower Man, from which he made a point of having his name removed) this at least is recognisably his brain child. It’s frankly not the spine chilling masterpiece that many have labeled it as, but maybe you can’t argue with bums on seats.