WASHINGTON, October 30, 2017 – It’s perhaps unsurprising that the film “It” – which is based on a novel by Stephen King – has become the shining star in 2017’s annual Hollywood Halloween box office sweepstakes. In a year of otherwise lackluster new releases, Warner Brothers’ new hit horror film release by New Line Cinema proves yet again that King is one of the most prolific and gifted genre writers of his era, a novelist whose long string of successes extends to the many successful adaptations of his books for the silver screen.
Over the years, there’s often been some critical pushback regarding the quality of this author’s prose. Yet no one has ever been able to deny that Stephen King is incredibly skilled at spinning a good yarn.
King’s legendary storytelling gift has allowed his work to easily transcend the usual entertainment and media barriers. His novels and short stories have been regularly adapted for both TV and film, and on occasion, multiple times in both mediums.
The newly released film horror hit “It” is a picture perfect example of this phenomenon. In its latest incarnation – the first was a 1990 TV miniseries – the 2017 film of “It” becomes only the most recent of a King novel that’s been adapted more than once for the screen.
There’s always been something about King’s brand of storytelling that’s managed to capture a large audience’s imagination. While he operates comfortably within the horror/thriller genre, he will also toss tasty bits of science fiction and fantasy into his horrific narrative world.
King’s ideas and concepts flow seamlessly throughout his narratives. It all feels quite supernatural, although the author never exactly plays by the same rules as others in the genre. Instead of spelling things out, he provides just enough to spark key ideas and suspicions in his readers rather simply defining them.
This permits a certain malleability with regard to interpretations and adaptations of King’s work. A nudge here and a tug there won’t completely change the author’s narrative purpose, message or themes even as such interpretative or directorial notions allow the story to fit into the individual wheelhouse of whomever is making the adaptation.
This unusual narrative flexibility is the primary reasons why a single Stephen King novel can be adapted several times. Each iteration exists as an entity, often completely different from the source material while remaining distinct from any other adaptation.
This is what happens with “It” when it re-emerges as a film. The latest “It” treatment largely holds true regarding the original setting and characters at the heart of the story, but it is very much a different animal from either the book or the TV miniseries.
Some details are different, of course, the most prominent example being the timeframe when the movie takes place. When such details are different, this can and does create minor narrative fluctuations. But most importantly, the characters in the film largely remain true to the original, even though their trajectories are slightly altered along with the film’s tone.
Nominally, “It” is a horror film. As such, “It” displays many of the telltale signs that immerse the film in any number of recognizable horror tropes. Using a clown to embody evil wasn’t exactly an original idea in 1986, but it’s a concept that will continue to resonate because for many, clowns continue to have a slightly uneasy feel to them to the point of becoming a recognizable phobia.
The atmospheric lighting and cinematography in “It” deepen the clownish creepiness, further enhancing our (and the characters’) sense of dread through the creative use of shadows and the right amount of jump cuts.
In addition, one of the hallmarks of the original Stephen King novel was its juxtaposition of gore against the backdrop of childhood – at least in its flashback scenes. Some of this is still present, though subordinated, in the current film.
The look and feel of the film capture the sense of menace that haunts the book. But although the surface details of horror are present, the film digs a little deeper into the psyche than book or the miniseries ever did.
For example, in the novel, although the narrative spends a good deal of time with the kids, it seldom digs deeply into their personalities. They’re given things to do, but their fears are essentially simplistic, like what children will tell you they’re afraid of rather then what someone actually remembers being afraid of as a kid.
In his novel, King focuses much more on the kids as grownups, exploiting their memories of childhood trauma as a device to propel their present state. “It” the film, however, smartly crafts the story solely around the kids. Instead of being about the way adults react when confronted by the remembered horror of childhood, the film’s narrative is all about how kids process their own traumas in real time.
In the film, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) remains the story’s central protagonist and the driving behind the terror the kids face in the film. But his formerly literal presence becomes more vague, more surreal.
Pennywise can change form and propel the kids into hallucinatory despair, but his actual touch is sleight. When he reveals himself to the children, his presence is obscure enough for us to feel he’s really part of a child’s imagination run amok.
This why the notion of childhood trauma is so paramount within the film. The transitions between the children’s world and the nightmares Pennywise wishes to project have to merge seamlessly. The trauma he causes or symbolizes must be deeply rooted. He does more than simply frightening each of the children. He haunts them now and continues to do so even after he is done “playing” with them.
The crux of the story revolves around Pennywise murdering George Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), the younger brother of Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), the story’s main protagonist. Bill’s entire story revolves around how helpless he feels due to his inability to protect his younger brother. Bill’s greatest trauma is his memory that he allowed George to go out into the rain alone, convincing him that his brother’s ensuing disappearance/murder was entirely his fault.
Not surprisingly, from the start of the story, the ghost of George haunts Bill, as the remembered George eerily repeats phrases Bill last remembers him saying. Similar yet different fears drive two more of the film’s most prominent characters, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Beverley (Sophia Lillis).
Eddie’s mother and her unrelenting fear for his safety dominate his life. His own fear of a cartoonish leper figure reflects this fear in turn.
Beverley’s arc is a bit more fraught. One of the major tropes King likes to play with is a girl’s ascent into womanhood, often symbolized by blood imagery. In “It,” this directly ties into Beverly’s relationship with her abusive father, who constantly fixates on her girlhood, specifically her hair. In retaliation, she cuts off a significant portion of her hair. This leads to a horrific bathroom scene, in which that cut hair in the sink comes alive, attempting to strangle her, engulfed in a torrent of blood.
The childhood traumas experienced by the others cluster around their individual existential fears, all of which hold them back from moving forward. The lone exception is Richie (Finn Wolfhard), whose fear of clowns is casually tossed aside until it’s becomes relevant to the plot.
As for the others, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) worries about getting older; Mike (Chosen Jacobs) agonizes over the death of his parents; and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is constantly bullied. All these fears burrow deeply into the consciousness of these characters, making their fears operate at more than just the surface level.
Pennywise appears in each of these scenes but only passingly, which is key. The vagueness of his presence has an impact on both the kids and the audience. He’s not an overt puppet master, but appears when it’s time to raise the emotional stakes, because the film has to give the kids something tangible to conquer. It’s why Bill’s eventual confrontation with “George” and with loss resonates so strongly.
If the current film version of “It” has a problem, it’s the size of the cast and the unnecessary presence of some of the characters. Stanley, Ben, and Mike, for example, are often shuffled to the background. Given few key moments, they’re used more as plot devices than as fully developed characters.
When “It” remains focused on its central premise is when this film truly shines. As noted, “It” the movie, builds on the original source material but digs deeper into the story’s subliminal meaning.
“It” streamlines the novel’s original narrative by focusing its attention squarely on the kids and the durable, ongoing traumas that can permanently affect them – and nearly everyone else – as they are growing up. And that’s what ultimately resonates with the eager audiences that have been flocking to multiplexes to see the film this fall.