Review! IT (2016) Directed by Andy Muschietti. Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard. IMDB says “A group of bullied kids band together when a monster, taking the appearance of a clown, begins hunting children.”
It’s been just over 30 years since Stephen King’s novel IT hit shelves and started to terrorize readers. The book was quickly adapted to a miniseries and thanks to Tim Curry’s impossible-to-shake performance as Pennywise the Child Eating Clown, an entire generation of kids and adults were suddenly saddled with a lifetime’s worth of nightmare fuel. But like the Clown of Pure Evil centered at the heart of this story, Hollywood felt like audiences were due for another induction of fear.
First, let’s step back briefly to look at both King’s original novel and the subsequent miniseries. Both works center on the fictional small town of Derry, Maine and unsettling unnatural occurrences throughout the town. A group of children find that an evil shape-shifter – most often taking the form of a clown named Pennywise – is behind many of the nefarious acts. From there, the stories shifts between the group when they are young and experiencing “It” for the first time, then later when they are adults and faced with a similar series of events. King does this for an important reason but the miniseries struggled to get the balancing act just right. In this 2017 adaptation, the writers chose to separate the plotline focusing on the children and saved the adult story for a second film. This feels like a wise choice as we get to spend so much time with the characters as children and really get a feel for the themes centered around their story. There is a strong emotional core of the film that resonates because we get to spend time in one mindset before comparing it to what they are going through as adults. This is my favorite part of the film (which I’ll touch on more in the end of my review.)
So just to lay out my hand, I truly enjoyed this movie. It strikes a great balance of humor and terror while never letting the viewer get comfortable for too long. There are plenty of nightmarish set pieces and a tension that you just can’t ignore. From start to finish, it’s an onslaught of visual dread and unapologetic bloodshed. It is easy to connect with these kids because you also can’t escape It. Every dark corner and every isolated moment will reveal something of your darkest fears come to life. A fun time at the movies for everyone!
In case you were worried about it, the cast of child actors are unilaterally fantastic. They feel like real kids, real friends and when the scene demands, like they are really terrified. I honestly was so taken with how well the kids performed that I just forgot about it mid-way through the movie (which is maybe the highest compliment I could give?) They all felt like seasoned professionals. But what about Pennywise? How does someone top one of the most iconic performances of all time? It helps that the two clowns provide very different visualizations of the character. I didn’t think back to how Tim Curry might have played the scene because the environment of both films are so different. With that in mind, Bill Skarsgård killed it. He made this Pennywise a frightening version all his own, playing up some of this own physical traits while creating unearthly new characteristics for the demon clown.
Yes, Pennywise is horrifying and so is child death but what makes this story so special is how well it conveys universal themes about childhood, trauma, friendship and survival. I think being a kid is so much harder than fiction is often willing to represent. If you made it out of your younger years without any major trauma or personal stress then I’d say you had things pretty great. In IT, the writers take the lead from King and strongly convey how kids cope with awful situations. Since Pennywise can take the shape of anything that scares the children, it is easy to spot the parallels of how each fear corresponds to the child overcoming their own personal hell. It’s a difficult subject to take on but the story is expertly handled and layers these themes in an effective way. The best thing I could say about this adaptation is that it feels so close to what King conveyed in his original novel.