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 Be a Clown

Bill Skarsgard
Bill Skarsgard
New Line Cinema
 135 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgard 

Few writers have had such a wide disparity in the quality of film adaptations based on their works as has Stephen King. The best adaptations of King works, films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Shining, rank among the best films ever made and were showered with recognition at Oscar time. On the other hand, the worst King adaptations include some truly wretched works such as Maximum Overdrive, directed by King himself and featuring killer monster trucks (or, perhaps, monster killer trucks). Just one month ago, the doors of the King Hall of Infamy opened wide to swallow up the misbegotten Dark Tower. But, now, in a case of cosmic King karma, the film adaptation of one of King’s longest novels, It, avoids every mistake that helped sink The Dark Tower and may well become the best grossing King film of all time.


It has been filmed once previously, as a 1990 TV-miniseries with a cast that featured a number of familiar television faces, including John Ritter, Richard Thomas, and Harry Anderson. But, as with several of King’s longer, more complex novels (the book is over 1,100 pages long), feature filmmakers had been unwilling to attempt a theatrical adaptation of It until now. To keep the movie at a manageable length, the producers decided to film only the chronological first half of King’s book (with the second half to come in a 2019 release). That decision, along with some other shrewd choices and a solid script, result in a film that evokes some of King’s best non-horror works and also pays homage to some of his better fright novels.


The movie takes place in the fictional town of Derry, ME, in 1989. School life there is its own form of horror for a group of 13-year-old outsiders who band together and call themselves the Losers Club. Their de facto leader is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), who is still trying to cope with the disappearance of his younger brother Georgie several months earlier, one of many unsolved disappearances of Derry children over the years. What the audience knows, but Bill and his friends don’t, is that Georgie was dragged into a sewer and killed by a bizarrely sinister clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), as shown in the scene below.


Life in Derry is tough enough for the Losers Club without sewer-dwelling clowns. They are constantly bullied by a sadistic group of older boys led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), a budding psychopath. Henry’s idea of fun and games includes carving lettering on the stomach of a newcomer to town, overweight Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). But the danger Henry poses pales in comparison to other terrors lurking in town, terrors that take the form of the deepest fear each member of the Losers Club has. Yet, somehow, each child’s terror likes back to Pennywise and the source of the evil, buried deep below the town.


The King movie that It most closely resembles isn’t one of his horror films at all, but, rather Rob Reiner’s coming of age tale, Stand by Me. For this is a movie about many of the traditional fears that budding teenagers feel about themselves, their perceived inadequacies and feelings of rejection and worthlessness, and the constant bullying they face from Henry and many others in their class for being different. The best scenes in the movie, in fact, aren’t the horror scenes at all, but some of the simplest and most universally true ones.


Few 13-year-olds have to deal with demented supernatural clowns, but many develop a bad case of nerves in approaching girls like Bev Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the only female member of the Losers Club, who becomes the apex of a touchingly sweet romantic triangle involving Bill and Ben. Bev has her own horror to deal with, that of a father who is somewhat too affectionate. In fact, nearly every adult in this movie is either absent, completely incapable of providing help, or actively antagonistic towards the members of the Club. It’s the club members’ realization that they are indeed alone and the way in which they decide to take on Pennywise and his assorted evils that separate It from a host of lesser horror films.


Ironically, when It moves from being a nostalgic coming-of-age story to a traditional horror film, the movie is not as effective. Director Andy Muschietti captures the essence of Stephen King’s central concept, namely that the creature understands what each member of the Losers Club is most afraid of and uses that to inspire terror. However, several of the set pieces go on too long, soon substituting repetitive special effects for any genuine psychological horror. Further, while the movie’s R-rating affords Muschietti a freedom that the makers of the TV miniseries didn’t have due to network television censorship constraints, it’s rarely put to optimal use, except in the very first meeting between Georgie and Pennywise.


As in the book and the miniseries, Pennywise is the most frightening evil force in the movie. Bill Skarsgard lacks the manic glee that Tim Curry memorably brought to the role in the miniseries, but his intensity suggests a darker evil that hides behind a clown face that’s considerably more sinister than Curry’s was. Muschietti is able to tap into the essence of Pennywise’s evil in a way the earlier version did not.


Although the script co-authored by the talented Cary Fukunaga (who was originally slated to direct the movie) is quite faithful to the chronological first half of  King’s book, It still feels a bit bloated at times, with too many characters competing for the two-hour running time. As a result, a couple of the Losers Club members emerge as losers themselves in the character development battle. Yet, Muschietti has managed to capture some of the universal truths of adolescence and turned them into a decent horror movie. After seeing what other filmmakers did to an equally complex King work barely one month earlier, everyone associated with this project is to be commended for getting the essence of King right. It certainly has it, the right King stuff and the right cinematic stuff.

In this scene, Pennywise the Clown lures young Georgie to his death.

Read other reviews of It:


It (2017) on IMDb