Childhood nostalgia makes “It” a satisfying end-of-summer flick
A jam-packed movie theater at an evening showing of a horror movie on its opening weekend is not an atypical sight in a suburban Pennsylvania town. Total silence in that theater, however, is an atypical sound. This incongruity illustrated the success of the latest film adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”
The film and book both revolve around seven kids who must take on a battle against a being that emerges every 27 years to feast on the local population of a small town in Maine. While the book takes place in the fifties, though, the film is set in 1988. The adjustment in setting frees the movie from an exact replication of the novel, with necessary and simple pop cultural changes as well as significant but ultimately helpful plot adjustments.
The most obvious diversion from the novel is the choice to forgo the interspersed narratives occurring 27 years apart and to instead only tell the half of the story with the characters in their early teens.
This key simplification allows director Andy Muschietti to narrow in on human interpersonal and personal experiences. Character interactions without dialogue or with only carefully chosen lines touch upon the book’s major themes of bullying, abuse and grief, providing a substitute for the book’s authorial narrations.
In contrast to a B-movie style horror flick flooded with archetypes, “It” is studded with fleshed-out characters that the audience can immediately identify with, especially after introductions that focus on their place in their town as victims and follow their emotional trek toward transforming into heroes.
It often chooses to take the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown but can transform to reflect its prey’s deepest fears. Picture a more malevolent boggart from the Harry Potter series. The various forms match elements of the characters perfectly, and the divergence from the book in some specifics — like Mike’s fear of the burning hands of his deceased parents rather than a giant bird — work to increase that synergy. However, the magnified look into the lives of the characters as youths mean that the look and feel of the movie also swings into youthful territory, with certain grittier moments — like the orgy in the sewers — completely eliminated, language somewhat cleaned up and implications leaned on more frequently to tell the story.
So is it scary? Jump scares, suspenseful moments that catch your breath, violence depicted and implied, gore and shots filled with shock value populate much of this movie. And yet, those scenes are often undercut by moments with the children peacefully experiencing a “normal” summer: swimming, flirting and above all, biking. These sections feel reminiscent of the TV series “Stranger Things,” not coincidentally because the two share the same eighties feel and idyllic small town setting. Except, Muschietti found a way to include even fewer adults in “It.”
Thanks to the elimination of the “future” plot points, the only adults in the film become obstacles, large and small. If the parents are not the actual perpetrators of abuse, ridicule and violence, then they are guaranteed to form the roots of insecurities in the main characters. Adults in passing cars fail to act against bullies. Grownups don’t — or can’t — even see It in any form in this film. Thus, the Loser Club — as the seven kids name their confederacy — becomes empowered to fight back against the monster, and by doing so finally fight back against the injustices its members have faced in their adolescence.
More than anything else, “It” feels like an exploration of grief. After the loss of his little brother Georgie, Bill feels a burden of shame, responsibility and despair. His parents are not shown in the movie, except one scene in which his father demands Bill accept Georgie’s death full-stop, without offering any solace or sympathy. By taking on It, the cause of missing children — when so often in real life an explanation is never found — Bill confronts not just a physical manifestation of his fear but also his grief.
As someone who does not often turn to a horror movie for recreational purposes, I felt scared but not out of control. I suspect more hardened horror aficionados might have found this update verging on tame in sections. Looking forward to the upcoming chapter two, one can probably expect even more harrowing situations with fewer moments of childlike serenity, if a similar dosage of comic relief.
TL;DR: Clowns are scary. Paper boats are replaceable. Don’t go near sewers, as rule. Welcome to the Loser Club.