The 1990 TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s IT always frustrated me as an avid fan of the book. The sneering, snarling nastiness of the source material was stripped away, and entire plot points were ripped up from the roots (understandably in some cases). The casting was a mixed bag, even though Seth Green‘s Richie Tozier and Tim Curry‘s Pennywise would end up becoming the avatars for how I saw those characters in the book.
It makes sense years later when you understand how television works and why this wasn’t ever going to be as horrifying as you might hope (the same goes for many other King TV adaptations of the time such as The Stand), but maybe that was for the best? After all, if you can’t film certain parts of the story due to their controversy (and I don’t mean the most notorious of moments from the book) you’re never going to make the story work, right?
That’s what’s so fascinating and frustrating about Andy Muschietti’s IT movies. They go a long way to addressing the myriad problems with the TV miniseries, but also mess around too much with things that worked. Looking back at the first part from 2018, I can better appreciate how well Muschietti manages to capture the spirit of the book whilst taking it in a new direction. Even if some frustrations have only grown with time.
Muschietti gets to go right for the jugular (or arm) from the off with the iconic opening moments of the story that lead to the introduction of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and the death of little Georgie Denbrough. Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise feels right in the quieter moments of these two films, and this scene is a perfect blend of goofiness and menace.
This adaptation moves the childhood part of the story from the 1950s to the ’80s, which is a smart move in terms of marking this as a reimagining rather than a straight-shooting replica. It also serves to make some later decisions a touch more palatable and even refreshing. That rejigs The Losers Club slightly, but here more than the miniseries, they hold true to the characters in the book.
In a common theme with these two films, for every couple of great choices, faithful recreations, and intriguing subversions, there’s a clunker or misfire. So Ben, Richie, Beverly, and Stanley are all interesting and somewhat faithful versions of the characters, but Bill doesn’t really exude the heroic confidence behind the stuttering weakling exterior. Mike feels underutilized, and Eddie is a bit hit-and-miss, with some moments that make him a little too much like Richie. Thankfully the mix of kids works really well, and you get a proper sense of that bond the deeper the first film goes.
I’m a Loser, Baby
But the masterstroke is who the Losers are as adults. The casting is almost perfectly in sync with the younger actors, and the way certain mannerisms are held and updated with the adult actors is genuinely impressive. Richie as a character has always been one I’ve cherished, so seeing Finn Wolfhard and Bill Hader‘s take on him was always going to gain extra scrutiny from me. I like what Wolfhard does as young Richie and Muschietti’s keen eye for the actor’s similar characteristics to the character ensures it’s stupendously good casting. But Hader’s adult Richie is my unquestionable highlight of IT Chapter Two. The way Richie and Eddie’s relationship is redefined actually makes sense, and gives the climactic moments of the second chapter extra emotional weight. Hader has shown in recent years that he’s excellent at balancing drama and humor with Barry, so now it’s little surprise he’s so effective in IT Chapter Two.
What about key moments from the book? Well as previously mentioned, I can understand some changes and omissions. The shift to the ’80s naturally changes some of the relevant cultural references, meaning we lose out on a few potential monster scenes. The Neibolt (no relation) house scenes add a bit more meat to the bones of what was there. The blood in the sink and return to Bev’s childhood home are superb representations of great moments in the book, and the Eddie and the Leper scenes is up there with the best moments to evoke the spirit of the book. The Hall of Mirrors scene in Chapter Two is probably the best new addition as it works for Bill and Pennywise as characters better than a lot of their material manages.
Yet there’s plenty of odd changes. The decision to have Beverly need to be saved from Pennywise is reductive. The rewriting of Patrick Hockstetter’s character and eventual fate is boring. The omission of other kids’ stories, in general, is slightly annoying, even if there is a wonderfully cruel scene with a little girl in Chapter Two. But the greatest display of Muschietti’s movies getting so close to nailing it but falling short is Pennywise.
Skarsgard is fantastic in terms of physical performance, and the voice is silly with something dirty and gritty stuck to the underside. The costume and appearance of the clown are a lot closer to the book’s description too. But there’s just so much mucking about with over-the-top haunted house ride jump scares and (bad) clownish nonsense that just made me laugh in incredulity rather than nervous terror. Pennywise’s aura is diminished more and more by repeated schlock tactics that make IT seem like just another movie monster instead of the iconic source of terror it deserves to be.
I get what Muschietti is going for with the goofier side of Pennywise, but I often find it misplaced in the moment. At its best, there’s a Raimi-like quality to the grim carnival of exaggerated scares and gore showers. The director can be great at showcasing mean-spirited chaos and utilizing humor in the sinister. The problem lies in the abundance of it more than anything. Like anything in comedy and horror, the key is in how you structure the pathway to the expected outcome.
IT and Chapter Two come so close to being what I wanted from an adaptation of a book I adore. I should be old and wise enough to know you’re asking the impossible when it comes to adaptations of your favorite things because the version in your head is very unlikely to match another, especially when that itself is diluted by multiple other parties, but it’s to Muschietti’s credit that I felt frustrated by what he put onscreen rather than scorn or indifference.