I remember when Stephen King’s novel It was first published, in 1986. Then only a dozen years into his career as a novelist — but already claiming nearly twenty books to his credit — King was an unstoppable force in the world of popular fiction. The tome was his first length work under only his own name since the absolute blockbuster Pet Sematary, three years earlier. On the King time line of astounding prolificness, that may as well have been an eon. Appropriately, then, the book he delivered, It, read like a magnum opus, a compendium of everything he’d done to that point packed tightly into over 1,110 pages. Alternating between the forlorn persecution felt in youth and the tart disappointment of encroaching middle, the story included so many elements familiar from the author’s previous efforts that it was like sort of Stephen King gumbo, cooked up on the foundation of a dark, dark roux.
The books also, to my recollection, wasn’t all that good. Although I concede it contained one of the few instances of King’s writing genuinely leaving me scared, it was also a tangled mess, the narrative a cyclone that spun forever without ever picking up speed or strength. Its endurance as a favorite entry in King’s bibliography is baffling to me. Surely, there was no reason to expect that a belated film adaption — itself arriving nearly three decades after a television version — would be a success. Movies were once the province of King like few other authors, but those days are long gone, with only the occasional stab at transferring a book to the screen making an appearance, mostly to wan curiosity.
And yet here we are, with a new stab at It proving to be that rarest of beasts at the U.S. box office: a flat-out sensation. The film’s second weekend would have set a record for biggest of September, and the number of feats it will be able to claim by the time it’s done — already It is the highest-grossing horror film of all time — boggles the quivering mind. How the Castle Rock did this happen?
Well, the movie is surprisingly good, even if occasionally tripped up by the problems that are cooked right into the original story. (Thankfully, the most egregious narrative misstep has been excised entirely.) Director Andy Muschetti — who previously presided over Mama, for which I have a surprising, lingering fondness — brings a welcome visual panache to the proceedings, shrewdly determining when the film would benefit from a touch of Spielbergian nostalgia (cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and score composed Benjamin Wallfisch are able co-conspirators on this mission) and when it needs the edging creepiness of modern, CGI-reinforced horror. The occasional plot lumpiness of the screenplay (credited to Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) is redeemed by the lowbrow naturalness of the dialogue. The misfit kids in the movie talk the way misfit kids talked in the nineteen-eighties. I type the preceding sentence with some field-tested authority.
The smartest decision made by the filmmakers was to cut out half of the book. King alternated between the kids in late nineteen-fifties and them as adults nearly thirty years later. It, the film, sticks with the kids, bumping the era forward to the summer of 1989. A focus the novel lacked is decisively present in the movie. And there’s an added brutal poignancy to parallels between the metaphysical horrors delivered by Pennywise the evil clown (Bill Skarsgård) and the all too real miseries inflicted by parents, bullies, and authority figures. It helps that Muschetti coaxes solid performances out of his youthful performers, with especially admirable turns from Jack Dylan Grazer (as the eternally fretful Eddie), Sophia Lillis (as the tomboy dream girl Beverly), and Stranger Things carry-over Finn Wolfhard (as motormouth Richie).
To damn with praise so faint it flickers into near-nothingness, It immediately stands as one of the strongest King adaptations, horror division. (Interestingly, given how he’s made his name, King’s more straightforward material has fared better in the journey to film over the years.) That could be why It has broken through like no other adaptation of King’s work. The film is imperfect, peppered with plot holes, and reliant on characterizations that sometimes lean on well-worn archetypes. The same shortcomings can be found in much of King’s writing, including novels that are adored by loads of people, including me. After all this time, and across countless adaptations, the basic methodology for transferring King’s commercial success at bookstores to the movie box office turned out to be incredibly simple. Respect the material. There have been better films sporting King’s name, but few have felt like a more honest realization of his base creative vision.