The Floating World
Stephen King adaptations, as my friend Scott Von Doviak can tell you, are a real mixed bag. When you’re the best-selling author since Johnny Bible, though, everything you write is eventually going to find its way to the big screen, sometimes more than once. The holiday season saw the release of two hotly anticipated King adaptations with extremely troubled production histories: The Dark Tower, a real fizzler that was meant to be the first in a series of films based on King’s epic dark fantasy series but which left audiences and critics yawning, and It, the second attempt to put his bloated 1986 multigenerational horror novel in front of a camera.
Following the reverse path of The Shining — where the celebrated 1980 Stanley Kubrick movie, which is unquestionably the best King adaptation ever made but which earned the scorn of the novel’s author (and basically no one else), was followed by a dismal television mini-series almost 20 years later — It was originally adapted into an overlong, clunky TV movie in 1990. That version was pretty forgettable except as an object of ridicule, thanks to network censorship, lackluster direction, and a deeply questionable cast. But since It was one of King’s best-loved works, there were no shortage of producers willing to take a chance on bringing it to the big screen, and no less than three directors were originally slated to take on the project before it finally came to be under the auspices of Argentinean horror filmmaker Andy Muschietti.
As someone not particularly familiar with Muschietti’s work, I found It pretty indistinct; some people praised his direction (and Chung Hoon-Chung’s cinematography, which is admittedly pretty solid), but it struck me as competent at best and generic at worst. There wasn’t really anything wrong with it, but I could name a half-dozen directors who would have done the job with more visual flair and style without even thinking hard. The screenplay (half of which is by the normally praiseworthy Cary Fukunaga, with the other half by the largely anonymous Gary Dauber) takes a lot of liberties with the source material, but that’s probably inevitable. It is the novel the size of a Cooper Mini, and there’s no way any movie — even one split into two like this one is, with the second chapter coming in 2019 — could ever get all of it onto the big screen. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse.
I don’t want to rehash my difficult history with King and his works here; I’ve been writing about the guy for over 30 years, and frankly, I’m exhausted. But what’s great about his novels — and, in particularly, what makes them scary when a lot of the adaptations of them fall flat — is his ability to create a sustained mood of menace and fear that starts small and builds to a crescendo of madness. He can only accomplish this with the space his giant novels give him. Compressed into the time limits of a film, there are two choices: take an entirely different approach — say, by jettisoning most of the supernatural aspects of The Shining and focusing instead on an intense psychological terror — or by sticking with the actual plot points of the book, leaving behind all the background and build that give them their power, and risking the chance that a lot of this stuff just isn’t going to land. And that’s the biggest problem for me: it doesn’t. Most of the truly horrifying stuff in the novel of It comes from the depth of the experience of reading it, with the background of the setting and the characters making the actual horror more intense; in the movie, you’re left with nothing if you don’t happen to find clowns or lepers all that scary.
Of course, the upside of this is that the movie leaves out a lot of the chaff as well as some precious grains of wheat. In particular, the extremely gross juvenile gang-bang that coincides with the novel’s climax is wisely cast aside; this is particularly important, because It focuses only on its young cast, leaving the adult story for its upcoming second half. The teen actors are almost all exceptional, and since we spend almost the entire movie in their company, that’s a good thing — probably the best thing about it, I’d say. Jeremy Ray Taylor’s Ben, Finn Wolfhard’s Richie, and Sophia Lillis’ Beverly are especially good, and Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon has a nice quiet intensity, although it isn’t much of a role. These are all characters we want to spend more time around and get to know more about, another strength of King’s which transfers unexpectedly to the movie and is really the only reason I’d give the sequel any consideration.
The role that everyone’s been paying attention to is that of Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and he does have a creepy, insinuating manner that makes him more effective in the role than Tim Curry in the TV version, but I didn’t focus too much on this because (I’m whispering this next part, folks, I have a reputation to maintain) I don’t think clowns are all that scary. I dunno when that became our national childhood neurosis, but I never developed it, let alone carried it over into adulthood; hell, I even think they’re kinda funny sometimes. This is part of the reason that the horror elements really never clicked for me; there’s no accounting for taste in comedy, but we don’t often recognize that the same thing applies for horror. You can throw in all the twitching head effects, gloomy lighting, and dissonant electronics you want, but if there isn’t the deep dive into the insides of the characters head’s that prose encourages but that film has a hard time with, it’s just not going to click. There’s just too much front-loaded into the story to give the terror room to breathe, let along gasp. It is a better, stronger, and more honest effort than its television predecessor, but in the end, that clown just doesn’t make me laugh.