More than any other writer Stephen King has shaped the way we imagine horror for the last 40 years. The stories of Carrie, The Shining and It (to name but a few) are deeply embedded in the public consciousness, both because of the enduring popularity of the books but also because of highly regarded film and TV adaptations that have brought these stories to a much larger audience.
Because Stephen King is such a huge name, his novels remain fertile ground to turn into movies. However the fact that King adaptions end up a very mixed bag illustrates the trickiness in getting his work onto the big screen in a successful way. One of the great challenges in adapting a King novel is that the man likes to write really hefty books, working in a lot of backstory, histories etc.
Case in point: It; King’s second longest novel, clocking in at well over a thousand pages. By any stretch of the imagination too much to pour into a single feature length movie. The solution we have in this adaptation here is to split the It-saga up into two movies, with each focusing on one of the two timelines. So here we have It, part one; which focuses on the lives of the characters as kids.
It is the story about the creepy going ons of Derry, Maine and focuses mostly on seven 13-or-so year olds who are haunted by a mysterious clown figure. The movie opens with a kid called William making a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie one rainy night in 1988. Georgie takes the boat outside and puts it in the water, chasing it as it floats down the street. It’s all fun and games until the boat disappears down a gutter. Not willing to lose the paper boat his big brother so lovingly made for him, Georgie peeps down the gutter in the hopes of retrieving it. It is in this unusual situation Georgie and we discover Pennywise the Clown. Needless to say little Georgie doesn’t last long and his sudden disappearance sets the mood for the rest of the movie.
Jumping forward a year, the rest of the movie takes place in 1989, where besides William who can’t let go of his brother’s disappearance, we get to know the rest of the cast. Beverly, a girl falsely branded as a slut who lives with her violent father. Benjamin, the new kid on the block whose corpulent body makes him a target for the local bullies. Stanley, the jewish kid. Richie, the loudmouth, Eddie the hypochondriac and Mike, the black kid who lost his parents in a fire. Gradually these kids find each other and develop a friendship, proudly flying under the banner of the Loser’s Gang. Each of these kids is plagued by Pennywise who tailors his approach to the specific fears of each kid.
The clown isn’t the only threat though. Like a lot of movies about kids this age, bullies figure prominently here as well. A bunch of older kids under the leadership of the disturbed Henry Bowers really go after our young protagonists. The burgeoning sociopathic tendencies of Henry make the bullying in this movie a step beyond your usual fair, making the Bowers’ gang a real menace.
This being a King story, parents aren’t much help either. For good measure parents here range from just embarrassing to suffering from Munchhausen-by-proxy all the way to seriously abusive.
As a Stephen King adaptation this It is pretty effective. Our young heroes are besieged from all sides: the bullies who roam the streets, the parents inside and Pennywise who can show up in every solitary moment. This lack of any real safe space quickly makes this movie immensely threatening and in creating this atmosphere the movie is at its most effective.
The titular It, is effectively played by Bill Skarsgård, whose slightly unaligned eyes and childlike grin are immediately unnerving whenever he shows up. And the movie makes good use of him too, tackling the Pennywise scenes with some good creativity.
For me though the biggest scares involved Stephen Bogaert who plays Beverly’s creepy father Alvin Marsh. The scenes between Beverly and her hair-sniffing father Alvin have a real hair raising tension to them. No matter how scary Pennywise may be, the biggest horror here takes place inside Beverly’s home.
In fairness though, there is a lot going on in this movie. Remember, It takes its cues from a really hefty novel. There are seven main characters, each of which is going through their own struggles. Then there is the bully Henry who is struggling with his violent impulses while dealing with his own father issues. Then there is Pennywise feeding off each of these character’s fears in different ways. With so much going on a lot remains unexplored, which is a shame because what is there is really captivating.
As King adaptations go this It, part one isn’t bad though. This first part does a great job of introducing the characters and building up the story. I can’t help but feeling the real fireworks are going to come in the second part though, when we get into the meat of what this Pennywise thing really is.