No clowning around

King adaptation outdoes source material

Starring Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis and Jeremy Ray Taylor. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

I read It when the novel came out in 1986, and was mostly underwhelmed. Cool premise but sloppy, overlong, out-of-control prose. That sucker needed some ruthless editing.

I was gobbling up Stephen King books at the time—big fan of Christine and Different Seasons—but had experienced a bit of a lull in interest with his lousy Peter Straub collaboration, The Talisman. I felt like King was overextending himself a bit, and the novel It came off as a big mess.

So, I’ll just start off by saying I’m not a huge fan of the source material.

The benefit of a movie like Andy Muschietti’s It is that the director and his writers can keep some themes, but switch things up a bit and streamline the narrative to make the story work better 30 years after it was written. In that respect, the new It is a triumph.

While the wimpy 1990 TV miniseries dealt with both the young and older versions of The Losers’ Club, the posse of kids that stand up to evil, the new It stands as part one, completely dividing the kid and adult stories. There’s also a major time change, with the kids’ story taking pace in the late 1980s instead of the ’50s. Thank you, Stranger Things.

The core story remains the same: Children in Derry, Maine, have been disappearing for many years, and the film starts with the sad case of Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), a little boy in a yellow rain slicker who follows his paper boat to the sewer drain and makes an unfortunate acquaintance.

That acquaintance is Pennywise, the dancing, sewer-dwelling clown, played as a most savage beast by Bill Skarsgard, a makeup-cracking, straight-up scary demon clown with an ability to charm for a short while, but he just kind of sucks royally from the get-go, oozing with evil. If you saw him at a circus, you’d be seriously afraid for the trapeze artists and lions. He even drools a little when addressing Georgie, shortly before tearing his arm off. It’s in this moment that It immediately declares itself as an R-rated, no-holds-barred King affair rather than the sanitized TV version.

The kids are great. The standout is Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. At one point, one of the Losers calls her Molly Ringwald. Lillis has that kind of leading-lady-in-a-teen-film commanding screen presence. Jeremy Ray Taylor will break your heart as Ben Hanscom, the chubby kid who has a crush on Bev. Their first meeting is one of the best scenes in the film.

Jack Dylan Grazer and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard provide solid comic relief as Richie and Eddie, while Jaeden Lieberher, excellent in Midnight Special, does a damn fine job with the stutter and leading man job as Georgie’s big brother Bill Denbrough. As for the bad kids, Nicholas Hamilton is the second scariest entity in the film as bully Henry Bowers. He’s very real.

Muschietti scores some big scares, especially during a slideshow gone very wrong, and a meeting between the Denbrough brothers in the family basement (“You’ll float, too!”).

It: Part Two, with the adults, while not official yet, is a certainty. As for part one, it draws the best elements of King’s inconsistent novel effort, and comes out a frightening winner.