Monday, September 11, 2017

You'll Float, Too: My Review of Stephen King's "IT: Chapter One"

Adapting a novel to another medium is no easy task. Add in a previous adaptation that has achieved a level of cult success, and things get even harder. When the work in question is from Stephen King, a man whose career is littered with a series of hit-or-miss (mostly miss) adaptations to the screen, the task might even start to border on the impossible. Finally, consider that the source material is a whopping 1,000+ pages, and many would prefer to give up before they even begin. The odds are almost guaranteed that you'll produce something closer to Maximum Overdrive than you will to Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile.

Thankfully, IT gets it right.

There's a balance to adapting a novel to a visual medium, be it comics or television or movies. The printed word allows you to get inside your character's heads, to be the character in a way. Since a book can be as long as it needs to be, the story can be a slow-burner to develop the characters and the world and the problems. Movies and television have a set amount of time to tell the story, so often such luxuries fall by the wayside. In Hollywood, it's generally accepted that 1 page of script is the equivalent of 1 minute of screen time. A thousand hours is longer than most television series ever get, much less a movie. So how do you adapt it, and do it right?

By getting to the essence of the story and the characters, and not spending a large amount of time on the fluff.

There are a lot of things going on in the novel for IT, but at its core, it's about fear and the loss of innocence that comes from growing up. To illustrate this, King tells the story from the point of view of the characters as children, and then again as adults, 27 years later. The old TV miniseries, did it over the course of two nights and three to four hours. For the movie version, it's done in a similar vein: split into two, with the first having a hefty two hour and fifteen minute runtime. This one is about the kids, the Losers' Club.

And the screenwriters definitely understood the essence of their fear and innocence. As we meet the Losers, I found myself smiling fondly, like I was seeing old friends I'd lost touch with over the years. They're that close to their novel counterparts. Not exact, there are some pretty significant changes, but the essence of those characters is there. Did they look precisely like they'd been described? No. But it didn't matter. Those kids did a great job in their roles, with special props to Sophia Lillis for her incredibly nuanced portrayal of Beverly Marsh and Finn Wolfhard's spot-on Richie Tozier.

As to Pennywise itself, Tim Curry set the bar high with his version of the killer clown back in the 1990 TV adaptation, but Bill Skaarsgard is more than up to the task. His take is different, and in my opinion, more of what the character we saw in the book was than Curry's. It feels like heresy to say that, but it's the truth. That they used CGI in some interesting ways with him also made it feel more like the Pennywise that haunted me as a kid reading the novel alone in my room at night. It goes from subtle to overblown at the drop of a hat, but always serves the character in an effective way.

The story is significantly pared down from the books, as was the TV version. The difference is that this one keeps the more disturbing elements that ABC didn't want to show. The Losers' fears and how they manifest are done quite well, and while they aren't all that scary to me as an adult, I can see how they would be to myself when I was their age. Gone are the large chunks of exposition that detail the history of Derry and the horrible things that happen there. We get the important parts of it in maybe ten to fifteen minutes of screen time, and that's really all that's needed. The rest is cool to read, mind you, but it's not essential to the story.

Unfortunately, we did lose some of the dynamic between the bullies (Bowers, Criss, and Huggins, oh, my!)  and the bullied during this adaptation. Perhaps to compensate, the times they are on screen are exceptionally powerful. The crucial moment when Henry Bowers confronts Ben Hanscom next to the Barrens is there, and it plays almost exactly as brutal as it felt when I first read it back in 1987. On the other hand, we got to see more of Bev's personal demons as well, something that was lacking in the 1990 adaptation. It was nice to finally be shown that her father wasn't the only bully in her life.

Speaking of the Barrens, if there's one thing I really missed, that was it. I can understand why it was removed, as there's just so much story and not much time to tell it in, but I would've loved to have seen more of it. I felt the kids' bond with one another, but I think a few more scenes of them hanging out in the Barrens would have really cemented it for me.

Some people have complained that this should have been set in the late 50's like it was in the book, but I disagree. True, the 80's were an era of excess, but we only see it that way now. Back when it was happening, when I was a kid the same age as these kids, I never saw it that way. And while Derry is an analog for Bangor, it still keeps the small-town feel present in the book, so that innocence remains despite the era. That it could have been my own childhood in a way maybe enhanced it for me. Your mileage may vary here.

Things that were there that I was thrilled to see on-screen: Richie's motormouth (they don't call him "Trashmouth Tozier" for nothing, you know...), the house on Neibolt Street, the strange re-occurrence of the number "27", a beautiful update to the old "photo album" scene, the relationship between Henry Bowers and his father, a subtle and possibly creepier update to the relationship between Bev and her father, and what may have been my favorite element from the book, Ben's haiku actually having a meaning for him and Bev.

Some of the changes, as evidenced by that list, were perfect for the story. A notable example is that Pennywise's catchphrase has a meaning now (I'll let you figure out what I mean because, spoilers). Perhaps the best was the ending itself, when the Losers confront It in It's lair. The book had some issues with this part (a child orgy? Really, Uncle Steve?), and was almost too heady to accurately reflect on-screen. The TV series tried, and failed spectacularly at it (I believe Wrath James White referred to it as "the Space Spider"). Here, we got what we needed: while there was a hint that Pennywise was something much, much worse than just a simple creepy clown, most of it was left to the viewer's imagination, and we got to see the kids fighting the thing that has been broadcast as the villain since the first clown appeared on the book's cover. I did have one issue with a part of this climax, which I'll not talk about since it would qualify as a spoiler, but I got over it quickly enough. It just seemed like the screenwriters had written themselves into a corner and needed a quick way out, so they did... this. That's probably not the case, but it felt that way, and pulled me out of the story a bit. Thankfully, they were able to pull me right back in with relative ease.

Overall, this is an adaptation done right. The balance between what made the book work and what can be shown on screen is there, making the movie more than live up to the hype built up around it. The beautiful part is that if the adult chapter of the movie doesn't maintain that, it almost doesn't matter. This is IT the way it should be, and for me ranks right up there with Shawshank and Green Mile as the best of King.

I rate this one four and a half out of five red balloons.