clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

It: a superb Stephen King adaptation fueled less by scary clowns than by real-life evil

The new film adaptation of Stephen King’s horror classic exposes the dark rotting heart of 2017.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In August 2014, during the nationwide protests following the death of Mike Brown, a photo went viral. In it, a woman named France Francois held aloft a protest sign reading, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” Francois told press she’d been galvanized by memories of protesting the death of a 14-year-old who died while in detention. While she was at the march, one woman told her she’d been protesting this shit for the last seven decades.

The same profound world-weariness looms over the perpetually overcast town of Derry, Maine, in Andy Muschietti’s new film adaptation of Stephen King’s It.

There’s a common mantra that circulates within social movements that we just have to wait for evil to “die out,” a pervasive belief that every generation inevitably advances society forward over the dead bodies of those who were holding it back. But if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that time is a flat circle and that evil continually resurfaces, armed with ever more powerful weapons. As the keeper of our horror-stricken national conscience, Stephen King knows better than anyone that evil is generational, that it must be routed again and again. King knows, too, that “evil” isn’t about larger-than-life acts, but about the everyday callousness, abuse of power, and indifference to abuse of power that humans practice as they go about their lives.

This truth is what makes Derry arguably the most quintessential fictional town in America. And It pulls off the feat of making Derry’s symbolic decay and encroaching evil a metaphor for the times in which we live, while still delivering the classic coming-of-age fable King fans know and love.

It is as much about the specter of real-life terror as it is the supernatural

In It, the titular evil entity returns every 27 years, and the group who must face it (this time around) is a band of children on the brink of adolescence. They include Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, the de facto leader who grieves his little brother’s mysterious abduction; Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the group’s only girl; and shy Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Rounding out the group are smart-mouthed Ritchie (Stranger ThingsFinn Wolfhard), incessant talker Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the reluctant Stan (Wyatt Oleff), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who as a homeschooled black kid is the biggest outsider of them all.

Together, they form a charming, funny, and pure-hearted misfit ensemble: the Losers Club. This is a moniker taken from King’s book that’s not so much announced onscreen as it is implied with every awkward social exchange, every insult, every punch thrown by an oversized bully — and Derry abounds with bullies.

Stephen King is known for filling his books with bullied outcasts, from Carrie to Stand By Me — and like each of those stories, the kids in It inhabit an R-rated space that’s typically reserved for adults in the movies, a space full of F-words and violence. But while the bullies are terrifying, in King’s worlds, adults are always worse, exercising terrifying strangleholds over the lives of children. It’s this sinister reality that’s lurking in It’s corners; come for the fathomless cosmic evil, stay for the reminder that in real life, evil is nearly always mundane.

The events of It kick off when Bill’s little brother Georgie has a shudder-inducing run-in with Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), the shapeshifting form of fear itself that terrorizes and ultimately devours Derry’s children. The Losers Club are the only people in Derry who seem to be awake and attuned to the sheer horror of the town’s rising number of missing children and a death rate that’s six times higher than the national average. Driven by Bill’s quest to know Georgie’s fate, the Losers, drawn together partly out of friendship and partly out of desperation, begin a heroes’ journey to vanquish It once and for all — a journey that ultimately spans nearly three decades in King’s novel.

Pennywise is the most famous part of It. And he’s suitably creepy in Muschietti’s film, menacing and enigmatic enough to satisfy even the most die-hard It fans and Tim Curry loyalists. But while Curry’s iconic performance overshadowed everything that was mediocre about the 1990 miniseries, Skarsgård’s Pennywise and the many traditional horror scares he engenders aren’t remotely the most interesting parts of this layered, knowing film. That’s because Muschietti understands that Pennywise, in all his Lovecraftian incomprehensibility, is only a symptom of the larger evil in King’s mythos — the darkness that lurks in the hearts of power-hungry men and causes society’s foundations to rot.

It markets itself as nostalgia, but it’s an allegory for 2017

Judging by its record-breaking trailer, It is the most highly anticipated film of the fall of 2017. It could be easy to chalk up this clamor to nostalgia: Muschietti’s choice to relocate the sprawling book’s first timeline from the late 1950s to 1989 caters to that impulse (the second timeline will constitute an entirely separate film “chapter” to come), and the timing of It’s arrival, between seasons of its spiritual successor Stranger Things, doesn’t hurt any. It is also rife with nostalgic cultural signifiers, from arcade games and era-specific movie posters to a shiny Trans Am and a running joke about New Kids on the Block that encapsulates the film’s loving teasing of its socially awkward protagonists.

But Muschietti’s largely faithful adaptation of King’s story relies not on nostalgia for its emotional underpinnings, but rather a keen sense of the present moment in all its deep tensions and ugliness. Alongside It’s most famous storyline — Pennywise abducting a string of children from an indifferent population — Muschietti steadily builds out the real-life terrors happening in Derry and the lengths our protagonists must go to in order to effectively combat them.

The main teen bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), is a violent racist who means to do harm and continually levels up in weaponry. Beverly’s father molests her. Eddie’s mother exhibits signs of Munchausen’s by proxy. Mike, in a possible homage to black filmmaker Charles Burnett’s brilliant film Killer of Sheep, is forced to stun sheep using a bolt gun while his uncle informs him that he has to learn to wield the weapon or else it will be wielded against him. Later, a wordless, lingering shot of Mike carrying the bolt gun to fight It reveals how fully he’s absorbed the lesson.

There’s an acute release in watching the Losers face down the onscreen terrors of It in ways we can’t face down real-life terrors. When the Losers finally get fed up and fight back against Bowers and his minions, it’s almost more satisfying than the fight they ultimately wage against Pennywise. Muschietti’s film might seem over-the-top in any other year, with its unsubtle depictions of hate, racism, and othering; instead, in a year that’s seen the dramatic surfacing of those elements, it serves as a grim, temporary catharsis — temporary, because the fight to defeat these social evils is never over.

It understands King’s idea of horror — and his optimism — in a way few King adaptations do

For every strange supernatural development in It, a real-life counterpart looms with equal menace. When not in his resting state as Pennywise, It constantly shape-shifts between horrifying phantasms and images of real people from the lives of our heroes. When Bowers finally seems to go Super-Saiyan in his capacity for evil, It presides over a creepy Candle Cove-like children’s TV show ordering him to “kill them all.” This type of juxtaposition creates a tapestry of magical realism woven out of dread, an atmosphere of omniscient terror that’s far more chilling than the threat of a jump scare around the corner (of which It also indulges in its fair share).

The supernatural elements are creepy, yes: Horror-movie staples like scary dolls, creepy old houses, coffins, geysers of blood, and gruesome visions of dead people are all here in droves. But most of these elements feel like dutiful afterthoughts — or superimposed homages to other King stories like Carrie and Salem’s Lot — rather than the main event. Instead, It is fueled by the ever-present sense of a spiraling loss of control.

In this regard, It joins The Shining and Carrie as the best of the Stephen King horror adaptations — films that understand that King’s novels are never about surface-level scares, but about the countless ways in which individual small-time acts of evil coalesce into terrifying systems of violence, often aided by an increasingly indifferent society.

In 2017, this is the most troubling message It could possibly send. Yet for all its dark social relevance, It is also moving, emotional, and even optimistic. The Losers’ love and loyalty for each other keep the film compelling in moments when the jump scares wane, and it’s this steady warmheartedness that makes It feel like the dream Spielberg adaptation of King that we never actually got in the ’80s.

All of this makes It the perfect end-of-summer movie: a film saturated in waning sunlight, with the innocence of childhood giving way to adolescence while childhood terrors give way to much scarier real threats. For King’s Losers, summer is officially over forever — but they’ll face the grim days ahead together, and for now, that’s enough.