The best or at least the most memorable movie adaptations of Stephen King novels—like Carrie or The Shining—create a vivid universe unto themselves while channeling King’s fearlessness in exploring the dark side of human nature. King’s novels, with their seemingly infinite layers of detail and meandering, entertaining asides, are difficult to adapt. But whatever you do, locking into King’s tone is essential. For all his willingness to stare down the darkest horrors and put them on the page, he’s also blazingly sympathetic to human insecurities and flaws. He doesn’t just show us a bunch of scary stuff. He challenges us to confront why we find that stuff scary in the first place.
Director Andy Muschietti’s It, adapted from King’s disquieting 1986 epic of the same name, doesn’t cut very deep and isn’t very scary. At its best, it’s a sometimes-entertaining evocation of the way kids think and talk within their little cliques, and of the way they protect one another with fierce loyalty. Rob Reiner’s 1986 Stand By Me is the obvious comparison point. It’s the end of the 1988 school year in the small Maine town of Derry, and a bunch of the nerdier, less-popular kids are looking forward to a summer of being picked on by the town bullies. There’s asthmatic mother’s boy Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), gangly Jewish kid Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef), whose religion puts him in the minority in small-town Maine, and wiseguy comedian Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard). Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is one of the quieter, more thoughtful members of the gang; he has a stutter he can’t control, and he’s still reeling from a recent family tragedy. His six-year-old brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), disappeared earlier in the year—the event is dramatized with chilling precision in the movie’s opening sequence.
The boys’ chief nemesis is teenage bad apple Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and he’s not your average harmless misguided delinquent. At one point he attempts to carve his name into the stomach of another local kid, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Ben is saved by Bill and the others, and two more kids end up joining the group: Mike (Chosen Jacobs) lives on a nearby sheep farm, where his chores include some of the more challenging work farmers need to do. He is also black, and so, like Stan, he’s another small-town Maine rarity. Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the only girl in the group, is slightly older, and she's living a secret nightmare life at home. At school, she’s been branded “fast,” though there's no truth to that accusation. She’s just a smart, considerate girl who tends to keep to herself.
Muschietti, who directed the effective 2013 horror thriller Mama, starring Jessica Chastain, does a fine job of sketching each of these kids as individuals, a challenge that even more experienced directors sometimes fail to meet. The problem is that the plot escalates in its ridiculousness, and Muschietti can’t control it. The kids learn that their town is in the grip of an evil force—the It of the title—who emerges every 27 years to feast on the locals, particularly the children. This It generally takes the form of Pennywise (played by Bill Skarsgård), an old-school circus clown with menacing eyes who lives in the town’s sewers and whose presence is sometimes announced by an ominous, free-floating red balloon.
Once the kids realize what It is up to, they want to stop It once and for all. Pennywise is one scary clown, a creature with red greasepaint stripes that trail from his eyes to his leering lips like bloody tears. The first time you see him—in the movie’s genuinely unnerving but also poetic opening, which hews closely to King’s beautifully written first chapter—he’s so scary you wonder if you might be in for a masterpiece. But by the tenth or twelfth—or perhaps twentieth?—time he shows up, the novelty has worn off. Muschietti relies too much on your garden-variety jump scares and now-standard special effects, things like ghoulish limbs twisting every which-way and innocent figures shape-shifting into malevolent ones. As always, the horrors you get a close look at are much less terrifying than those that remain unseen.
And that’s the chief problem with adapting any Stephen King novel: Nothing ever looks as scary on-screen as it does in our minds, when we’re sitting alone with a book. With It, seeing isn’t the same as believing.