It: Chapter One (2017)

SEPTEMBER 8, 2017

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

Like pretty much everyone in my generation, I have vivid memories of watching the ABC miniseries of Stephen King's It, rewatching the taped broadcast enough to even remember some of the commercials that played during it. Given its length (3+ hours, plus commercial fast-forwarding time) I'm surprised I watched it as often as I did, as I revisited the film on Blu-ray earlier this year and found myself remembering tiny details (like Ben breaking his newly won award when he stumbles out of his limo) as if I had just watched the movie the day before. However, I've only found the time to read the book once, in I think 2004 when I lived in Boston and was making a dent in my backlog of unread novels during my 45-ish minute per way commute, so it wasn't "special" as it is to many of my peers. But in a way I think this was ideal for approaching this long-awaited theatrical adaptation - I have more nostalgia and connection to the flawed miniseries than the novel that is frequently cited as one of King's best, and certainly the favorite of many of his fans*. Thus, it's easier for me to see what this movie "fixed" as opposed to "ruined", which is how I'm sure some people will describe the deviations from the source material.

Now in the wake of The Dark Tower I must assure you that this is, for all intents and purposes, a very faithful adaptation of the "past" parts of the book. Georgie's murder is pretty much recreated to the letter, and every major beat is accounted for - it's just the details that are different. Some of the kids' individual fears have been changed, so Richie is afraid of clowns instead of the Wolfman, and Stan is terrified of a creepy ass painting in his father's office instead of that mummy/corpse thing. I don't think this matters in the long run, but I've had too many conversations over the years with book fans who get angry when a movie adaptation changes a character's hair color or whatever, so they might get angry at these variations. For the rest of us normal people, if you want to see a movie where seven "losers" band together to defeat an unspeakable evil that appears every 27 years, one that manifests itself as their fears but most of the time takes on the form of a clown named Pennywise, you should be pretty happy with the results.

It's funny, I was running a bit late this morning when trying to get to the theater in time and didn't bother inspecting my shirts before grabbing one, and I happened to pull out my Shining shirt - the most polarizing King film due to the fact that it's an unnerving and terrifying piece of entertainment but also makes many (too many, for some) changes from the novel, i.e. great movie, terrible adaptation. But while Kubrick was changing things to fit his own worldview, director Andy Muschietti and a number of screenwriters only change details in order to keep things fresh, while retaining King's overall tone and atmosphere in a manner few of his films have ever quite mustered. I'm talking Frank Darabont levels of "getting it", where you get the idea anything they changed King himself would probably agree was a good idea (as opposed to Shining, where he still seems annoyed by the changes Kubrick made), and if your memories of the book are just as hazy as mine, you probably won't even realize there's much of a difference at all.

Except, of course, the timeframe. The book starts in the present day and frequently cuts back and forth, a format that was retained for the miniseries, but there is no framing device or flash forward or anything of that nature here. If you've never read the book or saw the other movie, you'd have no idea that we're due to meet these kids again in thirty years - which added a lot to the suspense. The movie runs 135 minutes or so, and by the time they enter the sewers to confront It, it's been made clear that they aren't afraid to make some changes, so it's very possible to think that some of them might not survive the battle, allowing for some terror that was impossible in the other versions as we'd always be seeing the present day version REMEMBER these things, as opposed to how they're presented here, which is "now" (now being the summer of 1989). I wouldn't dare spoil whether or not that occurs, but the fact that I was sitting there, for the very first time, worried that Richie would die? That was kind of unexpected, and a big part of why I enjoyed the film - it was these rather simple and innocuous changes that really helped draw me into the movie.

So let's talk about 1989, since that's probably the most noticeable difference. The original book was published in 1986 and the setting was 1957-1958, so the change fits - it's roughly thirty years ago for the audience it's intended for, just as King's book was, making it a perfectly acceptable deviation, allowing folks my age to smile at the (thankfully few) little period details, such as the theater showing Burton's Batman, and kids talking about Michael Jackson without it being an icky thing (this was pre-accusations). My favorite, surprisingly, was a little running gag about Ben being a fan of New Kids on the Block, a secret only Bev knows and keeps to herself, while teasing him about it whenever possible (one pun seemed to go over the heads of everyone else in my audience; not sure if I'm just "old" or if I'm the only one who found it as funny). Usually I groan at these kind of things, but the screenwriters kept it to a minimum and used them for character moments like this, as opposed to just having them reference every single late 80s property they could cram in just for the sake of appeasing folks who get hard reading Ready Player One.

One such reference actually helped hammer home something that was working subconsciously on me. As the summer wears on, Batman and Lethal Weapon 2 are replaced by Nightmare on Elm Street 5 (the theater only shows WB/New Line movies, naturally), and at the sight of this throwaway little detail it fully clicked: this is basically a big budget, "classy" version of a Nightmare sequel, with Pennywise standing in for old-school Freddy, who would talk and maybe make you grin, but wasn't a full blown jokester like he was in the later sequels. Like Freddy, Pennywise uses the kids' individual fears against them, and the big scare setpieces work as standalone slices of terror that will likely warp the minds of anyone who shares similar paranoia (such as blood, corpses, and of course clowns). Indeed, one of my few complaints about the film is that these sequences are often just kind of presented sans setup, like they will just cut to one kid at home or riding their bike right before something scary happens. In the Elm St movies this disconnect made sense - the kids were dreaming, after all (and usually ended up dead at the end), but here it's like they could be re-arranged in the edit without it really mattering, as it takes a while for them to start confessing to one another that they've seen some freaky shit. I wouldn't say it was a crippling flaw or anything, but there was definitely more than one occasion that I wondered how much time had passed since the previous scene or where the character was going in the first place when they encountered It.

Another thing that gave it some unexpected Elm Street flavor was the minimized adult presence. The Elm Street kids often had single parent situations (if we ever met them at all), and here we only get the barest glimpses of any of them besides Eddie's mom and Bev's dad (who is more terrifying than Pennywise, I think). Bill's mom is only seen once in the entire movie, silently playing the piano, and even though Mike's grandfather (instead of his dad, who is now dead - they kind of mix and match Ben and Mike's stories for whatever reason) is played by the only recognizable adult actor in the movie (Steven Williams), we only see him once as well. It makes sense - it's the kids' story after all - but I wish they could have at least spent a little more time with Bill's parents, since the loss of Georgie hangs over his every move (I actually teared up when he explains how it's easier for him to walk into a house where Pennywise might be than it is for him to walk into his own, knowing his little brother won't be there), and yet his parents never seem to care that he's seemingly never home. A quick scene showing that they're so numb to Georgie's death that they don't even notice if Bill is there or not, OR a scene where we see that he has to sneak out or lie about his whereabouts, might have helped a bit. But maybe that's just my overprotective dad shit kicking in, hahaha.

My only other issue was the CGI for a few of Pennywise's other forms. Bill Skarsgård is terrific as the clown and makes the role his own in the same way that Heath Ledger made us forget about Jack Nicholson for two hours, making it all the more disappointing when he appears as a CGI ghoul of some sort (it's an issue that plagued Muschietti's previous film, Mama, where his practical creation got "fixed" by subpar visual FX). Pennywise's... I dunno what you call it, freaky fast shuffling thing (you see it on the trailer where he tramples through the flooded basement) also got a bit tiresome after awhile - he's at his best/scariest when it's simply Skarsgård talking and making expressive faces without really moving much at all, honestly. The film is otherwise gorgeous to look at, for the record - they got Chan-Wook Park's usual DP Chung-hoon Chung to shoot the film, and it not only nails the period look but lets Skarsgård's eyes do the heavy lifting in darker scenes. There is no question that his sewer introduction will cause just as many, if not far more, nightmares as the miniseries did with its own version of the scene.

The kids are all great too, to the extent that I almost wish they could just wait 30 years to shoot the 2nd half with them reprising their roles instead of recasting, likely with familiar faces. Apart from the kid playing Richie (who was in Stranger Things, though I forget which character he played since I never finished it) I didn't recognize any of them and the movie was the better for it. There's a push for Jessica Chastain to play the adult Bev, and while I normally would never argue with hiring Jessica Chastain for anything, I'm just going to see the awesome actress I've loved in a dozen other movies, as opposed to "Beverly Marsh", which is how I see the girl who played her here, as I've never seen her in anything else and she is absolutely wonderful. Ditto for the kid who played Ben, who might be my favorite character and thankfully got plenty of screentime (and encountered the movie's creepiest one-off visual, one of the dead kids from the Easter Egg hunt disaster). I kept expecting familiar faces to pop up as the parents, but apart from the aforementioned Williams I had just as much of a blank slate with them as I did the kids, and I hope they find a way to retain that for the sequel, allowing us to fully believe in the world instead of seeing people we already know from elsewhere. The movie's gonna make something like 90 million dollars this weekend - they clearly do not need big stars to sell tickets, and it'd be cool to see that kind of feel recreated.

But even if they rope in the biggest stars in the world, I'll be there on day one for the followup, since the creative crew is said to be returning and they clearly have a strong handle on the material. It's not a perfect film, but it's a damn good one and one of the best Stephen King movies ever. And before you say "That's a low bar", it really isn't - if you strip out the sequels that weren't using his material, unnecessary redoes (Carrie 2013, anyone?), and anything Mick Garris was involved with, it's actually a pretty solid collection of movies, most of which are just as good as their source material even if things are changed. I mean, it's not like Lawrence Kasdan was the one to make Dreamcatcher as fucking batshit as it is - it's actually a pretty faithful adaptation! And despite more scrutiny given the book's popularity, not to mention the switch in director from someone people really love (Cary Fukunaga, who apparently wanted to have a scene where Henry Bowers molests a sheep) to someone whose sole film was overshadowed by its producer (Guillermo del Toro), had some people worried that this could be a disaster or, at best, another forgettable misfire like last month's Dark Tower. But no - this is gonna terrorize a generation of kids and win over their parents as well, so now the only fear is if the second half can live up to it.

What say you?

*Mine is The Long Walk, which ain't ever getting made into a movie, I suspect.

4 comments:

  1. "...like Ben breaking his newly won award when he stumbles out of his limo."

    I dunno why but I still remember this thing vividly as well.

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  2. Great review. Having just reread the book, some of the character changes (most notably the Mike/Ben swap, and Bowers' truncated story) kind of irritated me, and relegating the Barrens to a few lines of dialogue seemed odd, but the movie is a blast! The kids are great, Skarsgard is great, and the humor and emotion lifted the film up. And I too would love to see The Long Walk turned into a movie! Or Rage, but that will never happen.

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  3. Great review, Brian. Yours is the only review that matters as far as I'm concerned. I swear you'd make the best script doctor ever - you suggest improvements (as above about Bill's parents) that you don't even realise when you're watching would improve the film, if you see what I mean

    ReplyDelete
  4. I haven't watched it yet, but the film "Human Race" shares a similar premise to "The Long Walk".

    ReplyDelete

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