It feels idiotic to assume yet I expect most of the world is well-versed in the Stephen King novel and if not the book then the TV serial which surfaced in 1990. It’s back and, just like before children are disappearing and the adults are oblivious. Amidst a downpour in 1988, a little figure clad in a yellow slicker and green galoshes runs alongside the paper boat that his big brother and ‘bestest pal’ made for him. SS Georgie battles the raging seas i.e. gushing rainwater on the streets of Derry, Maine, until it slips from tiny grasp into the storm drain.
Twelve months later and still reeling from the loss of his little brother George (Jackson Robert Scott), Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) and his group of friends: Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), Ben Hanscomb (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) known affectionately, as The Losers Club join forces to defeat school bullies and the evil thing that is devouring the town’s children.
Adapting any major work must be hard, not least when the original text is a magnum opus. Liberties were certainly taken in 1990 condensing nearly 1400 pages into a three-hour TV series but then I was a child, had yet to read a King novel, and was utterly horrified at the prospect of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and his shifting shape(s) of fear. This time round, and now well-read, it feels slightly more faithful in some ways and yet there are those damn liberties again. Despite early production problems, and the acrimonious departure which took with him, his Will Poulter-shaped Pennywise and director’s chair, Cary Fukunaga retains a writer credit alongside his writing partner Chase Palmer but it’s Gary Dauberman who takes the lead while Andrés (Andy) Muschietti (Mama) steers the ship.
The novel’s structure has changed and 50s Derry is transposed to the 80s – just as Regan handed over the keys of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Bush – but that just gives the 15-rated film a Stand By Me meets The Goonies (and John Wayne Gacy) retro quality that actually really works. Splitting the film into two chapters and avoiding those flashbacks and forwards, means these kids are able to hook us entirely, we’re completely invested in their plight, their friendships and fears, and that emotional connection is made. This is their time and each of the main cast is a delight.
Richie’s still a motormouth and has the best lines, Bev – she of Winter fire hair – is great; kind and tough, hypochondriac Eddie is more verbose than I remember, Bill’s still a little bland, and Ben’s a sweetheart (with excellent taste in boybands). Stanley’s character is fleshed out a little more while, disappointingly, Mike’s is somewhat diluted. His interest in Derry history is sidelined and given to Ben for reasons unknown, and not, one hopes, just a way for the filmmakers’ to avoid the racial elements of the story. He is clearly painted as the outsider. Fingers crossed that come Chapter Two some of these issues will be addressed, and he receives the narrative pull that was expected. My point is, gripes aside, it’s like revisiting old friends.
Had I watched this version at 11 years old, I’d have been traumatised, It comes back every 27 years (in actuality, 25 for me) and now I’m the adult no longer afraid (well, ish). To be fair, Bill Skarsgård in the clown get-up is the stuff of nightmares. He’s less abrasive and wisecracking than Tim Curry, and there is an underlying innocence to his Pennywise which adds to the vile and creepy. His body movements are manic and frenetic, even a little awkward, like a child who has experienced a growth spurt overnight and boy, is he hungry (the saliva drenched lips and string of drool, a dead giveaway). He is terrifying and yet, for me, the scares throughout the film are somewhat lacking despite the gripping sense of unease felt from the start with poor Georgie.
Visually, the film is stunning thanks largely to Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography, Janie Bryant’s costumes, and the VFX and make-up provided, in part, by Stan Winston alums Tom Woodruff Jr and Alec Gillis. The sets are elaborate and striking and for horror fans it has a real kid-in-a-sweet-shop feel, especially the house on Neibolt Street. The set-pieces are thrilling and rich in detail, and littered with plenty of horror-themed easter eggs, the jump scares are fairly frequent and perhaps a little obvious but there was one that the two guys sat next to me didn’t see coming.
All-in-all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable adaptation, horrific, heartfelt, and not in the least bit hokey; a perfect trip down memory lane via childhood street and nostalgia way. By the time the credits roll, you’ll float too.