2017 Film Essays

Andy Muschietti’s ‘It’ Struggles with Adaptation

There is no hard and fast rule for parsing out the relationship between literary sources and cinematic adaptations. Context is key. When it comes to Andy Muschietti’s It (loosely based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel), the correspondence between versions is too complicated and vital to ignore. The novel uses a network of perspectives and interwoven timelines to translate the individual experiences of seven alienated people (the self-proclaimed “Losers’ Club”). These characters bond over their shared traumas and work together to defeat It, a malicious shape-shifter occupying the sewer system of their small home city, Derry. In the time that elapses between the characters’ childhood and adulthood confrontations with It, they uniformly repress and forget the past. King’s decision to oscillate between timelines and points of view is not only a structural choice, but it’s also crucial to his book’s allegorical concerns: the titular “It” functions as a socially denied and repressed object of violence (manifesting often in the form of misogyny, racism and homophobia), while also taking on the shape of horror built into the social-collective unconscious. King takes matters further by attributing It and its foil (the turtle) with cosmic qualities, suggesting that humankind’s ugliest sociohistorical trends are the work of some twisted higher order. Questions of King’s “literary merit” still occasionally haunt discussions of his work, but It demonstrates the author’s ability to meaningfully deconstruct his own genre of choice while also employing techniques specific to modernism, postmodernism and realist fiction — and this is not to mention the book’s complex philosophical and critical questions, many of which arise from disturbing engagements with psychoanalytic thought.

Probably motivated by a conservative effort to cut budget while also doubling on their earnings, the producers of Muschietti’s It have made two substantial emendations to the text. First, they have switched the novel’s timelines from the 1950s (childhood) and 1980s (adulthood) to a 1980s childhood (and a 2010s adulthood sequel, reportedly dependent on the 2017 film’s box office success). This decision might have had merit if It had taken the opportunity to explore its childhood narrative in detail, if it had allowed for a deliberate familiarizing of location and character relationships. To the contrary, it manages to leave its characters’ relationships with one another largely a mystery, even despite the fact that it devotes nearly two and a half hours to 50 percent of its source. The majority of the film’s duration is devoted to repeated (and repetitive) encounters with It, most of which culminate in ineffective jump scares or punchlines; crucial opportunities for establishing group dynamics are used instead for a seemingly endless string of quips (Richie Tozier is a joker in the novel, but this film unwisely replaces his antiquated jokes with relentless contemporary irony). The novel organizes its beats and dramatic changes around the connection between present and memory, and Muschietti’s film stumbles its way through its loss of this deliberate construction. It also misses out on King’s complex dealings with nostalgia (a career-long fixation that plays varyingly into a number of his works, most famously in “The Body” [published in Different Seasons, 1982] and Hearts in Atlantis [1999], but also fundamental to novels like Dreamcatcher [2001], Joyland [2013] and Revival [2014]). This 2017 version opts instead for superficial, ironic retro-fetishizing, complete with a shockingly unfunny New Kids on the Block gag.

Having said all of this, there are things the film does well. Based on It and Muschietti’s 2013 American debut Mama, it seems that the director cannot direct a scare to save his life. But, It’s production design is thoughtfully and uniquely integrated. In line with current mainstream Hollywood trends, the scary scenes aspire for “creepiness” over genuine horror, but It’s manifestations are often surprisingly unusual — the creature concepts are garish and perversely cartoonish. One standout is the way Pennywise’s maw peels back to reveal multiple rows of goblin shark-like fangs. Further, even if they are too often left to quip their scenes away, the child actors are uniformly charismatic and talented. It is also pleasing to see that the film contextualizes bully Henry Bowers’ anger and aggression, even if his domestic scenes are truncated and abrupt.

There is also some surprising merit undergirding the shift in timelines. The film opts for a mostly apolitical approach to genre, but there are still cogent implications imbedded in the imagery. The novel was written in the midst of neoliberal capitalist Ronald Reagan’s presidency (a political leadership that King viciously satirizes in his 1991 novel Needful Things). Released nearly 30 years after the end of Reagan’s presidency, this version appears to loosely take nu-reactionary capitalist president Donald Trump as discreet inspiration for some of Pennywise the Clown’s characteristics: orange-haired and buffoonish, he even recruits the uneducated, disenfranchised white Bowers as his MAGA goon-like minion. Unfortunately, the film shies away from most of the really disturbing tensions at work in King’s novel (especially its implications that violence is collectively socialized and targeted; one plot point involving the massacre of black citizens is adjusted and ultimately minimized in Muschietti’s film). But the suggestion that It’s re-emergence might also be aligned with re-emergence of destructive leadership is compelling.

While this review might seem to generally suggest that 2017’s It is a complete failure, the film offers plenty to parse out and hang onto. In the few moments that it commits to taking its source seriously, it offers glimpses of that particularly Kingian spirit. While Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 miniseries adaptation is superior in almost every respect, that version also suffered from the complications of adapting such an ambitious, 1100-page horror epic to the screen. One wonders if this is a case where the novel is entrenched in and totally of its medium. To summarize: as a passable genre diversion, 2017’s It mostly does the trick. As an adaptation of a great 20th century novel, It completely misses the mark.

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.