During one scene in Stephen King’s 1986 novel Bill Denbrough — a stuttering kid who has grown up to be a successful horror writer — is speaking with his agent about Hollywood adapting his work. She says the best he can hope for is that the studio will call on William Goldman
to write the script. “And if it turns out to be some meatball who gets the assignment instead of someone like Goldman, so what? … Listen to me, Billy! Take the money and run.”
King has clearly heeded this advice for decades, as survivors of the worst King adaptations — and come to mind — can attest. The current incarnation of directed by one Andy Muschietti, doesn’t sink to those depths, but it doesn’t rise much further. This is unfortunate, if only because a strong cast of young actors was assembled to play the principals — a circle of seven children whose Maine town is haunted by an evil spirit (the It of the title) that takes the form of a spooky clown named Pennywise.
Jaeden Lieberher plays young Bill Denbrough in the film, which only covers the childhood portion of the novel (the credits intimate that a sequel is to follow, covering the part of King’s tale devoted to the characters’ adult struggles with It). Lieberher is serviceable in a bland role as leader of the “Losers’ Club”; the actors who play his buddies are more enjoyable. In particular, Jack Dylan Grazer as the jittery hypochondriac Eddie and Finn Wolfhard as motormouth Richie are excellent. Sophia Lillis contributes a bit of sunniness to the film as Beverly, the only female character in a movie that flunks the Bechdel test.
In King’s novel, the kids grow up in the late 1950s, but the movie places them in the 1980s. This decision feels like a limp effort to capitalize on renewed interest in the era’s influence on pop culture, as exemplified by Netflix’s (which also features Wolfhard). It also gives the thoroughly tone-deaf filmmakers the opportunity to stylistically crib from and other ’80s hits. (Incongruously, the young characters rib each other with raunchy jibes that seem better suited to a post-South world.)
There are moments of real horror, but they don’t involve the evil clown. Scattered among lighthearted scenes of the kids palling around is ugly background material on the characters, including disturbing portrayals of bullying and sexually charged confrontations between Beverly and her father (an icky Stephen Bogaert). By contrast, the numerous jump-scare scenes with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, son of Stellan Skarsgård) are laughable and annoyingly protracted. Here’s hoping King draws a better meatball for his next adaptation. — Jeff Acker