by MP Bartley
Ok, time to get my cards out on the table here. Stephen King is just about my favourite author, and 'It' is indisputably my favourite book, so this review is going to be unapologetically coloured by that. So, considering that this is a three-hour film that is surprisingly never really boring, feel free to add an star. Then again, if you too love the book, you might think I'm being too kind so feel free to deduct a star. Oh yeah, and this is one review that's going to be spoiler-heavy, so be warned.Bill (Richard Thomas) is a successful writer whose cosy married life is shattered by a phone call from an old friend Mike (Tim Reid), and two words: "Its back". This is a phone call that also goes to architect Ben (John Ritter), fashion designer Beverley (Annette O'Toole), hypochondriac limo driver Eddie (Dennis Christopher), comic Richie (Harry Anderson) and accountant Stan (Richard Masur), all having the same shattering effect.
"Sorry, but this just isn't...It."
This effect comes from the recollection of their childhood past in Derry, where at the age of 11 they were terrorised and fought against a child-killer who had killed Bill's young brother Georgie. The killer seems to take many forms, most prominently a nightmarish clown, Pennywise (Tim Curry), although It is the name that they christen the killer with. And although they partially defeated It last time, It has come back to Derry, and a childhood pact sees them reuniting to finish the job and rid Derry of the evil for good.
'It' is a mammoth 900+ word book, so it would seem unfair not to take that into account when looking at just how Tommy Lee Wallace managed to condense it into three hours. So let's start with what he actually got right shall we? Firstly, his pick of child actors is great. Not one of them comes across as an awkward performer, they fit their roles easily and naturally, and create a believeable gang mentality with each other. But the one thing everyone remembers from 'It' is the performance of Curry as Pennywise. He gleefully launches himself into the role as the sadistic killer terrorising kids and subsequently haunting the adult counterparts, and is demonically effective right from his glare, down to his throaty, gurgling chuckle. Personally, I'm one of those who've always found clowns creepy anyway, and Curry plays on that fear brilliantly.
Wallace is also pretty fearless in not only stripping down the aspects of the book he feels aren't needed, but also adding the occasional scene, and one of those works superbly. As adult Bill visits George's grave on his return to Derry, Pennywise appears and taunts him in the cemetry displaying the seven graves that he's just dug for Bill and his friends. A scene not in the book, it's a terrific combination of the evil in the everyday.
But then...that's just about all Wallace gets right. He sticks to the relative structure of the book, but gets none of the essence right. Firstly, one of the main points of the book, is that the seven children are destined to come together, and only the fact that they're such strong friends gives them a chance against It. Wallace fudges this completely, with the feeling that it's just chance that this seven gets together, and that they would work equally as well with just five or six of them. They wouldn't, which is something King takes great pain to point out, and something Wallace ignores.
This gives the novel a great sense of poignancy when the adult Stan commits suicide on hearing of Its return. This poignancy and sense of defeat felt by the adults on hearing this, is lost as Wallace clearly views Stan as superflous. He's not, and his suicide is the first clue that Pennywise is stronger than before, and that as adults they're not actually as strong as they were as kids. This is a totally underwhelming subtext here, where Stan's loss is met with a shrug of the shoulders. Plus, in the book we hear this news early on, casting a sad shadow over the the children section, knowing, as we do, what eventually happens to break the gang up. But Wallace reveals Stan's fate far too late to invest the childhood scenes with that sense of innocence lost.
He also misses the point of the childhood love triangle between Bill, Ben and Beverley, an aspect which King captures so perfectly, with its first flush of teenage hormones bouncing around. But then, Wallace is oblivious to the magic of the book and misses a trick with the Derry of the past contrasting to the Derry of the present. The Derry of the past should be golden-hued and nostalgic, slowly darkening as It makes its presence known, whereas the Derry of the present should be dark and gloomy as the adults return to the scene where the childhood was spoiled forever. Instead, Wallace makes Derry seem exactly the same in both time periods. There's a huge, rich emotional subtext running through the book, which Wallace completely fails to transfer. He chops and changes between the characters as adults and the characters as children so much, that they're never given a chance to be built up in either case, meaning we don't particularly care for them much as adults. We need to spend time with these kids to get to know them and worry about their return to Derry.
Indeed, the whole point of Derry as a place of evil is another aspect completely missed. We get a comphrensive history in the book, detailing Pennywise's reappearance to feed on the children and people of Derry, every thirty years or so. Here, we only get this idea in the last 30 minutes so the opportunity to cast a sense of impending doom right from the start is utterly wasted. Even as children, there's no sense that Pennywise has killed anyone besides Georgie, or that he has any intention of killing the rest. Instead, he's more like a cartoon villiain popping up to shout "Boo!" at the kids before running off giggling. The twin sense of childhood innocence entwined with the very real siege of evil in Derry? Again, something that's just not here. It's more like Pennywise is just picking on this gang and no-one else, whereas it's the whole town that's really in danger (a fact made clear in the virtually apocalyptic finale, that's such a huge damp squib in the film).
But it's not just the essence of the book that Wallce fouls up, it's logical and practical explanations. It's made pretty clear in the book, that Pennywise preys and uses strong fears (so he can appear as people's worst nightmares) and thus strong faith can repel him. Being kids, it's the small things that the kids have faith in that repel him, such as Stan's book of birds. But that explanation is completely missed here, so when Eddie attacks Pennywise and melts his face with his asthma inhaler, it's not Eddie's strong faith in what keeps him healthy that's lethal to It, it's more like a ridiculous allergy Pennywise has, like garlic to a vampire. It's a stupid, stupid moment that could have been so easily cleared up with a moments thought.
And for a director quite keen and ruthless in dropping aspects of the book he doesn't like, Wallace keeps aspects in, just for the sake of it without knowing how to use them. Henry Bowers is the other main source of evil in the book, being a vicious, violent bully, and his reappearance from a mental institution as a weapon of Pennywise, is a gripping obstacle to the adults, nearly killing one of them. But here, it's totally superflous, appearing for two minutes before being conveniently dispatched. It's as if Wallace felt he had to be in, even though he had no idea how to incorporate him (and as we're not made aware of Its ability and method of appearing as victims worst nightmares, the sequence where he kills Bower's guard as a dog is downright laughable - a small dobermann with a clowns ruff around his neck slobbering everywhere shot in slow-motion close-up is SCARY KIDS!).
Yes, Wallace doesn't even get much right on a technical level. His use of zooming to extreme close-ups to convey the fear of adults is the cliched stuff of first-year film students, as is the idea of fading between adults to the children counterparts with both versions holding their faces in EXACTLY the same way. Yes, we get, it, it's the same person.
The special effects are cheap and tawdry (check out the extremely bad claymation during the shower sequence with Eddie), and as the whole film builds up Curry's performance as Pennywise, maybe the climax shoudn't have revolved around a very fake giant spider in the sewers? Now that's a change from the book that would have worked (unlike Eddies last minute revelation that he's a virgin. A complete departure from the book, and one that is a blatant attempt to elicit sympathy - also completely signposting just who's NOT coming back from the sewers for those who don't know). In fact, perhaps the biggest flaw to 'It' is that, apart from Curry's creepy performance, it's resolutely not scary.
Lastly, (and thank you for sticking with me for so long), if the childrens performances are winning and sweet, then the adults are generally losers. As Bill, Thomas is dull and resolutely lacking in the charisma that marks him out as the groups leader ( a charisma that his child counterpart, Jonathan Brandis, clearly does have). The anonydne O'Toole makes Beverley a wet fish, a stereotypical screaming woman, whereas the Beverley of the book was part sex siren, part slut, and part tough cookie. Ritter does ok as Ben, if lacking in the characters deep-rooted sadness, making him more of a boozehound. The character of Richie is a tough one, as he needs to be wacky and funny, but quite often that type of character comes across as annoying. Anderson tries, but mainly veers into annoying. Eddie comes across a mincing wimp, not the vulnerable but valuable friend of the book. Reid is the only one who captures the essence of the character right, as the solid and dependable Mike, who has probably seen more horror than the rest of him. It's a nuanced, haunted turn, that keeps it subtle. A shame that the rest didn't follow his example.There's still a great film lying within 'It'. Maybe if Peter Weir or David Fincher cast Matt Damon as Bill, Joaquin Phoenix as Ben, Evangeline Lilly as Beverley, Ryan Reynolds as Richie, Giovanni Ribisi as Eddie, Harold Perrineau as Mike and Willem Defoe as Pennywise, we'd get It. And It needs to be done just right.
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originally posted: 04/06/06 20:26:13