When I was growing up our family doctor had something of an obsession with clowns. All over his office were little oil paintings of clowns, dolls of clowns, decorative plates of clowns, etc. I found all of this to be unnerving as a kid. But when did I become scared of clowns? I don’t know for certain if It scared me because I already feared clowns or if I was frieghtened of clowns because I had seen It.
Andy Muschietti’s film of Stephen King’s novel It (2017) is reportedly the highest grossing horror film of all time. The likely reason for this is that It, since its first publication in 1986, has become not only a legitimate cult item, but a major referencing point in our popular culture. The Tommy Lee Wallace television adaptation of 1990, which I saw as a boy, helped solidify the novel’s status in our popular imagination, perpetuating a number of signifiers tied with the horror genre for three generations. Though Kubrick’s film of The Shining (1980) may be more infamous now than the novel on which it is based, It’s infamy has stayed tied closely to the original novel; at least till now.
Muschietti’s film differs from King’s text in two pivotal ways. The first is that Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman have re-structured King’s non-linear narrative for two separate films. The film currently in release represents the “childhood” narrative of the novel while the sequel film, no doubt, will focus upon the “adult” narrative. This prevents the film from drawing on parallels, both visually and conceptually, between the timelines while also depriving the spectator of truly coming to grips with the relay of cause and effect. That is to say that the novel It functioned as a kind of narrative circuit whose complex has been disassembled for the film.
There has also been an updating of the timeline by thirty years. In the novel, the chapters concerned with the character’s childhood are set in 1958, while in the film these events are set in 1988. This removes a tremendous amount of allegory from the narrative pertaining to Cold War paranoia as well as some of the historical urgency of the Mike Hanlon narrative (though it remains particularly relevant in the 1980s as it does today).
By dispensing with these two narrative strategies the film of It becomes transformed into a rather standard horror film with a “coming-of-age” story thrown in for good measures. As such, its weaknesses as a film are relatively standard. The special effects are poor, the scares come cheap, and the suspense is ill earned. Yet Muschietti’s sense of shot design and strong empathy for the irrationality of childhood fear yield some effective moments. For the most part these moments come in anticipation of Pennywise the clown. It is enough to suggest a character’s fear, to see the horrific imaginings on their face. Hence it is in the “fake-out” moments that It finds emotional truth in its material.