Despite their rich history and jocular appearance, clowns have come to symbolize an almost archetypal form of evil to contemporary audiences, a grotesque caricature of innocence in greasepaint. Pennywise the clown, certainly one of Stephen King’s most appalling villains, epitomizes this modern anxiety. Not only does the makeup conceal a monster, but this creature also uses its counterfeit innocence to prey on children.
At the risk of sounding callous, Muschietti’s film gives us a fairly generic evil clown. Tim Curry’s portrayal had a very distinct personality, which made it all the more invidious and believable. The series may have been little more than a Halloween-themed soap opera, but Pennywise was an actual character. Conversely, this latest incarnation is more of a special effect—a prop that belongs in an amusement park, not a movie. Though the film’s budget ensures that the CGI is fairly seamless, it also hides what could have been a powerful performance behind a plethora of gaudy masks.
Muschietti has the unenviable task of appeasing a loyal fanbase, as well as an author who pulls no punches when it comes to filmic interpretations of his work. King has never warmed to Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, for instance. Kubrick took a Stephen King story and made a Stanley Kubrick movie. King may wince at Kubrick’s decidedly more psychological take on the source material, but the film succeeds precisely because it refuses to surrender its human elements to the supernatural. Sure, The Shining has its share of monsters, but none of them can match the lunacy on Jack Nicholson’s face. (It doesn’t hurt that Kubrick has a preternatural gift for capturing the menace in a human face.) Conversely, Muschietti doesn’t seem to recognize that even the best monsters wear out their welcome very quickly: Witness the repeated misfires in the Alien franchise, all of which depart from the superb restraint of the original. In the case of It, the film succeeds the most when Pennywise is absent.
It does take some wise artistic liberties, though. Instead of proceeding through flashbacks as the book does, this adaptation trains its lens on the childhood of its characters, reserving part two for the more somber revelations of adulthood. This device makes the pacing much less cumbersome. The movie also jettisons a very problematic (and frankly bizarre) orgy. Following in the footsteps of Stranger Things, the writers have moved the events from 1963 to the ’80s, allowing the movie to serve as a veritable time capsule of pop culture trivia.
Even though the subject matter of It is incredibly dark, this is a very warm-hearted film. More than anything, King’s story is a paean to the wonders of friendship amid adversity, and there’s simply no way to convey this tremendous power without real chemistry between the actors. Because of Muschietti’s extraordinary young cast, we see that “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24)”—and, more importantly, we believe it. In the context of our deeply divided culture, I suspect that this movie’s popularity has a lot more to do with the kind of friendship it celebrates than the scares it delivers.