Movies based on Stephen King’s horror novels usually suck. As you can see I have used the modifier “horror” to sidestep Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption. Based on one very publicly chronicled bad experience King had with a certain director, it seems that he always strives to maintain a tight control of cinematic adaptations, ensuring that any film made on his writings remains true to the source. Unfortunately King’s prose is verbose, his stories start after five hundred pages (okay I am exaggerating a bit), and sometimes he totally goes off the rails, which is why more or less literal translations to screen have consistently lead to poor cinema, as a number of less than stellar adaptations of King’s works have demonstrated over the years.
Which brings me to that one bad experience that King had.
Kubrick’s “The Shining.”
Because the way King saw it, Kubrick took perhaps his most literary of novels, about addiction, desolation and the malignancy of failed dreams, and turned it into a monotone shlock fest—-creepy twin girls, rivers of blood, and Jack Nicholson’s running around with an axe. He was right of course. Kubrick, notoriously cold and ruthless (he would drive actors to the edge of nervous breakdown to get the exact expression) was merciless with the source material, scooping out much of what made “The Shining” a great novel, the nuance and the ambiguity. In Kubrick’s film, Jack Torrance is a pretty nasty man when he arrives, unlike the more sympathetic Jack Torrance of King, and the next two hours is a linear story of what happens when a violent man falls prey to his demons, with the layers in the original story flattened out, in a way that would make any author, and I absolutely understand this, livid.
And yet, and here is the supreme irony, Kubrick’s “The Shining” is arguably the best English language horror film ever made. What works on a page does not necessarily work on screen, what impacts a man comfortably reclining on his bed with a book in hand is different from what would one sitting in a theater with a fixed time-horizon, and the creative choices of “The Shining” are perfect in that respect.
Which makes “The Shining” that unique beast—a great book, and a great movie, both, and yet so very different from each other.
Which brings me to “It”.
“It” (Chapter one), helmed by Andy Muschietti, is that even rarer beast, one where the cinematic adaptation is arguably better than the source material.
“It”, the novel, is a 1500 page behemoth, often considered as one of the most iconic American novels of the 80s. Even if you haven’t read it, or not finished it (a lot of people claim to have read it when they haven’t), it is likely you have seen something inspired by it, be it “Stranger Things” or a scary clown costume in a Halloween store. Told through a series of interleaving flashbacks and forwards, “It” follows a group of misfits and social outcasts, once as children and once as adults, as they try to defeat an unspeakably terrifying, extra-terrestrial monster that preys on the vulnerable, both young and the old, in the town of Derry.
The monster, manifested usually as the excessively cheerful clown Pennywise, is a metaphor for the evil of the adult world, one that each of the children in “It” experience in different ways, one through the unwelcome advances of her father, one through racism, one through Munchhausen by proxy, one by awareness of his lack of desirability. Pennywise is an inspired creation, malignancy inside a shell of welcoming friendliness, that thing in the shadows which children always know exist, but no adult can see, and when they turn on the light and say “See there is no one here”, the child knows it is still there.
This is King at his finest.
And also at his worst.
“It”is, without doubt, a grossly uneven piece of work. Some places are genuinely unsettling, some tragically beautiful especially the part at the end about forgetting, But large parts are downright weird, in a bad way, including the exposition of the extra-terrestrial origins of the monster, which ends up subverting “It”s own metaphors. And no I have not forgotten; the widely reviled group-sex situation involving teenagers, which makes you question what King was on, when he wrote that sequence.
Andy Muschietti’s “It” papers over many of the bumps in the narrative. For one, the manifestation of “It” in the movie follows directly from the personal experience of evil that each of these children encounter. For the hypochondriac, it is through a boil-covered leper, for the girl going through sexual abuse, it is through the flood of menstrual blood, for the boy who blames himself for the loss of his brother, it is through the ghoulish re-animation of his dead brother. In King’s version, the manifestation was much more random—through a statue, through a bird, and you always wondered why.
Muschietti sharpens the metaphors. True, he cuts out much of what King fans would carp at, namely the building of the fellowship between these group of boys and girls, but then that is the thing about cinematic adaptations. Parts must go. He does fall back on conventional horror tropes, jump-scares and CGI gore, after all this is commercial horror, and it mostly works, except in an overtly protracted climax, and it works because he never loses sight of the overarching significance of “It”, the lurker in the shadows and the hunter of the innocent. He is helped in his atmosphere-building by a prefect casting of the gang of misfits, the color palette of the shots, the deep single tone reds and yellows, and the slow deliberate movement of objects, specially the balloons.
A meaner, leaner version of King’s original, this is one of the best horror films I have seen in a while.