stephen king

"It" (2017) Review by Keith LaFountaine

SPOILERS FOR IT (2017) BELOW

It is a mammoth novel. At over 1100 pages, containing a huge assortment of characters, and spanning over 200 years of mythos, you can imagine just how hard this novel is to adapt. It's not just an issue of plot, it's an issue of time. While King has over 275,000 words to tell his story (the equivalent of a 4,500 hour film, if 1 script page is equivalent to one minute of film time) Andy Muschietti has given himself roughly four hours -- around 240 pages -- to adapt both halves of these novels.

A still from  It  (1990)

A still from It (1990)

The 1990 miniseries showed that this novel is both incredibly hard to adapt, and impossible to water down. While Tim Curry shines through, in that adaptation, as Pennywise, the rest of the film around him is rife with bad acting, poor writing, stilted dialogue, and cheesy effects. This miniseries covered the entirety of the novel, but even its three-hour runtime wasn't enough to effectively adapt King's story. Additionally, this adaptation avoided almost all of the violence, sexuality, and dark humor that made the novel unique, and memorable.

Andy Muchietti's It suffers, too, from this inability to capture the temporal expansiveness of King's novel. The first chapter of the film, clocking in at a little over two hours, covers the majority of the plot points contained in about half of King's novel. However, it fails to capture the depth, and the intricacies contained within those pages. Furthermore, its horror is executed in the most lazy, and frustrating, way: jump scares.

Let's begin with the writing, though.

This adaptation of It was originally written by Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer. Fukunaga was originally attached as writer/director for a long time. You may know Fukunaga from his directorial efforts on films like Beasts of No Nation and Sin Nombre, along with his directing work on the first season of the HBO show True Detective.

Fukunaga was fired from the project after it had been mired in development Hell for quite some time. After being fired, he shared some details about why he was given the boot, and what the producers wanted his film to be.

I was trying to make an unconventional horror film. It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience. Our budget was perfectly fine. We were always hovering at the $32 million mark, which was their budget. It was the creative that we were really battling. It was two movies. They didn’t care about that. In the first movie, what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.

The main difference was making Pennywise more than just the clown. After 30 years of villains that could read the emotional minds of characters and scare them, trying to find really sadistic and intelligent ways he scares children, and also the children had real lives prior to being scared. And all that character work takes time. It’s a slow build, but it’s worth it, especially by the second film. But definitely even in the first film, it pays off.

It was being rejected. Every little thing was being rejected and asked for changes. Our conversations weren’t dramatic. It was just quietly acrimonious. We didn’t want to make the same movie. We’d already spent millions on pre-production. I certainly did not want to make a movie where I was being micro-managed all the way through production, so I couldn’t be free to actually make something good for them. I never desire to screw something up. I desire to make something as good as possible.

We invested years and so much anecdotal storytelling in it. Chase and I both put our childhood in that story. So our biggest fear was they were going to take our script and bastardize it. So I’m actually thankful that they are going to rewrite the script. I wouldn’t want them to stealing our childhood memories and using that. I mean, I’m not sure if the fans would have liked what I would had done. I was honoring King’s spirit of it, but I needed to update it. King saw an earlier draft and liked it.
— Cary Fukunaga

Ultimately, Fukunaga and his producers were trying to make two different films: Fukunaga wanted to make something akin to The Shining, or Rosemary's Baby, whereas his producers wanted him to make the next Conjuring film.

When Fukunaga was booted from the project, the producers hired writer Gary Dauberman (writer of Annabelle and Wolves at the Door) to make extensive changes to Fukunaga and Palmer's script. They also hired Andy Muschietti, writer/director of the 2013 film, Mama, to replace Fukunaga in the director's chair.

Sadly, what Fukunaga divulged in that interview is completely true. While some elements of his script has been kept, much of it was re-written to fit Muschietti's vision (which, in turn, fit Hollywood's vision). By this I mean to say that Muschietti's It is full of poor dialogue, jump scares, and very flat characters.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Part of this stems from what I mentioned above -- trying to adapt a huge novel into a relatively short script. Supporting characters, like Henry Bowers, or Beverly Marsh's father, are fleshed out in the novel, and given compelling backstories. In the film, they are defined by very rigid, and thin motivations. Henry Bowers, for instance, is a bully because his father is a violent drunk. That's it. That is the entire motivation behind this bully's extremely violent, and destructive tendencies. Beverly Marsh's father has no motivation, nor any backstory. He's just a looming, abusive figure that is shrouded in darkness.

The real issue with the writing of this film, though, is the depiction of Pennywise the Clown. Obviously this character is essential to the novel, and to the overall story.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Bill Skarsgård is fine as Pennywise, though he is very forgettable. His performance can be summed up as "forced" -- a combination of whisper-talking, and overacting. Pennywise's horrific actions are augmented by poor CGI, which takes away from both the character, and the Skarsgård's performance.

Furthermore, this Pennywise never feels like an organic part of the story. Pennywise is an old entity, spanning well beyond the lifespan of the children. Yet we never get a feeling for that age beyond some vague dialogue which speaks to it. Furthermore, because of all of the jump scares, Pennywise never feels scary. In fact, all of the scares in the film feel very forced, and inorganic to the atmosphere Muschietti attempts to set up.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The main cast is good, though, and they are the saving grace of the film. While Pennywise, and the fear surrounding him, feel inorganic and forced, the interactions and chemistry between the core characters is strong. They are funny, endearing, and realistic. 

The real standout performance in this film comes from Finn Wolfhard, who plays Richie Tozier. Carrying the majority of the comedic relief on his shoulders, Wolfhard is able to punctuate each scene he's in with authenticity and endearing realism. 

The rest of the cast works well, even if they don't quite fit the character descriptions we remember from the novel. In this respect, while they may not replicate the characters we have envisioned, they certainly embody them. The performances are all solid.

In fact, ironically enough, the younger performances are much better than their adult counterparts. Part of this could be from the shallow writing, or the stilted dialogue the adults are often stuck with, but it is worth mentioning.

© 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

© 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The real issue with this film comes from the jump scares, though. Jump scares, by themselves, are not inherently evil. They are most certainly lazy, but they aren't the worst thing ever. A horror film can still be very good if it has a couple of jump scares in it. However, like many other things in the filmmaking world, less is more

Muschietti does not abide by this adage, as everything from Pennywise's interaction with Georgie to the climactic third act are rife with forced jump scares, grating musical cues, and dramatic lighting. 

That first interaction with Georgie helps set up the entire film, both in terms of tone, and in terms of scares. The script has jarring shifts in tone, which are best exemplified by Georgie chasing his boat down the street happily, running into a road block, and then meeting Pennywise. In a matter of a minute or two, we change the entire tone of the film three times, and without warning. This happens throughout the film continually, with varying degrees of success (blending horror and comedy can work, it just depends on how you do it).

My opinion of Skarsgård's performance is complicated, and this scene perfectly encapsulates why. There are fleeting moments where he captures the essence of Pennywise as a character -- this lure for children that is used so he can feed -- and there are moments where he feels like he is trying to be scary (which, as we all know, generally doesn't work; just like when someone is trying to be funny, it comes off as forced).

Skarsgård oscillates between these two positions frequently throughout the film. When he releases some balloons to reveal his face to one of our core characters, it feels forced. It's supposed to be scary, but it isn't. When he is playfully tortures Eddie, who has broken his arm, he inhabits the comedic, and terrifying, nature of Pennywise as a character. I don't know how much of this is Skarsgård's performance, and how much of it is the writing, but Skarsgård as Pennywise is wildly inconsistent, to say the least.

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I guess those are the two terms I would use to best illustrate my feelings about this film: forced, and inconsistent.

None of this is to say that the film is unwatchable -- if you don't mind jump scare horror, similar to what James Wan provides (though Muschietti is not nearly as skillful as Wan when it comes to delivering said type of horror), then you will probably like this film. 

However, from my perspective, as a filmmaker and a film lover, Muschietti's It is the kind of film that exudes all of the issues the horror genre currently has. It's full of forced scares, and light on depth and characterization. That doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed, nor does that mean it's devoid of any quality; it just means that, as an adaptation of its excellent source material, and as a film, it fails in a number of capacities.

What Makes a Good Film Adaptation? by Keith LaFountaine

I recently stumbled across this excellent video discussing Cary Fukunaga's all-too-brief involvement with the new It film that will be hitting theaters this Fall. 

I have been very vocal in my low expectations for this film, mainly due to how underwhelming Muschietti's other film, Mama, was, and because of Fukunaga's comments about the creative differences he had with producers which led to his rather unceremonious firing. 

I was trying to make an unconventional horror film. It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience. Our budget was perfectly fine. We were always hovering at the $32 million mark, which was their budget. It was the creative that we were really battling. It was two movies. They didn’t care about that. In the first movie, what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.
— Cary Fukunaga

In this video there is some brief discussion about the elements of Fukunaga's script that would have elevated the horror, and attempted to create something fresh, and bold, from King's original novel. 

The comments were what really spurred this post, though. I invite you to check them out for yourself.

The essential thesis of the majority of these comments was that film adaptations should be as faithful to their source material as possible. The deviations that Fukunaga had proposed were met with vitriol, with some people saying he should have just made a different film if he had wanted to make the film that was described in this video.

So what makes a film adaptation good? Does an adaptation need to stick to its story word-for-word (or as close to that as possible), or is it okay for films to deviate from their source material while still using the essence of the narrative?

This is a difficult question, and it's one that I'm on the fence about. The easy answer seems to be "it depends on the film", but there should be some kind of rubric from which we can discern pros and cons of adapting existing works -- right?

Let's take a look at one of the most famous, and well-respected, film adaptations -- The Lord of the Rings

A still from  The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers  (2002)

A still from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

What made The Lord of the Rings so powerful was how it managed to adapt this epic fantasy tale while retaining an aura of its own. By this I mean to say that the film trilogy we all watched, and fell in love with, managed to tow the line between faithfully bringing Tolkien's vision to screen (Jackson describes, in one of the many behind-the-scenes documentaries, that Ian McKellen had a paperback copy "Fellowship" while they were on set, and would often consult it for answers; similarly, the late, great Christopher Lee was a Tolkien expert, having consistently read the trilogy every year until his passing), and asserting its own aesthetic, and vision.

Granted, Peter Jackson describes every moment of pre-production, filming, and post being dedicated to bringing Tolkien's vision to life. Therefore, for this trilogy, faithfulness to the source material was the essential element.

Let's take another film adaptation (one that is notorious, especially among King fans): Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece, The Shining.

A still from  The Shining  (1980)

A still from The Shining (1980)

The 1980 film is nothing like its source material, except in the most superficial of ways. Kubrick used King's novel more as a conduit for his own philosophical ideas than anything else. While King's novel was much more personal to the author, discussing issues of alcoholism, fatherhood, and marriage -- all under the backdrop of a ghost story --, Kubrick's film was more concerned with surrealism, tension, and imagery.

They both work in their own way, though. King's novel is widely regarded as one of his best, in terms of his entire canon, and Kubrick's film is widely regarded as one of the best horror films ever made. They both took the basic idea of the story, and drove it in different directions, both of which were wildly successful.

Is it a good adaptation, though?

That is a question that is left to subjective opinion. I personally am of the mind that a good film adaptation is one that uses the source material to its benefit, and in the process creates a good film. After all, literature and film are two different mediums with entirely different approaches (in terms of creation). It is impossible to perfectly adapt a novel, both because of runtime issues (if every adaptation was entirely faithful we would have excessively long films.

Additionally, what is the benefit of seeing a perfect representation of what we have already read? While certain moments take on a different meaning, or importance when we see them on screen (the battle of Helm's Deep, for instance, or the night-vision goggles scene in The Silence of the Lambs), films that use their source material as avenues for more provocative discussions, themes, or visual ideas are often just as powerful. 

In the video that started this blog post, many of the scenes that are brought up (which deviate from the source material) are still exploring ideas that King wrote about in his book. In Fukunaga's script, Pennywise wouldn't necessarily take on literal forms, like vampires and werewolves, but would instead use the children's inner fears -- like struggling with the concept of manhood -- against them. It is a deviation from the source material, as the scene described did not happen in the novel, but the underlying themes, and ideas, from the novel are still there.

My point here is that we shouldn't necessarily write off a film that deviates from its source material. Often times films that take their narrative in a different direction are still exploring similar themes, or ideas; more importantly, though, even when they're not, they can still be interesting, entertaining pieces of art on their own.

Take Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, for example -- these are two hugely popular TV shows that follow their source material about 70% of the time. However, some characters who die in the show are alive in the books, or the comics, and vice versa. Some events don't play out quite like they do in the source material, and some moments in the source material are expanded, with great benefit, in these shows. The episode "Hardhome", for example, is the perfect example of this. In the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the events at Hardhome are alluded to. In the show, we see what happens in grisly detail, and it is one of the most thrilling moments in the show.

I'm jumping around a bit here, but let's return to my main points here. Firstly, film adaptations (and TV adaptations for that matter) that follow their source material can often be amazing pieces of art that are augmented by their imagery. Conversely, films and shows that deviate from their source material (whether as drastically as Kubrick did, or in the smaller ways that Fukunaga wanted to) can be equally as good because of their ability to explore new stories within the parameters of the existing narrative.

Ultimately there is no way to say whether an adaptation is good or bad based only on the amount in which it deviates from its source material. We can only judge a piece of art on its own merits. And don't get me wrong -- there have been plenty of horrendous film adaptations that have missed the mark entirely (both by trying to deviate, and by trying to be faithful). But if we stop focusing on a film's connection to its source material, we may be better off.

James M. Cain -- author of novels like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice -- was once asked about film adaptations. The story goes that a reporter visited his home to interview the author. At the time, one of Cain's novels had been adapted into a film, and said film was getting very poor reception. The reporter asked Cain if Hollywood had ruined his books. Cain's response is perfect.

They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.
— James M. Cain

The point Cain is making, and I suppose the point I'm making as well, is that film adaptations do not erase their source material. Even if Kubrick's The Shining was one of the worst films every made, it would not erase King's novel, nor its social appeal. People would still read the book, and would tout it as "better than the movie" -- and that's perfectly okay.

As a filmmaker and a writer, I often find myself caught in the middle of this debate. Ultimately, my position on the matter is that filmmakers should go with their gut. If you're adapting a novel and you want it to remain as close to the source material as possible, nobody should stop you. The opposite is true as well.

At the end of the day, I still wish I could see what Fukunaga had in store for us. I may still be bracing myself for disappointment with Muschietti's vision, I do hope that it works, whether it's faithful or not.