The Losers Club is all grown up and back in Derry for a final confrontation with Pennywise in Director Andy Muschietti’s follow up to his 2017 box office hit, . isn’t quite as good as its phenomenal predecessor, but it’s still good, scary fun. And together, the two films comprise a deeply satisfying full adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel.
(Some spoilers for the 1986 novel and , but no major reveals from )
Confession: was the book that turned me on to Stephen King, convincing me that the horror novelist’s work wasn’t just about monsters, gore, and jump scares. It scared the crap out of my 20-something self; I slept with a light on for two nights after finishing it. I can’t recall any other book that had that effect on me. Somehow it tapped into my most deep-seated fears from childhood—fears I wasn’t aware I still possessed on some long-submerged level. The best of King plumbs the psychological depths of the best and worst of human nature, and is definitely one of his best.
The novel tells the story of a group of misfit preteen kids calling themselves “The Losers Club.” The kids discover their small town of Derry, Maine, is home to an ancient, trans-dimensional evil that awakens every 27 years to prey mostly on children by taking the form of an evil clown named Pennywise. Actually, the evil, It, takes on many forms, preying on the specific fears of its targets. At one point, unofficial group leader Bill concludes that It is a “glamour,” a mythological shapeshifting creature with the power to create illusions. One of the more terrifying aspects of the reality-bending illusions It inflicts upon the children is that adults don’t seem to be able to see the horrors at all.
The book opens with the brutal murder of Bill’s little brother Georgie one rainy afternoon at the hands of Pennywise and proceeds to jump back and forth between that harrowing past and the members of the Losers Club as successful adults. They have forgotten the events of that fateful summer, and when they reconvene in Derry 27 years later, their memories start to return bit by bit. It’s a clever narrative device, as the characters must confront the truth about themselves, their lost childhood innocence, and the traumas they’ve repressed for so long. Re-igniting their lifelong bond is the key to defeating It.
The tightly interwoven narrative makes it challenging to adapt King’s sprawling novel for the screen—and the highly conceptual finale, essentially a mental battle of wills, is even more difficult to capture in a visual medium. There was a TV miniseries in 1990—technically, a two-part, three-hour movie, which meant that much of the novel’s richest storylines were excised from the script. It was OK, as adaptations go, but the visual effects were cheesy, and the reworked finale was a bit silly. Still, Tim Curry lit up the small screen as Pennywise with his unforgettable cackle. So when Bill Skarsgård was tapped to portray Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the 2017 remake, he had some pretty big shoes to fill. He proved more than up to the task, creating a version of Pennywise even more likely to haunt your dreams.
Set in 1988-1989 (updated from the book’s childhood timeframe of 1957-1958), essentially adapted the childhood half of King’s original novel. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) loses his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to Pennywise and recruits the Loser’s Club to take on the killer clown the following summer when they realize what’s going on. Bill, Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) succeed in driving It into early hibernation, where It will hopefully starve. But Beverly has a vision warning that Pennywise will return on schedule in 27 years, and they must be ready to fight It anew.
is quite possibly the best adaptation of a King novel I’ve yet seen ( is an anthology series inspired by the works of King, not a direct adaptation). The childhood storyline was the beating heart of the novel, and Muschietti coaxed wonderful performances out of his young cast. The film is visually stunning and impeccably paced, dispensing terror and dread at regular intervals but never neglecting the humor and warm glow of these preteens teetering on the brink of adolescence.
And Muschietti wisely omitted the most controversial scene from the book, when the Losers get lost in the sewers after defeating Pennywise the first time, and Beverly (the only girl) decides she must have sex with each of the six boys so they can re-unify. King has said it was intended to connect childhood and adulthood, and it’s true that the brutal murders of children are (or should be) far more shocking. But I’ve always thought having the only girl in the group basically pull a train was the novel’s greatest flaw. Had Muschietti included it, that’s all anyone would have talked about. was much stronger for the omission and went on to become the highest grossing horror film of all time.
revisits our protagonists 27 years later, as they all return to Derry as adults, in response to a call from Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of the Losers Club who stayed in Derry. Bill (James McAvoy) is now a successful novelist, married to a famous actress. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a successful fashion designer married to an abusive husband. Ben (Jay Ryan) is no longer the fat kid, transforming into a slim, well-muscled successful architect. Eddie (James Ransone) runs a limousine business in New York City. Stanley (Andy Bean) is a partner in an accounting firm. And Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier (Bill Hader) is a successful DJ and comedian. They recall very little of that summer in Derry, although the memories come flooding back over dinner at a local Chinese restaurant—a dinner that also features some taunting horrific illusions from Pennywise.
Muschietti had an even bigger challenge on his hands adapting the adult storyline from King’s novels because he used all the major reveals in his first film. So instead of wandering around Derry on their own to recover their memories, the Losers go in search of tokens from their past for use in a “ritual of CHUD” that Mike believes will allow them to defeat It. (In the book, that “ritual” is the aforementioned orgy.) It’s a clever move, giving us a few more details via flashbacks about the Losers’ personal demons, although those scenes don’t have quite the same punch as those featured in the first film. Another smart move: Muschietti dispenses with one of the book’s subplots involving Beverley’s abusive husband and Bill’s wife, Audra, following their spouses to Derry and getting pulled into Pennywise’s shenanigans. It would have been an unnecessary complication to an already complicated film.
boasts the same stunning visuals, and Muschietti has also assembled a stellar cast. Bill Hader in particular turns in one of the best performances of his career as the wise-cracking, trash-talking adult Richie, whose steady stream of witticisms brings some much-needed levity to the horrifying events. King himself has a cameo as a crotchety, rather creepy antique store owner.
I’m not a purist when it comes to book adaptations, especially for a novel as long and multi-faceted as ; a clever re-interpretation in a new medium can be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, Gary Dauberman’s script makes several additions to the storyline that don’t quite work, making the film feel bloated and overlong. (It long, with a 169-minute running time; the first film clocked in at 135 minutes.) For instance, there’s really no need for a subplot involving Bill trying to save a young boy from Pennywise in a fun house, except that it makes for a cool scary scene in a hall of mirrors.
The narrative threads start to unravel a bit as we move toward the climactic confrontation with Pennywise, and the means by which the Losers ultimately prevail is, well, a bit of a letdown. There’s a running joke that the endings of Bill’s novels always suck, and it feels like Muschietti couldn’t figure out how to end his film. A lovely moment where the adults see their younger selves in a storefront window reflection would have made for a fitting coda, encapsulating the major themes of both films. Instead, the director tacks on a lengthy follow-up sequence showing us where the Losers ended up after leaving Derry for the last time. Granted, the novel has a similar sequence, but it’s much more effective than the film version, which is more maudlin than moving.
Despite these nitpicks, is still a very good, enjoyable film, with plenty of effective jump scares, powerful performances, and nightmare-inducing visions to make it a lasting addition to the horror genre. I’d recommend watching both films back to back if you have the five hours to spare. Maybe leave a light on. Or two.