Cinematic adaptations of existing works of literature are always a tricky affair, although nothing new. In popular reception, especially if the pre-existing literary work already has a certain degree of popularity, the success of a film adaptation is largely judged by how closely the film has followed the book or how far it strayed from the source material. But this kind of a judgment doesn’t take into account the different specificities of the two distinctly unique forms, the novel and the cinema. One can possibly think of two essential factors to be considered while discussing an adaptation. Firstly, the selection of elements from the book to be adapted, be it plot, characters, mood, political motivation, etc. and finally if it’s just the plot which is adapted, the question is how well did the director manage to employ the medium specific techniques such as composition, camera movements, transitions, editing techniques, sound design, etc. to narrate that plot. Loyalty to the source material can hardly be criteria for the merit of a film. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) has barely any similarity with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness while No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, 2007) follows the Cormac McCarthy novel almost to the letter. Yet both are among the finest examples of American Cinema.
— kaahon (@kaahonwall) September 3, 2017
The entire discussion becomes relevant for Andrés Muschietti’s latest film, It. The film is based on a novel written by Stephen King which makes it an interesting affair in terms of expectations and reception. Stephen King is not merely an immensely popular author with scores of best-selling books, but he is perhaps THE most important figure in contemporary times within the rich tradition of American Horror, a pantheon which would include the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James and HP Lovecraft among others. While Stephen King’s success largely rests on his immaculate craft of plot and narration, his enduring popularity can only be the result of something else, a sense of political consciousness and historical awareness resonating throughout his body of work which has kept him socially and culturally relevant for nearly half a century now. It, published in 1986, is considered by many to be among his finest work, if not the greatest. Running over 1200 pages, the novel is also King’s seminal work as it almost sums up all the concerns and motifs that run throughout his bibliography, such as the idea of fear, the dialectic of childhood and adult world, the historical foundation of the small town American communities, repressed tendencies of violence, etc.
The film in question falls short of being a nuanced adaptation of the novel as it is too fixated on being faithful to the source material. Completely focused on portraying the plot in detail, the film fails to do justice to two things. It neglects the peripheral elements such as the novel’s historical and political consciousness, its carefully constructed dynamics of a small-town community, thus failing to create the sense of dread which shrouds the town. And in the process, the narration becomes too crammed up, an attempt to fit in everything within a given duration, resulting in a disjointed narrative lacking in rhythm without proper character build ups, motives, intents, etc. The film almost takes for granted the audience’s pre-existing knowledge regarding the characters, settings and scenarios. As a result, for a legion of Stephen King fans, it becomes a gratifying experience just to encounter certain space and characters and moments from their favourite book; almost a matter of nostalgic pleasure. This enthusiasm is clearly reflected in the film’s financial success as its set to rake in over $100 million in its opening weekend setting the record for a R-rather film.
But keeping aside its success at the box office, it is unfortunate to see the film reducing the entire novel with its rich subtexts, to merely a plot combing conventional elements from the coming-of-age and horror films. Other than the patiently detailed opening scene (which is also the first chapter of the novel) which elaborately describes the first encounter of a child with the nameless evil, the rest of the film is filled with typical jump scares and CGI gore effects. There is hardly a moment of inspiration as everything fall into place in a predictable fashion, not in terms of story, but in terms of cinematic narration, in terms of image and the sound design. The only thing which keeps this film from becoming completely forgettable is the set of performances by the child actors. They are spontaneous, they are funny, they are sensitive and even complex in their portrayals. Special mention must be made of Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben, the overweight introvert, Sophia Lillis as Beverly, a tomboyish girl negotiating with puberty and parental abuse. The scene where these two interact for the first time is perhaps the best written and performed scene in the entire film, funny and heart-breaking in their own ways. But it has to be Finn Wolfhard as the foulmouthed and wisecracking Richie who owns every moment he is on screen. Bill Skarsgard succeeded in bringing the necessary combination of eeriness, eccentricity and terror to the titular character, making use of his almost cherubic face and sudden abrupt movements. But the film seemed to be in too much of a hurry to dwell on his performance and let the terror sink in. Instead it just piled on more and more computer generated special effects and a sustained noise in the sound design to scare the audience.
On hindsight, it’d probably take someone in the league of the Danish maestro Lars von Trier (incidentally, Stephen King’s filmmaker of preference) to have the cinematic vision to bring a Stephen King nightmare alive on screen. The contemporary practice in Hollywood doesn’t seem equipped for the task.