How 'It' Succeeds Where Others Have Failed

Splitting a novel into multiple movies has never been to the benefit of the story, until now.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures (Left); Photofest (Center, right)
From left: 'It,' 'Hobbit' and 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2'

We live in an era of Hollywood announcing new franchises, universes, and the like on what feels like a daily basis. Comic books, older genre-film characters, and now well-loved horror novels, among others, have been fertile ground for executives to will into existence new series of films that will hopefully go over well with audiences. The new horror adaptation It (styled It: Chapter One in the final moments) is largely no different. Anyone familiar with the 1986 Stephen King novel knows the massive tome spends as much time on the adult versions of the main characters as it does on their younger selves. So instead of turning the book into one movie, Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema have split it in half. At least for now, that’s a surprisingly successful creative choice.

Warner Bros., more than other studios, has a habit of doing this with big-name literary adaptations. The final entry in the Harry Potter franchise, The Deathly Hallows, was split into two parts, mostly so the studio could milk the cash cow even more, luring audiences in for a final showdown in Part 2 eight months after the release of Part 1. A couple years later, they released the first of three films based on The Hobbit, one book that was expanded into a cinematic trilogy in an attempt to mimic the success of The Lord of the Rings series from 2001-03. It is a similar situation: One book has been expanded to wring more money out of a well-known property. However, there’s more hope being pinned on the Andy Muschietti film. Right now, there’s no official release date for a follow-up and just rumors about who could play the adults in the Losers’ Club, even though Muschietti has said he’d try to start production next spring.

It is a genuine hit, but even if the film hadn't gone over big at the box-office, those involved could still be pleased that they were able to do something that few of these expanded adaptations have done: tell a full story. Deathly Hallows, as a two-part whole, is a largely satisfying conclusion to the Harry Potter saga, but each part on its own doesn’t feel complete. One requires the other. The same is true of the Hobbit trilogy, in part because adapting a 300-page book into three different, very long films makes them feel separately bloated instead of whole. It, by its very nature, would have required either a limited series on HBO or Netflix or another TV provider, or an exceptionally long film. How else could you accurately bring to life the thousand-page-plus story Stephen King wrote about a battle between a group of so-called Losers growing up (and then grown up) in Derry, Maine, and a clown-shaped embodiment of all things terrible? A single film would almost certainly have failed at telling the whole story; since King splits focus between the kids of the Losers’ Club and their grown-up versions 27 years later, splitting the story in two makes sense in theory.

In practice, it works even better. Some elements of the King novel have changed: the kid-focused sections now take place in 1988 and 1989, not the late 1950s. A few edits may sting, but other excisions are smart and logical (such as the elimination of an infamous sexually explicit scene). The streamlined take also lets the seven kids, who are all exceptionally well cast, build legitimate, sincere friendships among each other. The premise, in which a group of kids’ worst fears are made real, is instantly gripping; once we get to know the Losers’ Club, there’s an added sense of empathy and emotion to their adventure. Focusing on the kids before they fight off monsters simply heightens the sense of investment in their plight. Here, especially, the choice to split It  in two pays off creatively.

It is perhaps not the best Stephen King adaptation; technically, we won’t even know that until the second half is released. (Even then, it would be next to impossible to top films like The Shining, Stand by Me or The Shawshank Redemption.) But this new movie boasts a superbly talented group of child actors, a series of unnerving and creepy set pieces, and a confident sense of timing and place. The decision that Warner Bros. made to adapt the book in two films was no doubt driven by the hope of double the box-office gold. But they lucked into making a creatively exciting story as well, the first such time this choice has really paid off outside of the box office.