Near the end of Stephen King’s novel “It,” from 1986, Bill Denbrough,
one of the heroes tasked with killing the shapeshifting eponymous
monster, goes on a psychedelic journey beyond the limits of the
universe. He and his friends Stan, Eddie, Richie, Mike, Ben, and
Beverly—together, they’re the “Losers Club”—have spelunked deep beneath
Derry, Maine, and found their way to It’s primordial lair. Once
cornered, It can’t be defeated with physical force alone; It must be
confronted through the “ritual of chüd,” an obscure contest of
spiritual and imaginative stamina. Locked in mentalist combat, Bill and
It leave the physical plane entirely. Using metaphysical powers, It
tries to drag Bill’s mind toward an alternate death-dimension
illuminated not by stars but “deadlights”; on the way there, Bill meets
a giant turtle, who says he created our universe. Eventually, Bill drags
It back to the physical world, where It dies. Twenty-seven years
earlier, when the members of the Losers Club were eleven, they had
almost, but not quite, killed It; afterward, they got lost in the sewers
beneath Derry, finding their way out only by means of the psychic energy
generated through group sex. Now that the adult Bill has killed It for
good, however, the ground itself opens, showing the way out.

All of which is to say that “It” is a stranger novel than most people
remember. The new film version, directed by Andy Muschietti, which
premièred this week, is, by comparison, more wholesome and sane. It’s a
likable but slight movie. Bill Skarsgård brings a pair of crazy eyes and
a feral physicality to the role of the evil clown, Pennywise, which is
It’s favorite disguise—he is captivating in his first scene, in which he
convinces a small boy to reach down a storm drain. The young actors are
lively, particularly Finn Wolfhard, as Richie Tozier, the group’s
loudmouth, and Sophia Lillis, as the swaggering, fearless Beverly Marsh
(her tomboy outfits—olive-drab overalls, oversized belts—are one of the
best parts of the movie). The film has its hallucinatory
moments—instances when its kid heroes seem to be on drugs—and, in that
sense, it captures some of the book’s fun-house vibe. What’s missing is
a sense of dramatic scale. In King’s “It,” the universe is out of joint.
The monster is the product of a cosmic evil. The new “It” is an oddly
quotidian film in which ordinary kids fight a random clown who’s
haunting their town. (Last year’s “Stranger Things,” which borrowed
liberally from “It,” got closer to the original’s atmosphere of
vastness—its wintry, desolate “Upside Down” suggested that all of
existence might be in danger.) Muschietti’s “It,” moreover, isn’t very
scary. The most frightening moment at my screening, at a movie theatre
in midtown Manhattan, came afterward, when I walked into the men’s room
to find a fan dressed in a clown outfit at the sink.

In truth, King’s “It” is not a particularly scary book, either. The kids
are haunted by the cheesy monsters they remember from fright-night
double features: the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s creation, and,
at one point, a giant, unblinking Crawling Eye. There’s something absurd
about this nineteen-fifties monster horror, and the kids defeat the
creatures by recognizing their absurdity: instead of being paralyzed
with fear by the nightmares It projects into the waking world, they
participate, seizing control of their own fantasies, in the manner of
Neo in “The Matrix.” When Eddie is terrified by the Crawling Eye, for
example, he pretends that his aspirator, which contains asthma
medication, is actually full of battery acid; screaming “Battery acid,
fucknuts!,” he squirts it at the Eye, which makes “a hurt, surprised
sound” and retreats. Later, these monsters inspire Bill Denbrough to
become a successful horror novelist. “It,” in short, is a little
metafictional—not so much a frightening book as a book about being
frightened.

The novel has weight not because of its monsters but because it tells a
larger story about the discovery of evil. As the kids become adults,
they learn more and more about the history of Derry, Maine. They find
that it once had an active chapter of the “Maine Legion of White
Decency”—a version of the Ku Klux Klan—which murdered more than a
hundred African-Americans by burning down a night club. They hear about
the killing of a gay man down by the canal and about the gleeful
vigilante execution of a group of fugitives by the town’s bloodthirsty
men. Mike, who is black, is tormented by racist bullies; Beverly is
horrified by the sexual advances of her father. All of these disparate
evils would have existed anyway, but they are exacerbated by It—a
creature that, in addition to eating children, “feeds” by fanning the
flames of violence, hatred, lawlessness, racism, misogyny, and sexual
predation while disguised as a clown. (Sound familiar?) It’s this
evil—historical, unacknowledged, and pervasive—that is truly disgusting;
the Losers Club defeats it by feeling disgusted, rather than afraid.
Together, the club’s members judge It, and, animated by moral clarity,
call It to account. In the final, psychic confrontation, It tries to
pull their minds to a zone of mindless nihilism—that is, into an adult
mindset of acceptance or repression; they refuse, dragging It into the
metaphorical sunlight.

Scary clowns are just scary. They’re not morally repulsive; they
aren’t metaphors for our collective sins. Because Muschietti’s “It” is
almost entirely about monsters—it doesn’t take the time to make Derry
feel like a real place with a dark, hidden, unsettlingly American
history—the movie lacks the novel’s sense of ethical, even political,
purpose. The one exception is its treatment of Mr. Marsh, Beverly’s
creepy, abusive dad, played by Stephen Bogaert. Toward the
end of the movie, Pennywise assumes his shape and asks Beverly, “Are you
still my little girl?” The holy rage with which she screams and
rebels—she rams what looks like a piece of rebar down his
throat—expresses the novel’s cathartic, indignant ire. Even so,
something feels like it’s missing. King’s novel ends on a psychedelic
note because bravery and rage aren’t enough to defeat It; what’s really
needed is imagination. The acceptance of evil is a trap from which we
must dream ourselves free.