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‘It’ review: Much-improved film adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel

The long-awaited big-screen version of Stephen King's novel about a demon that preys on neighborhood children. (Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

PLOT In a small American town, seven misfit children battle an evil force.

CAST Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs

RATED R (gore, language)

LENGTH 2:15

BOTTOM LINE An updated and much-improved adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel.

What exactly is the It in “It,” Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel about children in a small town terrorized by an evil force? A shape-shifting demon of murky origin, It can appear as a sadistic clown named Pennywise, but that’s just one of his physical manifestations. To each of the story’s seven young protagonists, this walking, sneering metaphor might represent sexual abuse, racism, puberty, bullying or just a dark basement.

For fans of King’s sprawling but psychologically penetrating novel, the only screen adaptation has been a 1990 ABC miniseries that featured an excellent Tim Curry as Pennywise but otherwise felt constrained by the standards of network television. Warner Bros.’ new version of “It,” confidently directed by Andy Muschietti, arrives with updated production values and an R rating, which means the film can show things the miniseries couldn’t. Gore, however, isn’t the star attraction here. What makes this “It” work so well is the way it pulls us back into our own childhoods with a cast of young characters and the shared experiences — some horrifying, some hilarious — that bind them together.

After the disappointment of this year’s other King adaptation, “The Dark Tower,” it’s nice to be back in classic King territory. (“It” may not rival “Stand By Me,” but that movie is clearly an inspiration.) The hero of the story is Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a sensitive kid with a stutter whose little brother, in a difficult-to-watch scene, becomes the movie’s first victim. In his quest to find the perpetrator, Bill is joined by fast-talking Richie (Finn Wolfhard, of Netflix’s “Stranger Things”), germophobic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and skeptical Stan (Wyatt Oleff), plus two newcomers to the gang, overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and soft-spoken Mike (Chosen Jacobs). Each battles his own demons — or her own, in the case of the group’s sole female, Beverly. She’s played by a magnetic Sophia Lillis in what is easily the film’s most complex and convincing performance.

The actor who plays Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård (“Atomic Blonde”), is slightly obscured by his virtual costume of special effects, including off-center eyes and a jaw full of lamprey teeth. This Pennywise isn’t as organic and idiosyncratic as Curry’s still-definitive incarnation, but he’s an effectively creepy creation.

If you’re wondering how “It” can pack King’s 1,000-page book into 135 minutes, well, it doesn’t. Here’s a mild spoiler, and perhaps some very good news: This “It” probably won’t be the last.

King of the scary movies, too

Movies based on Stephen King novels have scared up big bucks at the box office, starting with “Carrie” in 1976. Here are the four highest-grossing screen adaptations of the horrormeister’s works.

THE GREEN MILE (1999) Tom Hanks starred as a death row corrections officer who bonds with an inmate (Oscar nominee Michael Clarke Duncan) who possesses supernatural abilities. The film conjured up a $136.8 million gross.

1408 (2007) A writer (John Cusack) who deals in debunking myths about the supernatural checks into a strange hotel and then fears he might not check out. It earned a healthy $72 million.

MISERY (1990) This story of a crazed fan (Kathy Bates) who holds her favorite author (James Caan) hostage after he kills off the heroine of his series of novels took in $61.3 million. Bates is also the only person to ever win an Oscar for a performance in a King film.

PET SEMATARY (1989) Bodies aren’t the only things buried in the cemetery behind a house in Maine. There are also plenty of dark secrets, as the home’s new owners discover in this creepfest that grossed $57.5 million.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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