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Fear ‘IT’self: On Stephen King’s Latest

By Entertainment, Featured

Illustration by Sacha Lusk

Either peering from the cover of the two-tape VHS set at the local Blockbuster or peeking up from a rain-gutter in a popular meme; fewer cinematic representations of the horror of childhood have made the same sort of cultural impact as Stephen King’s Pennywise the Clown. As the titular antagonist of King’s 1986 Novel, “IT,” Pennywise serves as one of the many faces that an interdimensional evil wears as it terrorizes the town of Derry, Maine. Pennywise is unchallenged for centuries, until a group of children, known as “The Losers Club,” unite to stop It. Many were skeptical about seeing a different actor play the nightmarish clown in the 2017 movie adaptation (Pennywise was portrayed by Tim Curry in the 1990 TV-miniseries). Fortunately, those fears were unfounded as Bill Skarsgård’s rendition of Pennywise bares, at the very least, the box office’s stamp of approval. “IT” grossed a staggering  $123.1 million; making it the highest grossing September debut, not to mention the largest grossing opening weekend for any horror movie.

Fans of the original book will no doubt have some minor qualms with director Andy Muschietti’s use of the source material. However, even the most die-hard of fans will understand the majority of the creative differences between the novel and cinematic incarnations of the story.

At a daunting 1,000 plus pages, the novel jumps between the narratives of “The Losers Club” as children in the ‘50s and as adults in the ‘80s, while simultaneously spanning dimensions and centuries. On a practical level, limiting the focus and scope of the film to the central group of protagonists as children makes a lot of sense. The director also sets the stage perfectly for a sequel that, rather than being a mere attempt to wring a franchise from a singular novel, is founded on storytelling.

Setting the movie in the ‘80s allows for it to tap into the same nostalgic vein as Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” while also providing for the follow-up to be set in the present. Furthermore, Muschietti has already commented on the fact that the second installment will incorporate the use of flashbacks, as established in King’s original novel. The use of flashbacks will also allow  Muschetti to bring back the single best element of this film: the cast.

The seven children at the heart of the story all have important parts to play in the group dynamic and the young actors tapped to take on this challenge do so adeptly for performers of their age. Stuttering Bill, the leader (played by Jaeden Lieberher), kind Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), smart-aleck Richie (“Stranger Things” alum, Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), uptight Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), brave Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and steadfast Mike (Chosen Jacobs), all come together to form an ensemble tasked with the difficult task of confronting Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Skarsgård’s performance is sure to stick out in the minds of moviegoers for years to come. Skarsgård aside, shoutouts have to go to Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, and Jack Dylan Grazer, who, as Beverly, Richie, and Eddie respectively; bring humor, heart, and expressiveness to their work. Their dynamic as a cast will likely remind viewers of classic films like “Stand by Me” and “The Goonies;” films that show the complex humanity of kids in a way that doesn’t assume that youth means naivete. The film manages to acknowledge that children live in the same world that adults do; and that world is often a hard, scary, and violent place.

Is the movie perfect? No. The use of CGI stands out in a negative way more than once, especially when contextualized to an overall interesting visual world that plays with color (red in particular) and visual motifs in a fun, and tension-filled way. On a story level, the sexualization of Beverly is problematic. This element of her character, while understandable and more thoroughly explored in the source material, lacks some of the depth and complexity on film that is allowed for by the novel.

The movie struggles to handle her journey with as much consistency as it affords its male characters. As the token female of the story, there is much to be made of the male gazes she is constantly being subjected to. In a particularly interesting set piece; her characteristic (in the book at least) hair — long, feminine, and beautiful — is weaponized against her alongside a literal torrent of blood. The image serves as a striking visual metaphor for the impending terror of womanhood. Then, this complexity is starkly undercut by the directorial choice (notably different from the novel), to put Beverly in the position to be rescued by her male friends. This singles her out as the sole, enfeebled, female of the group, putting her in a ‘damsel in distress’ position that’s in direct opposition to the agency and strength she exhibits elsewhere in both the book and the movie.

Beverly isn’t the only one to get the short end of the stick. Mike Hanlon, the young and sole black member of the group, has many of his more compelling storylines redistributed or removed altogether. In the original material, Mike serves as the historian of the group; gathering information and sharing it with his friends, thereby equipping the young heroes with the context they need in order to face It. 

In the book, that job goes to Ben, for no particular reason. Furthermore, in the book, a lot more is made of the fact that, as one of the only black families in Derry, Mike and his parents suffer from racial discrimination and violence. Derry is an awful place for its white residents, that it’d be worse for its minority residents is an understatement.  

The choice to avoid confronting such a truth — to avoid the relevance of the race in America — is something Stephen King definitely doesn’t do. Mike Hanlon, in the book, has to face constant beatings, racial slurs, the murder of his dog — not to mention threats and isolation specifically tied to his identity as an African American. His experience raises a lot of questions regarding how, as a person of color, one addresses the deep-seeded evils of racism and violence in a home we can’t escape from. Sure, changing the setting from the ‘50s to the ‘80s changes some of the more overt racial themes. However, while the movie glosses over and alludes to some of the realities of Mike’s experience as a young black man, by choosing not to directly address these important themes, there’s also an implication that racism in small town, rural America, wasn’t as prevalent in the ‘80s as it was in the ‘50s. This would seem to imply that racism is somehow less prevalent today than it was then, which we all know is not the case. Ultimately, by removing elements of Mike’s agency and downplaying the realities of his experience as a person of color, the movie makes one of its biggest missteps in taking King’s work from page to screen.

Many have said that “IT” is one of the best cinematic adaptations of horror maestro Stephen King’s work. While perhaps less cinematically refined as Kubrick’s “The Shining” and less campily iconic then DePalma’s “Carrie,” “IT” definitely holds its own as a horror movie. Full of interesting set pieces, jump scares, and well-executed tension builds, not to mention heart, laughs, and the warmth of childhood.  Muschietti’s “IT” is definitely worth checking out in theaters. To say that it outpaces the ‘90s TV version in almost every way (pace, production value, and performance — Tim Curry notwithstanding) is an understatement. Here’s hoping it will lead new audiences to the book, and be followed up by an equally well-executed Chapter Two.

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