It is most effective when it dwells on the sad influence of history, on personal tragedy, on the banality of evil and cruel indifference.
By Ted Kehoe
On the subway home from the screening of It (screening at the Somerville Theatre and the AMC Assembly Row), I saw a bunch of teenage boys give a hard time to a flamboyantly dressed Korean American boy. I know his heritage because they asked. And they were not accepting “American” as his final answer. What really bothered them was his attire, which they assumed meant that he was gay. I’ll bet you could probably describe these guys to me. If they could not charm, they would menace, and they oscillated obscurely between the two. They had almost certainly come from the Red Sox game where they had had too much beer. One thwacked his finger endlessly against a tin of tobacco. Of course I thought of Henry Bowers and his crew.
The coincidence of this encounter seems contrived but life is this way sometimes.
It got me thinking of the power of Stephen King’s novel, It, and what this film gets right about it.
For the uninitiated, It is the tale of a band of preadolescent outcasts who confront a shape-shifting monster responsible for a series of child (and adult) murders in the town of Derry, Maine. The self-proclaimed “Losers’ Club” is driven on in its crusade by the obsessive guilt of leader Bill Denborough, played ably in this film by Jaeden Lieberher, whose little brother Georgie was murdered gruesomely by the monster, who often takes the form of an evil-looking clown called Pennywise. The novel alternates between a narrative of the group as children and adults, but the film, which we learn is “Chapter 1,” sticks to the childhood portion only. Andy Muschietti (Mamma) directs, based on the screenplay by Cary Fukunga (True Detective, Beasts of No Nation), Gary Dauberman (Annabelle) and Chase Palmer.
Every adaptation lives or dies according to which story elements it considers essential. It does not lend itself to easy compression for the screen—it’s huge. And, admittedly, this movie flattens characters or leans on convenient signifiers just to push the whole nightmare up in front of us. But the crucial element the screenplay preserves from the book is the idea that kids’ reality is slightly misaligned with adults’. Adults are to be suffered, deceived, and circumvented. Their motivations are mysterious, their lessons impenetrable. They seldom offer real help. Bill shows his father an elaborate mock-up of the town’s sewers he cobbled together from household items to illustrate where his brother’s corpse might have washed up. His dad tells him to put things back where he found them.
The film also cannily shows how the formative events of childhood transpire in secret or on the way to somewhere else: in basements and garages, in back alleys and scrub woodland, in empty autumn streets and the blank halls of libraries and schools. Even on a park bench with a town fair revolving full-tilt behind them, Muschietti’s “Losers’ Club” seems orphaned. In these places they are removed from help but forced to make irrevocable decisions. This is called freedom and it can be terrible. How perfect that It should live there too—the ordinary and fantastic colliding in all these nowheres of childhood. It’s hard to parse who has come looking for whom.
The film updates the present moment of the kids’ story from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. Instead of a greaser, deranged bully Henry Bowers is an unsavory hick in the mode of Axl Rose—point-toed boots, T-top Trans Am, ripped jeans. (Nicholas Hamilton plays Bowers and looks a bit like a young River Phoenix in Stand By Me, but more on this later.) I love that movies and TV are finally getting the 1980s right. As Stranger Things did, this film reminds me how everything was plainer, less glossy, before the advent of Friends and Pottery Barn. Bill’s parents have old furniture. These half-feral kids ride crappy bikes. They have shaggy unkempt hair and not on purpose. They look, you know, like kids, instead of miniature adults.
The casting is fantastic. The charismatic young actors overcome the script’s inclination to reduce to type. Finn Wolfhard (recognizable from Stranger Things) as Richie has gotten deserved praise for brilliantly, compulsively grab-assing and smart-mouthing the way only spastic eleven-years-olds can. Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben and Sophia Lillis as Beverly dominated the proceedings for me. There’s a love triangle between Bill and Beverly and Ben and the film doesn’t shy away from disappointment. Ben is hurt. But he tries to buck up because who could love a fat kid, right? Taylor manages all this admirably. Lillis’ vivacious good looks have attracted the most critical attention, but her actual achievement lies in giving us glimpses, through Bev’s badass exterior, of the character’s growing weariness with having to posture. In one of the film’s inside jokes, Richie likens Bev to Molly Ringwald — but beyond looks, flashes of hard-bitten vulnerability are what really connect the two women.
I loved Tim Curry’s ghastly good cheer and raunchy croak as Pennywise in the 1990 TV miniseries. Bill Skarsgård is weirder, pervier, in the role. One of my favorite moments comes in the early minutes of the film: Pennywise, from the sewer drain, hypnotizes Georgie with descriptions of the circus. But Pennywise falls into reverie and loses his place in his spiel. Silver drool slides from his lascivious moue. This chilling moment stretches unbearably, and the audience realizes, if we didn’t before, that we don’t want to know anything about the pictures running through this clown’s head. Even Georgie senses danger.
The movie’s greatest flaw is that it is a system that knows itself. This is a Stephen King movie that has seen Stephen King movies. The geyser of blood from Bev’s drain invokes Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Giggling, elusive demon-Georgie reminded me of Gage from Mary Lambert’s Pet Semetary. The unnatural symmetry of Pennywise’s inverted pyramid of balloons conjures—of course—Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And let’s not leave out Rob Reiner’s buddy pic Stand By Me. Some may appreciate these references but they bothered me. The sheer density was distracting.
With this sort of meta-storytelling, it’s too tempting to resort to pastiche or shorthand. That scene with Richie in the room full of clown dolls knows (that we know) that scary clowns are a thing. Good horror should be visceral, existential, and grounded in a morbid preoccupation with the inexplicable. It’s an admission of our deep intimations of powerlessness. This seems entirely at odds with the clever self-awareness the film occasionally indulges. This clown scene felt like a joke I knew the punchline to. I almost cried out when the Losers’ Club sits down on a park bench and works out a fully articulated psychological rendering of how It is terrorizing them. It’s almost as if the characters have seen their own movie.
It is most effective when it dwells on the sad influence of history, on personal tragedy, on the banality of evil and cruel indifference. Ben screams for help while Henry Bowers carves initials in his stomach. An older couple drives past, stony-faced, and one of Pennywise’s red balloons floats up from the backseat. In the movie’s most painful scene, the specter of Georgie blames Bill for neglect, tells him how lonely he is, how he misses their family—all the worst sort of accusations and pleas you hope never to hear fall from a lost child’s lips. But for all that, the film only halfheartedly hints at the small-town prejudice against Mike, who is African American, and Stan, who is Jewish. Bev’s rape by her father is likewise received information, transmitted via ominous hint. I was mystified. Is this the same movie with the scene with Georgie? Political correctness aside, it seems outrageous to gloss over rape and racial targeting. Violation can only ever be particular. And thoughtful exploration of these various kinds of humiliating violence seems especially relevant in today’s cultural climate (“Come on, guy. What country are you really from?”).
I won’t tell you what happened on the subway. Maybe the snappy dresser tipped his hand from his pocket and let the neat folding knife he carried—the kind rock climbers use, the kind with the scalloped blades—slip into his palm so the bullies could see. Maybe a couple of older passengers stood up nonchalantly but suggestively between the two parties and the drunk guys muttered slurs and laughed too loud so they could still feel dangerous. Maybe when the boy exited the train, the bullies looked at each other and shambled after him into the night. Maybe a red balloon floated down the center of the car. Maybe all these things happened and they’re happening all the time, all over this country. For all of us, not just kids, life happens while we’re looking the other way. We’re enjoying a concert and someone punches out a window far, far overhead and lets fall an actual hail of bullets. For all of us, it is guaranteed that the ordinary and fantastic will eventually meet.
Ted Kehoe was a teaching/writing fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Epoch, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and Shock Totem. He won Prairie Schooner’s Bernice Slote Award for Best New Author. He is an Assistant Editor at Boston University Marketing and Communications.