On Thursday, September 7th, I watched the new version of Stephen King’s It. Of all the movies I’ve gone to, I can think of four that completely mesmerized me in-theater: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Dark Knight, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and now, It. Here are my thoughts on the film. Warning: spoilers follow.
I read King’s 1,134-page novel during my senior year of college. At the time, I was no stranger to King’s writing, having previously read The Stand during my freshman year, but It nonetheless proved to be a singular experience. To date, it remains the only book that has ever given me nightmares, and it occupied my thoughts long after I finished it. For those who’ve read my previous blogs, I won’t spend much time re-hashing my opinions on the horror genre as whole, except to say I do not enjoy the genre as typically defined by franchises such as Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, et cetera. With King’s writing, however, the supernatural element takes a back seat to story and character, and with It, I found myself captivated by the tale of a group of outcasts banding together as children to defeat an unspeakable evil, and who must come together as adults to fight the monster once more. The character of Pennywise the Dancing Clown will remain forever etched in our memories, largely due to Tim Curry’s memorable performance in a 1990 made-for-TV version, and yet It is as much about scares as it is about the power of friendship, the inevitability of growing up, and the power inherent in facing one’s fears. The layers of complexity in the novel fascinated me, from the realization that the imaginations which made children susceptible to the monster also empowered them to destroy it, to the characters’ realization that growing up does not mean discarding old fears, and to the parallels between the monsters in the real world—such as Henry Bowers or Beverly’s father—and Pennywise himself.
All of this is to say that I had been eagerly anticipating this newest onscreen adaptation. I’m happy to say that, in large part, Andy Muschietti’s film delivers an escalating succession of funhouse scares without compromising the fundamental themes at the story’s heart. While some scenes deviate from the source material, the movie as a whole still captures the overall plot and spirit of King’s novel. The film only tells half the story; it focuses exclusively on the characters as children, whereas the planned second installment will tell of the adults and their return to Derry. While I would have preferred more focus on the lessons the children learn in their quest to defeat Pennywise, these concepts are not completely ignored, and it may be that the second movie will delve deeper into the gravitas that made the story such an enjoyable experience. Some of the film’s most powerful scenes focus on the Losers’ Club as they band together against fellow schoolchildren and adults alike, such as when Ben Hanscom first stumbles into Beverly Marsh on the last day of school. When reading the original novel, I identified in equal parts with the characters of Ben Hanscom and Bill Denbrough, and every boy who’s had a high school crush (that is to say, every boy in America) can relate to Ben’s quixotic pursuit of Beverly’s affections.
Perhaps the most memorable alteration of a scene from the novel is when the characters gather in Bill’s garage. In the novel, Bill and Richie see Pennywise in an old photo album, but in the film, the group instead views slides of Derry via a projector. The scene is shot to effectively build the suspense as the projector takes on a life of its own, spinning faster and faster to reveal Pennywise within the slides. As the lights go out, the film presents a quick series of shots, light to dark and light again, in which a massive Pennywise reaches out from the projector screen and nearly catches the children.
As for the fates of the kids themselves, all bets are off as far as the viewer is concerned. In film and literature, children are almost always off-limits when it comes to suffering a brutal demise. However, in both the film and the novel, It dispels this preconception in one of its earliest and most memorable scenes, during which Pennywise murders Bill’s six-year old brother Georgie from a sewer drain. My single largest criticism of the film is that I did not care for its graphic depiction of Georgie’s death. Yes, I understand some viewers may hold that the shock value enhanced the film, but I disagree. I realize Georgie’s murder is a key element in the story—it drives Bill’s character arc, it adds significant emotional investment, and it raises the stakes in telling readers/viewers that no character is safe. That said, I would have received the message just as well without the sight of added blood and gore as far as a child is concerned. The film-makers could have cut about three specific seconds from that scene and it would have still served an effective purpose. Aside from this one film-making choice, I was pleased that It largely ignored some of the other tropes that have made most horror films distasteful for me. Most effectively, I’d like to call out my favorite scene from Muschietti’s film. Note: I’ve already given one spoiler warning, and this next bit gets a “major spoiler” warning. At the film’s climax, the Losers’ Club comes face-to-face with Pennywise in his monstrous lair, and Pennywise captures Bill. He tells the other characters he will eat them all, devouring them and feasting on their fear, or … he gives them a choice. He only needs to feed one more time, he says, and he will let the rest of them go if they leave Bill alone with him.
In a traditional horror film, I’d expect a scene like this to play out in one of two ways. One, the characters would indeed abandon Bill to his fate, providing viewers an unsettling and disturbing climax in which the characters give in to their fear and choose to save themselves. The argument in support of such a conclusion would be that humans are indeed fundamentally flawed, and when push comes to shove, we all might have chosen to save ourselves in a similar situation. This justification of such a choice, often used to support the more brutal elements of shows such as Game of Thrones, provides a demented catharsis in which we feel better about our own failings after watching fictional characters do horrible things. For me, though, fiction has never been about finding reasons to justify our own shortcomings. Instead, it’s about inspiring us to be better, to grow, and to cherish human ideals rather than human failings.
The second way in which the scene might have played out would have been for the characters to save Bill and almost escape, but die anyway, a false victory followed by their eventual demise. This horror cliché is just as irritating, for it implies that doing the right thing serves little purpose in the long run, that in spite of all the challenges the characters have overcome and lessons they have learned, they are, to put it bluntly, screwed anyway.
Instead of falling victim to either of these tropes, however, the scene is instead incredibly satisfying. After making it seem that the children may indeed abandon Bill, actor Finn Wolfhard (playing Richie Tozier) completely steals the film with his short monologue: “I warned you, Bill. And you wouldn’t listen. And you punched me in the face. I’ve had a really bad day, and now…I’m going to have to kill this f—king clown.” The Losers’ Club comes together, winning the day as friends, fighting the good fight in the drains below Derry.
When the credits roll, It wisely stays above the need to deliver a last-minute scare. There’s no Pennywise jumping out beforehand, or mid-credits, or at the very end (though there is a short, chilling, laugh), again proving what it proved for two hours and fifteen minutes: true satisfaction comes from substance, not scares.