Sunday, October 1, 2017

It (2017)

Aaron: Welcome back to We Who Watch Behind the Rows, our continuing deep dive into the works of Stephen King, and the various adaptations thereof. Another Halloween season is upon us, and to celebrate our favorite holiday we’re doing something a little different this time. The biggest horror movie of this year, and, in terms of box office, the biggest horror movie possibly ever, is It, based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name. Instead of following our usual pattern of discussing the book, and then having subsequent discussions centering around the filmed versions, we’re going to be focusing solely on the 2017 Andy Muschietti version of It. The original novel is one of those 1000+ page doorstops that used to be somewhat more common for Mr. King, and it would be a bit difficult to give it the attention it deserves at the moment. Rest assured, however, that we will be returning to this property several times in the future. For now, however, if your experience with It comes only from Andy Muschietti’s 2017 blockbuster, this may be the perfect piece for you.

The Film: It (2017, New Line Pictures)
Director: Andres Muschietti (as Andy Muschietti)

Aaron: There’s no way around it, It is the Stephen King book for me. It’s the one I always list as my favorite, and would be the one I would choose if some madman with very specific psychoses put a gun to my head and told me I could only keep one Stephen King novel for the rest of my life. Surely the biggest reason for this would be my age and the way in which I came to the novel. I was in the sixth grade in 1990, when ABC first aired the miniseries version of It. I was 12 years old and about the same age as the kids in the film (though I was a year or two older than the ages given in the book). I’m not sure if that closeness in age really had all that much to do with my instantaneous love for the miniseries, but it certainly didn’t hurt to have kids recognizably like me as the heroes of such an epic bit of horror entertainment. I can’t really overstate how big that earlier movie was to my younger self. I taped it off of ABC as it aired, and I remember re-watching the first half before the second half was aired two days later. Once the entire thing was complete, I watched it quite regularly. I remember one night at my best friend Forrest’s house where we watched the entire 3 hour and 12 minute miniseries three times in one night, simply rewinding the tape and starting over once the credits began to roll. It was one of those midsummer Alaskan nights, where it never got completely dark and the living room stayed that bluish gray for hours.

I put the novel on my Christmas list for that year, but now I can’t remember if I actually got the novel or just spent gift money on it. By the time I was back in school I had nearly finished the novel for the first time. It would not be the last, and I’ve returned to the book every ten years or so since that first reading. I’ve returned to the movie quite a few more times, of course, as it’s easier to spend three hours watching a film than to find the time to go through over 1,000 pages of dense, meandering plot. The television version of It was the first time I ever really noticed Stephen King’s name. Though I know for a fact I’d seen other filmed version of his works, It was just the first one that made me take notice. Through that miniseries I found the novel, and through that novel I found an entire library of books and stories to ignite my imagination. It kicked off a period in which I read almost nothing but Stephen King (and school-assigned books) for years.
I say all of this as a quick prelude to give some context for where I’m coming from when we discuss the new movie here. Obviously I love It, and I’ve been waiting for a real adaptation, one that can go beyond the bounds of what was possible on broadcast television in 1990, for a long time. Before we start to actually break down the film itself, Rik, what is your history with this story? I know from previous discussions that you had been a Stephen King fan for a few years by the time the novel came out. Does it hold a similar place in your heart, or has the rosy glow of nostalgia perhaps elevated this one far beyond its overall value?

Rik: No, It doesn't really hold a special place in my heart – not like it does for you and a couple of my other friends – but neither do I dismiss the work. I do think the book is one of King’s more engaging works, except for that one glaring, horribly conceived portion that read as wholly phony to me at the time, and I am sure we will get into that in due course. [It’s the most infamous scene in the book.] Of course, I am roughly a decade older than you, and was into King for about that long by the time you picked up It for the first time. My favorites from that early period were The Dead Zone, ‘Salem’s Lot, Christine, and The Stand, along with the short story collection, Night Shift. (And, because I am more movie-oriented in focus than I am fiction, we can throw the movie Creepshow, for which he wrote the original screenplay, into that mix too.) When I got to It, I was starting to burn out more than a bit on King. Bookwise, right after I read It in its original release in 1986, while I dearly ate up Misery and The Dark Half, I found The Tommyknockers quite annoying and unsatisfying. The Maximum Overdrive film (written and directed by King) came and went, not with a whisper but a loud, abrasive death rattle. After the It mini-series aired, the double disappointments (to me, at least) of Needful Things and Gerald’s Game (which I outright hated at the time) pretty much destroyed much of the trust King had built up in me.

And once I began to sense that perhaps King was rather saturating the market too much, I looked for a way out for a while. I did not read horror exclusively – I was more prone to classic literature – but I had for several years began shifting horror-wise to other authors like Charles L. Grant, Joe Lansdale, David J. Schow, Robert McCammon, Jack Ketchum, Skipp and Spector… there’s clearly some splatterpunk in there (though I barely cared about the term as long as the books were fun and gory), but I truly preferred the more elegant, haunting style of Grant. (In case you were wondering, no, I never became a Dean Koontz guy.) But overall, in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s, I was a Barker man. Solid Clive Barker fanatic, and if there is a chief reason why I abandoned King for the most part, it is my embrace of Barker’s style and vision. But I fell out of even his work by the end of the ‘90s, and horror fiction – and fiction in general – for the most part.

I am a fan of the original It mini-series, and while I want to forego major discussion of that adaptation (so hard to get around saying “it” over and over as opposed to the title), there is little one can do to not bring that version up when talking about the shiny new version. I think, Aaron, that the problems you detect in that show are pretty universal, especially for those of us who still maintain a love for it. (See?) Having just watched the mini again about a week before seeing the new version in a theatre, the same problems were still there, but the overall excellence of much of the mini was still in existence as well. Tim Curry is ever a joy to watch in almost any role. I still liked many of the kids (I was shocked to find out that the young Bev was played by Emily Perkins from the Ginger Snaps series; never realized that before), and the adult actors were for the most part still entertaining to watch. (Harry Anderson, though… I like Harry, but someone needed to dial him down a bit; not a strong dramatic actor no matter what they told him on those “special” episodes of Night Court.) Part One is still better than Part Two, and the ending is more than a bit underdeveloped and disappointing.

As I said, I quite like the book overall, but the question that has nagged at me since it was announced there was going to be a new theatrical version (in two parts) was: Do we actually need a new version of It onscreen? That’s a question that gets asked about most remakes and sequels, and I have asked it recently myself of other films that I have seen (The Secrets in Their Eyes, Death Note, for example). But, if you know anything about film history at all, it is that there have always been remakes and sequels, and there will always be remakes and sequels. As for King’s works, in my head, I cannot imagine that anyone will ever top the Cronenberg version of The Dead Zone (my personal favorite King adaptation) or Kubrick’s non-King version of The Shining (sorry, Stephen; it may not quite be your book, but that film is astounding). Carrie, too, is near perfection in the original version directed by Brian De Palma, but has been remade twice now, and even sequelized. And why even try to remake Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me and Misery, or Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption? Does it even need to be brought up at all?

The It mini-series from 1990 may not be on the same level of any of these other King adaptations, but I believe that it still warrants the question of “why remake?” ever more. The case is this: even when people point out the flaws of the mini-series from 1990, the fact remains that most of those same people will defend their love for that production even harder. As with you, Aaron, both the show and the book are touchstones for these people of a certain age. You pointed out the relative age of the readers/viewers in relation to the characters, and that is probably a huge part of the deal. I was ten years older and starting to read Bukowski, so I did not connect on the same level with the material at the time of It’s release upon the world. (That’s not snobbery, just a fact of age differences at the time. In the end, King is far more fun to read.)

I have seen discussions about It all over Facebook and Twitter in the last few weeks as people make a big deal about seeing the new version and then come back to post about how “it was pretty good, but I still prefer the Tim Curry one”. There are dissenting opinions on this, of course, but I would say the “mini was better” argument has prevailed in about two-thirds of the posts that I have seen on my own social media. I am not going to reveal yet my judgment on the new film, but I will say that going in, there was some heavy lifting to be done. Mostly, that involved the 800-lb. gorilla that is Tim Curry. You can remake Rocky Horror on stage or TV all you want, but it is impossible to get past his Frank-N-Furter, chiefly because so much of the cult of Rocky Horror is based around his actual performance of the role, including how to say certain lines. Here, too, is Pennywise the Clown, and they could not have found a more perfect person to embody the role from the very beginning than Curry, an actor not necessarily known for being highly prolific on screen at any point in his career. As a result, when he popped up in the role it had some real impact to this viewer. Would that be the case with the new Pennywise? I have had little experience with Bill Skarsgård, so I had no idea what I would be in for with his performance (though I am a fan of his dad and at least one of his brothers). The director, Andres Muschietti, was known to me only from his 2013 film Mama, which I found to be mildly diverting but that film wore on me due to its quite protracted ending. Another potential problem for me: I hate kid films. That is, I generally hate films with large casts of kids. They always talk too fast, speeding through their lines like they are starving for attention, and there is always the fear of “Disney Channel Acting Syndrome” aka “The Full House Effect”. (Both terms are mine but they represent the same problematic style.) There are exceptions, of course, but knowing the first part of It was going to concentrate (as it should) solely on the characters as kids, I had some misgivings.

Aaron, did you have similar thoughts heading into your first showing of the new It?

Aaron: I usually wait until after the movie has been released to ask “why remake?” Before I’ve seen the film, the answer is always going to be “money.” The studio thought they could get more money out of the property, and that’s usually what got the ball rolling. That isn’t to say remakes are inherently devoid of artistic merit, far from it. Some remakes are passion projects, while others, most commonly in the horror genre, are reinterpretations of stories that update and personalize whatever the filmmakers saw in the original. I am always open to the idea of a remake, if only because so many great films have resulted from going back to the well. I’ll concede that the hit-to-miss ratio is leaning definitively to the “miss”’ column, but when they succeed, they tend to succeed in a big way. John Carpenter’s The Thing, Cronenberg’s version of The Fly, the Donald Sutherland-led Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even the Bogart-starring The Maltese Falcon was the third version of that film within a decade. All of the films listed above answered the question of “why remake?” so successfully that they became the definitive versions of those stories to many viewers.

Additionally, when you’re dealing with a remake to a movie that was adapted from some other source material (novel, short story, magazine article, etc.), you have the added benefit of being able to go back to that source and adapt the parts that got left out the first time around. Everyone has favorite bits from books that were ignored in filmed adaptations, and a remake comes with the hope that those bits might finally be seen on the big screen.This is especially true for It, a novel whose brutality could not be adequately conveyed on network television, and whose often byzantine flashback structure and shaggy world-building had to be pared down to the bone to fit into 4 hours, minus commercials. As an avowed fan of the original miniseries, I never asked “why remake?” so much as I asked “why did this take so long?” The answer to that question would probably be the same as the answer to the question “what are the faults with the 1990 version?” The novel is so massive, so gory, and so potentially special effects-laden, that it was probably not an easy sell, especially now, when the marquee attraction of Stephen King’s name has dimmed considerably, and you’re more likely to see smaller budgeted adaptations of his lesser works than a big tentpole theatrical release (though King is definitely having a moment, and his bankability seems to once again be on the rise).

The only thing that kept me skeptical of a remake, or tampered my desire for one, was the casting of Pennywise. Tim Curry was such an amazing fit for the role in 1990, and forever linked with that character in my mind. When the film was first announced I actually thought they could find a way to do it with Curry still in the role, as it requires so much makeup and effects work anyway I figured they could easily get Curry back into the baggy pants and oversized shoes. At the very least that marvelous voice had to survive. This was, of course, before the sad announcements about his health, and the stroke that had severely limited his mobility. I had to accept that the role would go on without him, but when they announced who would be stepping into those oversized clown shoes, my excitement took a big hit.

Bill Skarsgård is an actor I knew only from Hemlock Grove on Netflix, a show I hate-watched for three seasons for reasons I could not quite explain. He was insufferable on that show, which was often a function of his character, but it colored the way I saw the actor as well. Much in the same way that I was convinced Jon Bernthal was a terrible actor because of how much I disliked Shane on The Walking Dead, only to realize he can be pretty great once I saw him in a few other films. I still reserved judgement on Bill Skarsgård. I wasn’t going to write him off for appearing on a shitty television show, but I also didn’t see him as a suitable replacement for Tim Goddamn Curry.

I wouldn’t say that It has completely changed my opinion of him as an actor, but I will say that I came around to quite enjoy his performance in the role. It took me a few minutes, primarily to get used to the slightly lisping Leprechaun voice he adopts, but I have to admit that Skarsgård completely wrapped himself in the tone of the film and the strangeness of the character. His odd line readings, coupled with some odd camera work whenever he appeared onscreen and body language that was continually… off, all added up to a pretty otherworldly, if showy, performance. I’m not going to play the game of trying to figure out who was better in the role, Skarsgård or Curry, but I will say that Skarsgård did a perfect job for the film he was in, but I wouldn’t give up Curry for anything.

Rik: Yeah, that is a tough game to play. I agree with you that Curry is almost impossible to give up, but who says one has to give him up? Why not love both performances? Though I was skeptical going in, Skarsgård really did a terrific job in making Pennywise so successfully creepy throughout this film, and you nailed it on the oddness of his bodily posturing and line reading. Some syllables in some words don’t fall quite where you might expect or a line gets protracted strangely and really adds just a touch more weirdness to his every appearance. (This effect also makes his character seem a little distracted at times, and I suppose if you were focusing your energies on frightening multiple children to death at the same time, you might seem distracted as well.)

Something that struck me was the change in costuming between the two filmed versions of Pennywise. Curry’s costuming is a pretty basic clown costume, of the sort you might see on a birthday party clown today, with the only truly strange feature being those sharpened teeth he bears several times throughout the mini-series. I know King created the image of Pennywise to reflect what he perceives as a general fear of clowns, but I have never really bought into that from my angle. I have friends that work as clowns or have either gotten or taught circus clown training. In my head, it is another profession, and when I was a kid, I had the comic Red Skelton on TV dressed up as a clown on his variety show, and it was still a time when you would encounter his clown paintings in doctor and dentist offices. The all-time great clown Emmett Kelly could be seen in clips on Sesame Street or make appearances on The Carol Burnett Show in the days near the end of his life. And, of course, I grew up with Ronald McDonald commercials (and his company’s food) as a staple in my life. To me, clowns were just not scary in the ‘70s.

Curry’s costume seems pretty on target for a clown in the 1950s in the mini-series (the original timeframe for It), and there is not much difference in style from that of TV clowns like Clarabelle or Bozo, both huge clown stars in the ‘50s period. One could easily see a child being lulled into a state of comfort around the sweeter, calmer version of Pennywise, handing out balloons and promising fun and toys and treats. Which is where the horror comes in, when the teeth get bared, and the mouth opens wider and wider…

By contrast, the costuming for Skarsgård’s Pennywise seems at first like it is a wise costuming choice, giving him the older, more classic look of a turn of the 20th century harlequin, appropriate to the backstory involving the fire back in 1905. But the costume, and even the existence of Pennywise’s clown persona, doesn’t make sense on a couple of fronts in the new film. Attitudes towards clowns definitely shifted between the 1970s and the 1980s. John Wayne Gacy killed 33 teenaged boys and young men throughout the 1970s, usually dressed like a clown to convince them to do things for him, so the rampant clown fear likely did not exist yet. The public didn’t know he was even dressed as a clown while he committed these acts until he was arrested in late 1978. But Gacy jokes were a big thing in the early ‘80s at our high school, and I am pretty certain that the public took hold of the killer clown thing from that point onward. I remember movies in the ‘80s like Clownhouse and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (a personal fave), and those probably helped seal the deal. Also, don’t forget that a 6-year-old Michael Myers kills his older sister with a knife while dressed as a clown in the opening to the original film version of Halloween. The year? 1978.

So, the new version of It has its time frame shifted from the late 1950s to the late 1980s (which will eventually turn the adult side of the story in the second film from the late ‘80s to today). Killer clowns have by that point definitely infected popular culture. Does it make sense that Pennywise would attempt to trap kids by luring them in with promises of balloons dressed as a clown? Younger kids like Georgie, perhaps yes. But kids around 11 or 12 in 1989? Kids that are already far more jaded than those in 1957? Clowns were considered to be friendly and openly trusted in the 1950s. Of course, there are always people afraid of them, but not to the crazed state we have now (a lot of that brought on by Curry’s Pennywise, mind you). It would seem to me that Pennywise would be better served to take on the form of a Max Headroom-type character or some other popular ‘80s icon. Or even Superman or Batman to draw the kiddies in unsuspectingly, before he kills them using their fears against them.

I really like the more classic, tailored look of the new Pennywise costume, and I think it works to the advantage of Skarsgård, who is quite tall (6’4”), thin and angular, just as Curry’s lumpier, more child friendly costuming worked for his 5’9” height. (Remember, he wore heels in Rocky Horror Picture Show, if you recall him being taller than that…) Where the new Pennywise costume doesn’t work is that Skarsgård looks instantly frightening to even me, who has never had any clown fears in his life before. This might work well on the scare front, but Pennywise can’t kill unless Pennywise gets the kids over to him first. So, the look of the costume is really, really cool to me, and quite creepy, but it is for this very reason that it doesn’t make sense to me in the end.

Aaron: I'm with you on not finding clowns scary. I feel, sometimes, like coulrophobia is one of those made up fears a lot of people claim to have, but don't really put much stock in (this is not to say that people cannot be afraid of clowns, just that I think the general widespread nature of the fear has been artificially overblown). The only fear I feel when confronted with a clown is the social fear that the clown might try to involve me in its shenanigans, and I do not want to be performing with a clown.

These days I don’t normally read a lot of articles about movies before they come out, though I used to read Entertainment Weekly, Starlog, and occasionally Fangoria cover to cover and eagerly follow the hype machine promoting cool-looking movies. I made one of the rare exceptions earlier this year, however, when Entertainment Weekly ran an interview with Janie Bryant, the costume designer behind the new Pennywise outfit. I was curious as to the thought process behind the drastically different new look, and found the article to be quite illuminating. Not in the sense that it illuminated aspects of the film, but that it was interesting to read about the amount of thought and research that goes into something like this. In the interview Bryant mentions the many different costuming styles that combined in this one clown outfit, pointing out the stylistic anachronisms that date the fabrics and patterns to a variety of centuries, that the makeup recalls a harlequin more than a traditional clown, and that the costume itself balloons out in several places to recall a spider’s thorax.

Until I actually saw the film I didn’t place, as you did probably earlier than I, that the costume also looked a bit too frightening for an entity trying to disguise itself to win the trust of children. But then, there are a couple of in-story explanations for that costume, one implied and the other requiring a bit more conjecture. First off: Pennywise is not human, and not of any one time. It awakens approximately every three decades for about a year and a half, and it takes its various forms from the thoughts of the children it preys on. It is entirely likely that Pennywise doesn’t really know what a child would be comforted by, or what a child would find appealing. Second: the Pennywise we see in the film has a slightly different modus operandi from the Pennywise in the novel. In the novel, Pennywise alternates between lulling its victims into a false sense of security and outright terrorizing them. I think the line in the book is that ‘fear seasons the meat’, implying that It will eat anything (and in the novel does eat some adults when the opportunity arises), but that fear just makes it better. In the movie, it appears that Pennywise can only eat when children are afraid.

The death of Georgie Denbrough foreshadows this when Pennywise is trying to lure him into the sewer. In the scene he tries to convince Georgie that he is an actual clown who has been blown into the sewer along with the rest of the circus (which is a detail taken straight from the novel). Georgie is of course initially skeptical, but as Pennywise conjures more of the illusion, bringing to life the sounds of the circus and the smells of the food, Georgie becomes less afraid. There’s a moment where he laughs, at which point Pennywise completely shuts down. His mouth goes slack, his eyes go distant, and he stops responding to anything until Georgie gets nervous again because of the clown’s odd behavior, at which point Pennywise snaps back into predatory action. This explanation is confirmed later in the movie when it becomes clear that It literally can’t fight back when the kids are no longer afraid. So, possibly, the costume is a conscious decision on It’s part in order to always seem a little off, to always keep the kids a little nervous.

It was clear to me that Andy Muschietti, along with his screenwriters (credited to Gary Dauberman, Chase Palmer, and Cary Fukunaga, who was originally attached as director), came at this material as fans first and foremost. Whatever faults we could find with the film, it’s safe to say it isn’t work-for-hire hackwork. What drew Muschietti to this book, and what he chose to focus on in the film, may not be exactly what draws me to the book, but that’s a difference of interpretation not appreciation. In fact, when I left the theatre my initial feeling, posted in a brief facebook post, was that I was willing to chalk up any disappointments in the film to my abiding familiarity with the book, and a lingering inability to completely let go the pictures I had in my mind. Since I think people unfairly compare movies to the books they were based on, ignoring that the two different mediums have their own tropes and requirements, I tend to head in the opposite direction. If the movie works as a movie, no matter what it changes from the book, I have to consider it a success, even if I do sometimes go back to that “why remake?” question.

It has a wonderful visual look, and captures quite a bit of the feeling of place the book instills. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (a frequent collaborator with Oldboy director Chan-wook Park) gives the small town setting a slightly washed out look appropriate to the nostalgic ‘80s time period, with just a hint of grey in all those deep greens and sun drenched fields. At times It resembles an indie coming of age movie more than it does a horror film. This is appropriate, because in order for It to work, the friendship between the seven kids at the center of the story needs to feel real. Equal time needs to be given over to scenes of the kids just hanging out and dealing with everyday kid stuff before they get to the shapeshifting clown. As I exited the theatre after watching It, I walked alongside a group of people who had left the same screening, and listened to one man ranting about how much was left out of the book, and how much could have been cut out of the movie to make room for it. He was upset by one scene in particular, where the Loser’s Club go swimming in the quarry. I had the opposite reaction, enjoying the all-too-brief moments of simple fun and camaraderie between the kids. The novel It is a weird, meandering, shaggy story, full of countless asides and brief flashbacks within flashbacks, and part of its charm lies in how naturally we get to know these characters, how just hanging out with them brings its own fun. I was happy, at least, to see that translated to the screen, however briefly.

What I will agree with this unnamed stranger about, however, is that this movie sure did leave a lot of the book off the screen. This film is almost an hour longer than the equivalent section in the 1990 miniseries, and yet conveys a lot less of the story. Sure, some things are expanded -Victor Criss’ character is fleshed out more than he had been previously, and most of the kids get a bit more individual attention (aside from one glaring exception, which we’ll get to shortly) - but overall, the 1990 miniseries, with all its omissions and shortcuts, is more accurate to the page than the new film. I know we’re not discussing that miniseries, and we’re both trying to keep references to a minimum, but I feel like that’s going to be hard to do, especially with the way this new version seems to be taking pains to differentiate itself. How else to explain some of the changes, like the ways in which Pennywise approaches each kid individually? I think only Eddie Kaspbrak’s encounter remains relatively unchanged, while everywhere else the film seems to be trying to avoid covering well-trod ground.

I won’t say those changes were significant roadblocks for me, they were simply alterations I noticed and let pass by. I will say, however, that I was quite hoping to see Mike Hanlon’s first encounter with It finally brought to the screen. When he first meets It, Pennywise has taken the form of a giant bird, nesting in the caved-in basement of the Kitchener Ironworks, which Mike is exploring. It was such a striking image when I read it as a child, and even now as an adult, where I can see more than a few echoes of the topiary garden scene from The Shining, I found parts of it quite chilling. I didn’t actually expect it would survive to screen in that form, but still, hope springs eternal. This actually brings me to my one real disappointment with the movie: the treatment of Mike Hanlon.

In the novel, Mike Hanlon is the silent linchpin of the group. Stuttering Bill is the undisputed, and unspoken, leader of the pack, but Mike Hanlon, although he’s the final person to join the Loser’s Club, is the one that is able to help define what it is they’re facing. He’s also the one that stays behind, the one that remains in Derry and keeps watch for the return of It, calling the others back when it’s clear they have unfinished business. He’s a history buff, a trait inherited from his father, and his knowledge is helpful in figuring out what Pennywise is, and what its goal is. He also, among the kids, has the only truly loving and supportive home life.  While Richie’s family also seems loving and supportive, his parents seem more than little exasperated with him. Ben’s mother loves him, but the death of his father and their financial troubles take their toll. Beverly’s father is abusive, Eddie’s mother is overbearing, Bill’s are distant and cold since Georgie’s death. Stan’s parents are mostly not present in the book. But Mike has it pretty good: he lives on a farm with his parents, and though he works as hard as you’d expect a young black kid working on a farm would, his home is described with overwhelming warmth, and he lives with incredible mutual respect and love between him and his parents. Mike is a Loser because of the color of his skin, while the others are Loser’s due to temperament and upbringing.

So I was more than a little let down by the fact that Mike in the movie lives with his gruff and angry grandfather, his parent’s having been killed in a fire in which Mike witnessed their deaths as they screamed outside his door. Further, his role in the movie is drastically reduced, only joining the group near the end of the film, at which point he becomes a glorified extra hanging out in the background. And the film took his most defining trait, a driving curiosity and knack for digging up forgotten histories, and gave it to Ben! But he’s not the only one to get short shrift. Beverly spends most of the movie as a willful, clever girl who has a tendency to take charge, or at least get things rolling when the boys are indecisive, only to end the movie as a silent damsel in distress, a piece of bait Pennywise uses to lure the children to his lair and separate them. In the novel Beverly is the one to defeat Pennywise during their first battle, while she spends a good portion of the final showdown in this film not doing much of anything. It’s a slightly distasteful development for the movie to sideline the only two major characters who aren’t young white men.

Rik, I know you haven’t read the book as recently as I have, so did the changes bother you, or were you able to let them slide?

Rik: I am really unable to identify substantive changes to the story because it has been so long since I read the book and, as stated, it did not have nearly the impact on me at the age of 22 as it did on you at age 12. I know our original plan was to reread the book again before the movie came out, and you are indeed re-reading it now where I am not; I don’t have the time right now for a nearly 1,200 page novel on my current schedule of projects. Yes, I am disappointed that I haven’t because it is exactly this sort of question that can stymie this review, given the subject matter of our website. But I didn’t come into this proclaiming myself to be an expert on Stephen King, but rather as someone who used to be quite well acquainted with his work and who wishes, at least on a low level, to refamiliarize himself with King’s writings and to compare them against the film versions. In this case, I guess that I am failing our cause by not rereading the book, but my reasons for not doing so are exactly as stated.

But, truth be told, even after reading the book when it first came out, I really didn’t take much time to identify what was missing and what was added to the original mini-series. I just remember watching it when it premiered on ABC in 1990, loving the first half, being a little disappointed in the second half, and wishing the mini-series had at least another night of airing to flesh out everything a little more satisfactorily. Just as you are able to do, I usually divorce my feelings for a favored book from whatever I am watching, and able to accept the entities as separate.

Now, however, with a two-part movie series, where the first movie is less than an hour shorter in running length than the entire mini-series, it looks like that time is being spent. But could I readily identify what has been cut from the book and what hasn’t (apart from that one big scene in the book that I hate)? Not down to minor details like you could, but about those details… I have read a lot of responses on social media and in comments on reviews of the movie online, and everyone has something they were glad they left in or were upset was left out of the movie. But most of it seems like mere details, like a kid holding a Lego turtle like he did in the book or a kid wearing a particular t-shirt. This type of stuff might be good fan service, but it really means little in the course of the narrative of the story. I will agree with you on the way Mike Hanlon is handled. In my memory of the story and the mini, Mike is a much larger character than he is in the movie, and I am rather confused as to why his time and character have been reduced so much. So, yeah, I agree that this might be another case of Hollywood whitewashing.

I think the thing that I noticed most was the changes in the fears of the various kids. No Universal monsters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Frankenstein’s Monster. No big ass freaky giant bird. I understand why they had to change some of the fears; even Pennywise is not immune to copyright law. And it probably makes sense since the time period has shifted. While the kids in the ‘80s would undoubtedly have been well aware of the Universal Monster characters – most of the major Universal Monster flicks were readily available on VHS in that decade – those characters would not have had the same impact as in the 1950s, when those films were arriving on televisions across the country packaged on Shock Theater starting in 1957, the year in which the story involving the kids begins in the book.

But the change in time period is off-putting in a way, because the town and the way the kids behave (for the most part) still looks like it is in the 1950s, even the bike that Ben rides. I found it a little jarring when there would be a New Kids on the Block reference, because honestly, they could have never said the year and I wouldn’t have cared.

Aaron: That is a pretty good point that I hadn’t consciously realized, but now that you mention it I recognize it immediately as true. Aside from a few scattered period details (Ben has a Walkman and listens to New Kids on the Block; the movie theatre marquee lists Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman; the slide projector instead of the family photo album) and general outfits worn by the characters, the film could have taken place in the ‘50s. Even the town of Derry itself feels out of time. The size of the population, the architecture and layouts of various stores, and the look of the main street certainly make the place feel a few decades out of time. That didn’t bother me at the time, though, so until I watch the film again I’m not really going to hold that against it. Likely they were trying to simply make the film feel timeless, despite being set in a very specific period.

What did bother me, the more I thought about it, was how so much of the shaggy weirdness of the novel was sanded down and slotted into a more recognizable cinematic structure. In the novel we get to meet most of the kids individually before they come together in the end, while in the movie most of them are friends already. That makes sense in a time-saving way, but it cuts out some opportunities for character development, and serves to cut down the already limited screentime for Mike and, to an extent, Beverly. More egregious than that (and really, I’m not upset about them speeding the story along, it’s what movies need) is the decision to make Georgie’s fate a mystery to everyone but the audience. In the novel Georgie’s body is found immediately, while in the new movie Georgie simply vanishes. I know why it was done: it gives Bill a hero’s quest and provides a forward momentum to the film to have Bill driven to find what happened to his brother and locate either his body or where he’s being held. But again it alters the tone (negatively, in my opinion) and limits some of the potential the original story had.

I mention up above that I wished the film had had more moments of the kids just hanging out, and that criticism stands. I think giving the film such a strong forward momentum makes sense narratively, but also lessens the impact of the truly horrific moments. I wish the kids had spent more time at the barrens, building dams and just playing around. Clearly that would have further alienated people like the ones I passed exiting the theatre, but I think it would have made it that much scarier when things suddenly took a turn for the nightmarish. Furthermore, this cuts out most of the interludes and historical scenes from the novel, which help to flesh out just how far-reaching It's influence has been over the centuries. Clearly, the movie can't have everything, and I didn't expect most of those scenes to be in the film, but the fact that It has been in Derry longer than humankind has been around is a crucial part of the novel, and is condensed into a couple of brief implications in the film.

But before I completely turn around and say I hated this movie, I want to reiterate that I really did enjoy It. I had a great time at the theatre watching it and look forward to watching it again. It had a pleasing look, engaging performances from the kids, some eye-catching imagery, and one hell of a charismatic villain. The film hit a bit of a sweet spot for me, and I can envision myself adding this to my annual Halloween season rotation. All that being said, I am a little disappointed in It as an adaptation of one of my favorite novels. Not only for the reasons I’ve listed above, but also because I think they might have written themselves into a corner for the eventual sequel (coming out in two years). I have to admit I was shocked to hear, as this movie was passing box office milestones for horror films, that a sequel had not yet been written, cast, or greenlit. It’s only half of the story and the studio hadn’t bothered to put much thought into the last half. Not the most encouraging sign.

I feel like all of the efforts to sand down the story’s rougher edges in the first film are going to make it more difficult to dive into the second film, in which the story’s weirder, more cosmic elements really come to the fore. The film had some foreshadowing, especially in how often turtles were mentioned or seen briefly, or that scene where the deadlights appear to be coming out of Pennywise’s mouth, but I’m beginning to doubt that the next film is going to try and tackle the cosmic horror of the novel. Certainly Andy Muschietti’s stated plan to make Mike Hanlon a junky in the next film (while all of the other kids in the Loser’s Club become world-famous successes) just adds to my feeling that he doesn’t have the firmest grasp on these characters, or that he’s aware how that reads in a film that has already sidelined every character that isn’t white and isn’t male.

How about you, Rik? What are your overall feelings towards this version of It, and how much are you anticipating the sequel?

Rik: Putting aside all that junk about comparisons with the novel, what should or shouldn’t have been in the film, and pitting performances and design elements from both versions against each other – and when I say “junk” I am not discounting the fact that talking about all of that stuff is great fun most of the time – ultimately, for me, reviewing this film must be done in lock-step with the way that I review all films. My two primary concerns with any film are whether I enjoyed the experience or not and whether I thought the film succeeded on its own terms. For the new version of It, I must say “yes” to both counts. I had a remarkably good time seeing the film in a theatre. The crowd only filled just under half of the room, but everyone seemed to be as into the film as I was. Scary? I don’t care about that crap. Only actual humans really scare me at all, but I will admit that the film did creep me out on occasion, even when (or especially because of when) I knew where it was going. People love to be tough and proclaim that something wasn’t scary publicly, but I will tell you when a film gets to me. I liked to be scared, but I don’t like those scares to be cheap. Unfortunately, the industry has largely resorted to jump scares to make their cash, and those are the cheapest, lamest scares imaginable. So I rely on creepiness more than anything to see if the film affects me in any way.

Pennywise did get to me on several occasions, and the Modigliani painting effect was pretty disturbing (though it also annoyed me to a certain degree). In the end, it is the real-life horrors in any film that are the most disconcerting, and It comes flush with murderous bullies, coldly uncaring adults at every turn, and child abuse both mental and sexual. That notorious scene in the novel involving Beverly getting it on with each of the boys is thankfully never brought to the screen (nor should it ever) – another way is found to portray the gang’s trust and deep friendship – and I am thankful that if King’s editors don’t see fit to steer The Author away from something remarkably stupid that at least the occasional film production company comes along and says, “Oh, shit… we can’t do that. Why the hell did he do that?”

Of the kids, while Finn Wolfhard is the comparatively “big” name here (and what a name) because of Stranger Things and he gets the best dialogue in the film, getting to play the foul-mouthed Richie Tozier, it is Sophie Lillis as Beverly Marsh who is real revelation here. I believe she has the toughest and darkest role of the kids, obviously, and I believe she comes off as both memorable and the most convincing of the kids in her performance. (Unlike you, I don’t think she gets sidelined at all, but is the most prominent member of the group, even with needing to be rescued… an unfortunate and unnecessary trope) You mentioned that the character of Mike really gets downsized, and I feel he is completely forgettable once he is there, but I also think that Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough just came off as a little too much of a wallflower most of the time for me to buy into him as the eventual leader of the group. And maybe you can refresh me on this, but I thought the kids were all roughly of the same age, but the kid playing Ben Hanscom seemed too small for that age. (It was probably his babyface that threw me off, because I know the actor Jeremy Ray Taylor is actually 14 now.)

Apart from the period issues we discussed, the film still worked for me completely as an adventure and as a horror film. I had watched the mini very recently, so it was quite fresh in my mind, but I was able to divorce myself from it as I watched the new version and sank quite nicely into my seat and lost myself for well over two hours. Kubrick’s version of The Shining is longer, but I think this new version of It might be the longest theatrical King adaptation since The Green Mile (definitely the longest at over three hours) in 1999. (The Shawshank Redemption is also slightly longer than the new It.) What keeps me from loving The Green Mile is its sheer overlength (and part of its plotline, which I have never bought into), and as for The Shining, which I love, I still feel every single minute of its length as it slowly drips by on the screen.

With the new It, I didn’t notice that well over two hours had passed until the credits rolled – even knowing the film’s running time going into the theatre – and part of this may be attributed to the fact that I was anxiously awaiting some sort of connective tissue between this film and the hopefully eventual Part 2 featuring at least one of the adult versions of the kids. That tissue never really arrives, though, and I think that it is possible that if you are not familiar with the story already, you could leave the movie thinking the story has been told. If that is the case for the viewer, then I can imagine some of them leaving more than a bit disappointed. Luckily, the filmmakers put a “Chapter One” title on the film just at the start of the end credits, so even the unfamiliar will get the hint that there is more to come.

Me, I look forward to the sequel, and this film’s massive success practically ensures it now. As you stated earlier, there is hopefully more to come. On a side note regarding how terrible the publicity machine has become in recent years, I firmly believe that the communication between Hollywood and the public concerning both this film series and the recent adaptation of The Dark Tower – and its supposed iterations both in film and TV to come, all of them doubtful now – have been incredibly poor.  (I will say the same for Universal’s handling of their Monsters franchise, now called (stupidly) Dark Universe, which only moves in stutters and stops and denial of previous films when they don’t perform to industry standards. All I want is a goddamned Creature From the Black Lagoon movie…) We have been seeing varying reports over the past two years about whether there really were two It movies planned, but as you pointed out, the second is only now being developed post-success. But I think that in the end it comes down to the filmmakers, and if they manage to keep the same team and allow them to give the same care and attention that they obviously spent on this one, we might come close to the same mood when leaving the theatre in another two years. (Even if the adult versions of the characters were nowhere near as interesting as the kids, for my two cents…)

Aaron: To briefly respond to a couple of your thoughts above, yes, the kids are generally the same age in the novel, and as I recall they're all within a year of each other. And I also thought the kids in question did a pretty good job, with, of course, Finn Wolfhard stealing every scene he was in due to Richie's motormouthed commentary on whatever is happening. As for the "Chapter One" title, I would not be surprised if that title were moved to the beginning of the movie for the DVD release. It seemed like Andy Muschietti deployed it at that point in the film to pique interest in a sequel, and to let those unfamiliar with the story know there was more coming. But also, at the time he was putting the film together, it was not at all certain that a sequel would be greenlit, so he saved it for the end the way a television show will sometimes end on a cliffhanger in order to get viewers invested enough that another season will be made. Or, if you want to keep it cinematic, the way Iron Man deployed Samuel Jackson at the end of the film to hype the expanding Marvel cinematic universe.

And as for that eventual sequel: I have faith that Andy Muschietti and his screenwriters can stick the landing, even though it's really too far out for conjecture to be worth anything. But then what am I doing here if not comparing, theorizing, and conjecturing? As much as I enjoyed It, and as much faith I have in this same creative team putting together a sequel, I am only worried insofar as, as you say, the adults are inherently less interesting than the kids, and the amount of ground that needs to be covered in the sequel is larger than the amount of ground they covered in this film. I'm worried that a lot of the more cosmic elements of this story are bound to be cut out, and while that doesn't mean the film will be bad, it does make me think that Andy Muschietti and his writers might have written themselves into a bit of a corner. Of course, I am expecting to be proven wrong once we get a chance to see the sequel ourselves, in about two years. Myself, I'm not-so-secretly hoping he just hires all of the kids from the original miniseries to play their adult counterparts (minus, sadly, Jonathan Brandis).

Rik’s Rating: 7/9
Aaron's Rating: 7/9

Well, that brings us to the end of another edition of We Who Watch Behind the Rows. We hope you enjoyed this discussion, as we kick off the Halloween season. I'm sure there are a lot of things we've missed, befitting a film with it's origins in such a dense piece of writing, but luckily we'll have plenty more chances to discuss this material. We hope you stick with us for our future discussions as continue to revisit the many worlds of Stephen King.