I love a good horror movie, so I was delighted when the film version of It came out last year and got good reviews, although it took me until this week to get around to seeing it. I shouldn’t have bothered. What a disappointment!
The movie is, of course, based on the fantastic and terrifying novel by Stephen King. But because the novel is approximately a billion pages long, the movie cuts a lot of the plot, focusing entirely on the sections set during the main characters’ childhoods, leaving the sections about them as adult for a sequel. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea—it’s certainly an easy way to tighten the story—but it creates a plotting problem early on that the film never quite recovers from.
The opening sequence, when George disappears, is promising enough. It starts with unease and ramps up quickly as Pennywise drags George into the sewers. As an opening, the explicitness works (and the cuts to a watching cat are brilliant). From there, however, the pace is never quite right.
In the book, the stakes are set when Mike Hanlon contacts the adult members of the Losers’ Club to summon them back to Derry to fulfill their childhood pledge to defeat It should it ever return to the town. Their fear at the prospect, even thought their memories are foggy, makes it clear how frightening this thing is. Now, when it comes to horror films, my bias is for films of unease, where things just don’t feel right and the story spins out slowly. Without that framing of adults returning, there’s no opportunity for the unease to build. Instead, we get one sequence after another where the characters meet Pennywise, are frightened, and run away. One after another after another. It’s boring. Some of the individual sequences are good—I especially liked Stan’s creepy painting—but putting each character through essentially the same experience, with variations, ends up being monotonous. It’s all jump scares and loudness, and even Pennywise loses his power to frighten when he appears so often.
Another change from the book was to move the plot forward in time, with the childhood story taking place in the 1980s. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, although it does feel a little like the filmmakers are trying to capitalize on 80s nostalgia among the book’s original fans, as well as fans of Stranger Things. But, whatever, I was a child of the 80s. I can get on board with being pandered to. However, the new setting undercuts some of the interesting things the book does with race, a problem that is further undercut by the diminishing of Mike Hanlon, the sole Black member of the Losers’ Club.
Certainly, racism still exists in the 80s (and in 2018), but it has gone underground, and the imagery of a black kid being beaten up in the 80s doesn’t have the same potency as it would have in the pre-Civil Rights era. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but it means to movie has to do a little more work to establish how the evil of It is wrapped up in systemic, historical racism. However, the movie takes the historian role away from Mike and gives it to Ben, and you’d have to be looking for hints at the racist violence in Derry’s history to see it.
Mike’s role is likely to be expanded in the second film, but the AV Club reports that director Andy Muschietti plans to make him a junkie, so, yeah, the film doesn’t just undercut the anti-racist ideas in the book, it adds some racist stereotypes of its own. Great. Mike is far and away my favorite character in the book, so this pisses me off pretty seriously.
As for positive departures from the book, there is one, but it is also undercut by a slew of unfortunate choices. In this case, the changes involve Beverly and the movie’s use of sexist tropes to weaken another strong character who’s not a white male. The good choice was to abandon the sex scene at the end of the book, but it’s also the obvious choice. I mean, there’s no way that scene would remain. It’s such an obvious choice that I’m not inclined to give the filmmaker any credit for doing it. So I’ll just move on to my irritation at the depiction of Beverly.
I’ll start by saying that I think the movie does better by Beverly than it does by Mike. She’s given plenty to do, and a case could be made that she is the strongest and smartest member of Loser’s Club. However, the movie focuses too much on her place as “the girl” and on Bill and Ben’s crushes on her. She’s sometimes shot to look sexy, and there’s one instance of her using her sexuality to help the boys. (Articles at The Collider and The Mary Sue have argued that the movie is actually subverting these tropes, and I think a decent case could be made here.)
The bigger problem around Beverly is that by the end of the movie, she’s turned into a damsel who needs rescuing. Not only is this irritating on Beverly’s behalf, it minimizes the bigger battle against It and the heroism of the Losers’ Club in going to fight It. They’re going to save the girl, not to save the town (or the world).
As dissatisfied as I was with the movie, I have to commend the performances, which are almost entirely terrific. The kids have strong chemistry, and on the rare occasions that they’re allowed to stop and breathe, they’re fun to watch. Too bad that so much of their screen time is just running and screaming. These actors—and this book—deserved better.