We’ll All Float On, Anyway: Stephen King’s IT

First thing first: IT is terrifying. People in my theater shrieked, gasped, applauded, hid—I think it’s one of the most reactive crowds I’ve ever been in, and it was great. And that’s all before we get to the evil clown. Bill Skarsgard takes Pennywise in even darker and more screwed up directions that Tim Curry’s over-the-top malevolence.

I’ve never wanted to see a horror movie more than once in the theater. Even if I love one, I tend to wait until Blu-ray or Netflix for repeat viewings. But IT? I want to see IT again, big, soon. It’s a great horror movie, wrapped up inside an almost-perfect coming-of-age film, and even with a couple of missteps I think it’s going to be a classic.

The child actors are amazing. Sophia Lillis is a perfect Beverly Marsh, whipsawing between her fear of her father, her disgust at her own body, her self conscious flirting to use the way men look at her against them, her vulnerability when no one is looking, and the way she puts on adulthood to act as an authority figure to the boys. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, and Wyett Oleff are hilarious as Eddie, Richie, and Stan, while Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor inhabit Mike and Ben (who are both a bit underwritten after strong introductions) with gravity and sweetness.

Richie Trashmouth Tozier is my spirit animal [author note: let me change this phrase to hero, actually. I agree with commenter Matt Dovey that this term is appropriative when used out of context, and I apologize for using it.], and has been since I was 11 when I read the book for the first time, and Finn Wolfhard is profane and hilarious, there is no dick joke he won’t tell, there is no variation of “I’m sleeping with your mother” that he won’t explore, and I was so, so happy to see that imported straight into the movie without any censorship. Best of all though is Jaeden Lieberher as Bill. Bill is the heart of the film. His love for his brother Georgie, and his guilt over the boy’s death-by-clown, are the film’s engine, and Lieberher plays every nuance with absolute assurance.

I loved the way you could trace different relationships among the kids. Eddie and Stan hang back a bit, occasionally exchanging “why are we the only reasonable ones?” looks. There is a constant flow of gross banter between Richie and Eddie, with Stan occasionally jumping in. Bill is the moral center, and the oldest until Mike shows up, and then you can see the two of them draw together as the adults of the group after Mike shares his past. I can imagine each of the kids pairing off for separate adventures.

The adults are mostly absent, and when they are around they’re creepy (the pharmacy owner), abusive (Henry’s dad) or creepy and abusive (Bev’s dad). As in the book, the film gives us the palpable sense that the adults of Derry have turned a blind eye to the evil in their town. They are, consciously or not, sacrificing their children’s safety and happiness to maintain the status quo. Bill’s parents shut him out after his little brother’s death. Stan’s dad worries about his son’s Bar Mitzvah because of how it’ll make him look, not whether Stan actually believes in the ceremony. Eddie’s mom has robbed her son of his innocence by making sure he’s afraid of, well, everything. The adults behavior is a mirror of Derry’s supernatural terrors.

IT uses imagery borrowed from zombie movies, Guillermo del Toro’s work, J-Horror, several previous Stephen King adaptations, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Andres Muschietti’s previous film, Mama. This is not to say that the film is a reference fest, more that, as a study of fear, it draws on a lot of different horror tropes to create a variety of scares for the audience. This worked for me, and I’m extremely happy to say that whether or not you’ve read the book, if you like horror and/or coming-of-age stories, you’ll probably love the movie.

From here on in I’m going to dive into a fairly in-depth discussion of the film, which will mean lots of movie and book spoilers, so float away to a theater if you haven’t seen the film yet, and then come back and let me know what you thought!

IT is perfect lesson in how to use nostalgia.

First, let me say that I like Stranger Things a lot – I can see people’s problems with it, but I also thought it worked well as an addictive piece of horror. What I will say is that the show lays nostalgia on with a trowel, which for me at least creates a sense that the people creating it weren’t actually there; the Duffer Bros were born in 1984, so their experience of the 1980s was likely through pop culture they absorbed years later. In Stranger Things, working-class Jonathan Byer on has a poster for Evil Dead, a film that almost certainly wouldn’t have shown in a theater in Hawkins, Indiana in the early 1980s. Where did he get the poster? Did he order it through the tiny crappy town video store? The mom-and-pop one, since there’s no way they’d have a Blockbuster or Hollywood Video yet? Probably not. He has that poster simply as a nod to the audience.

IT, however, really feels like it’s happening in 1988-89. The kids aren’t wearing self-conscious t-shirts, because that kind of hipster irony didn’t become a thing until the ‘90s, and 11- and 12-year-olds wouldn’t have been doing it anyway. They wear the sort of nondescript t-shirts and button-downs that their moms would have bought at K-Mart. Bill Denbrough, who is coded as the most financially stable of the kids, has three posters in his bedroom: Gremlins, Beetlejuice, and what appears to be a poster of Dave Trampier art from the D&D Player’s Handbook. Beverly, probably the poorest of the group, has posters for Siouxie Sioux and The Cult (almost certainly stolen) because she’s a bit cooler than the boys—but those posters are also a few years old. Ben’s room is covered with missing child posters and clippings about Derry, because Ben, new to the town, is studying it. The only poster he has is his New Kids on the Block poster; Ben is also coded to be a little bit more financially stable, so it’s realistic that his aunt took him to a mall to buy that poster and the NKOTB cassette.

The movie theater in town plays three movies over the course of that summer: Batman, still around after having been out for a month because it was the biggest movie of the year, Lethal Weapon II, and A Nightmare on Elm Street V. Their movie theater only has two screens. Those are the three movies you’ll get to see if you live in Derry, and that’s it. The kids would have to sneak into Elm Street, because they’re clearly underage. And everyone in town knows them, so I mean sneak into the theater itself—they can’t just buy a ticket for a PG-rated movie and then duck into the other screen like I used to.

In the book the kids listened to Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins when their mom wasn’t home, and hid those records – they would have been small 45s – while displaying Paul Anka, a white artist who was more socially acceptable. In the movie, music plays less of a role: we know that Ben is a NKOTB fan, and they all listento Young MC on a boombox while they’re at the lake. Other than that the soundtrack includes The Cure, The Cult, and XTC, and there are Bev’s posters, but there isn’t the sort of paint by numbers nostalgia that would have them listening to classic 80s hits on the radio, walking past the TV in front of episodes of Knight Rider or Magnum P.I., or quoting comedy hits. Richie Tozier makes a badly dated “Where’s The Beef?” joke (in fact, it seems some of the references are from a screenplay set in 1985, and the rest set in 1989), which seems about right since he strains for humor, but of course he wouldn’t be snappy and quippy because kids aren’t actually like that.

The movie is able to successfully transplant the kids from the book’s 1958 setting to 1988-9 because they’re not just a jumble of references and tastes. In the book, Bill Denbrough likes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Richie Tozier likes I Was a Teen-age Werewolf, and Ben Hanlon likes the Broderick Crawford drama Highway Patrol. But Bill Denbrough is also a deeply moral, grieving young man who tries to live according to a strict moral code, Richie Tozier is a deeply insecure child who uses humor as a defense mechanism, and Ben Hanscome is a shy, thoughtful romantic. They can be brought into the ‘80s because they have those personalities, apart from the pop culture references. The references are just little icing roses on top of a cake, rather than personalities that are built from the outside in, which I think is the mistake a lot of current writers are making.

Given the posters in Bill’s room, the Losers know horror movies (though seemingly Stephen King doesn’t exist in this universe), but there’s none of the self-aware, meta-horror of Scream. The kids aren’t reciting rules and referring to the films they’ve seen and books they’ve read—they react like children who are being faced with a real horror. Facing IT means entering the realm of the uncanny, the unheimlich—like Regan’s bedroom in The Exorcist, the boiler room in A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Overlook Hotel, Hill House: they’re in the realm of supernatural evil. Reality’s rules don’t apply, there is no reference that can save them, and irony shatters, revealing the kids’ true courage and love for each other.

Having covered all of that, I’d like to dig into some of the changes from the book, and specifically a few controversial aspects of the film.

The Turtle shows up in a couple of unexpected and sweet ways that I will not spoil.

The orgy scene does NOT show up. Now here is where I have to wade into some dangerous waters, so bear with me. I first read IT when I was just about the Losers’ age. When I read it, I was OK with the sex scene because I understood what it was about. Bev has had other people trying to control and police her body through the entire book: the other girls at school, her teachers, the parents who think she’s “fast” and, most obviously, her father, who simultaneously wants her to remain a pre-pubescent girl, openly lusts after her, and reacts like a jealous boyfriend any time she wants to spend time with boys. It’s a nightmare. So in the sewers, when they’re lost, and losing their connection to each other, she offers a form of sexualized ritual to reunite them, she does this of her own free will, and she chooses what happens with her body for the first time. Yes, it’s extreme, but we’re also in a dark fairy tale with a murderous, fear-eating clown. But I was glad it wasn’t included in the film, because reading that scene and actually seeing young actors, um, act it, are obviously very different things. Grady Hendrix talks about the scene and its importance at length in his IT reread, and Stephen King has also commented on how deeply messed up it is that people are still obsessing about this scene, but just kind of accept all the violence in the book, and I think both of their points are worth reading.

What they replace it with is annoying, but in the end it worked for me… Bev has to fight her father, as she does in the book. He may be taken over by IT, it’s kind of unclear, but in the movie their fight is centered in the bathroom—the site of all of her blood and coming-of-age rituals, the room she has to share with her father. (I’m also going to assume something of a Raging Bull reference here.) She locks herself in the bathroom and then nails him with the toilet tank lid. The problem being that this attack from dad may have been a trap set by Pennywise, who then takes her. The rest of the gang run to the sewers to try to rescue her.

And yes, this bothers me. On the one hand, there was no need to turn her into a damsel in distress. On the other hand, changing her story in this way allows three new moments that I thought were potentially important.

First, Stan, thinking he hears Bev, wanders away from the rest of the group only to be attacked by the horrifying lady from the painting, who has haunted him throughout the film. The boys come together, fight the lady off, and pick him up. He has bite marks on his face but seems otherwise unharmed. He yells that they left him, but they hold him and at least one of the boys says, “We love you, Stan.” Now when was the last time you saw a movie where one boy told another boy that they loved them? This brings the whole group of boys together, and reunites them, so they can go get Beverly. Which, again, I’m frustrated by on one level, but I’m also pleased that they replaced the sexuality of the moment with this moment of extreme emotional vulnerability among the boys.

Bill, being the intrepid leader and hero of the film, finds her, floating in midair, having been “deadlighted” by IT. She’s essentially in a catatonic holding pattern, to be fed upon later. Bill jumps up toward her, but quickly give up, and rather than waiting for his friends says, “I’ll come back for you,” and sprints off after Georgie. Now, this is important, because it’s not heroic. Bill has been the leader this whole time, but now he puts his own needs ahead of his friends. Having used her abduction as a reason for all of them to go into the sewers, he ditches them and runs after his own obsession.

The film doesn’t dwell on this, but I am hoping that it becomes a seed for a more complex Chapter II.

Also, instead of Bev’s sex magick ritual, Ben (the nerdiest of the group) enacts the old fairy tale trope of kissing her to awaken her from her sleep. This works, and again, part of me wanted it to fail, and for it to be more complicated, but I was also glad that they swapped out the adult sexual connection for a more innocent “true love’s kiss”. And once Beverly is awake again, she hugs Ben as a thank you, and the whole group of them go right back into the fight with IT, with Bev dealing what amounts to the killing blow.

Mike’s plotline has also been changed. While Mike is the narrator of the book, we obviously we can’t have him narrate this film, because, well, we’d go in knowing at least he lived, rather than experiencing the events along with the kids. He’d also have to narrate events from the other kids’ perspectives, which works in prose, but not so much in a movie. So they give some of Mike’s history studies to Ben. Ben, who has spent the summer in the library hiding from Henry Bowers, has begun studying the history of Derry. This makes sense because Ben is coming to town as the new kid, who is able to be more objective than the others. Instead, Mike’s story is rooted possibly even more in the town’s racism than the book’s version.

Mike’s fear is not a vague giant bird, as it is in the book—it’s the screaming victims of two different fires. The first is a hate crime committed against a club called The Black Spot, which is taken from the book, and the other is the house fire that killed his family. I began to wonder if this connection was intentional, and then I remembered that at one point Henry tells Mike, “I wish I set it.” Does this imply that someone intentionally set the fire that killed Mike’s family? Was it murder, rather than a horrifying accident? In the book, Henry’s abusive prick of a father is a farmer, but here he’s Derry’s main police officer. So we have one of the only Black kids in town repeatedly attacked by the son of a police officer, who openly says he wishes he had murdered the kid’s family. This is a huge and important change from the book. You can be annoyed at the shift in Mike’s story, but I think the film is trying to take on the climate of fear and police violence that Black America is living under, and has lived under…and it’s terrible. I want Mike to just be a kid, swimming in the quarry and making jokes about Eddie Kaspbrack’s mom like his friends. But I’m also glad that the film tries to deal with the fact that in a largely white, homogenous small town, Mike will be even more of an outsider than the rest of the Loser’s Club.

I’ve spent the last three days thinking about Bev and Mike. Does it suck that they don’t get to have an adventure in the style of The Goonies? Yes, yes it does. But their arcs reflect their specific realities in a way that I believe is intentional.

Bev’s fear is growing up, her body changing and being used without her consent. This manifests itself in a geyser of blood that homages both Carrie and the Johnny-Depp-Death-Bed sequence in the A Nightmare on Elm Street. Her fears are centered on the bathroom (green tile, possibly a reference to The Shining?) where she cuts her hair off to look more “like a boy”, applies her makeup to look more “like a girl”, and figures out how to use Tampax without the advice of a mother, knowing that her father’s abuse is only going to get worse the further she gets into puberty, knowing that the changes in her body are inexorable… unless she dies, of course. She is attacked by the girls in the school bathroom, and seeks refuge in her own. When the boys need her help, she uses her body to distract the creepy pharmacist, and pilfers a pack of smokes in the process. When her bathroom is covered in blood, the boys use their bodies to help her clean it again, turning it back into her haven. She bonds with the boys by swimming in the lake, and she tries to re-center herself after the failure at Neibold Street by soaking in the tub. When her father violates the sanctity of this room by kicking the door in, this is when he crosses the line into madness, and she strikes him down, but he’s only a prelude to Pennywise invading her space. She is taken from the bathroom down into the gray water and effluvia of the sewers, and when they escape it’s to the lakeside, where the children all take a blood oath to seal their bond. As they go around, Bill slices each child’s hand, and they flinch and gasp in pain. But not Bev, she doesn’t move, and she doesn’t drop eye contact as he does it. This implies things about Bev that I’m guessing most of the girls in the theater caught. Bev, unlike the boys, is no stranger to pain, and she’s used to blood.

And yes, I wish Mike could just be a kid, but he doesn’t have the security the white kids do, and his grandfather has him working on the farm and learning about the evil beneath Derry for exactly that reason. Does that suck? Yeah, yeah it does, but Mike’s going to have to be tougher than the other kids. It would be disingenuous of the movie to ignore that. Mike’s life in 1989 Derry wouldn’t be that different than 1958 Mike. He’d be able to watch The Cosby Show on TV, and his white friends would be able to hear (acceptable, mainstream) Black voices on the radio, there are certain words he probably wouldn’t hear as often as his dad did. Probably. But one of the themes of King’s book is the cyclical nature of evil—the idea that just when you think evil is eradicated it comes back, because it’s been invited in by seemingly decent, nice people. Your neighbor in the khakis and the polo shirt. The mom who’s willing to slut-shame a barely-pubescent girl. The parents who ignore their child’s pain but feast on their own. The teachers who overlook bullying and bruises and attacks in the alleys.

When I read the book as a kid, the 1950s were cast as a haven for racism and anti-Semitism. In the 1980s adult segments of the book, we learned about the prejudice that Stan and his wife had endured, but we also learned that they had become successful and happy as the years rolled on. We see an act of horrific homophobia in 1984, but we also see the cops upholding the law and treating it as the crime that it is, despite their own shitty remarks. Beverly is still being abused, but her best friend is a feminist writer, and there’s a definite sense that where her father’s abuse was tolerated by his male friends, her husband’s would not be if it was out in the open. Mike is the town librarian, a well-respected member of Derry’s community, if a poor one. The book implies that US society has taken tiny baby steps toward improvement.

The film of IT throws all of that out the window. We’re in 1988, and the adults of Derry turn a blind eye to horror. No one helps Beverly—the drug store clerk is only too happy to flirt with a girl younger than his own daughter. Eddie’s mom is only too eager to call her a slut. No one stops Henry from assaulting Ben with a knife. No one steps in to defend Mike from Henry and his gang’s racist attacks. It’s only the Losers themselves who help each other. They’re the ones who reject the rumors about Bev, and go after her when she’s taken by IT. They’re the ones who shield Ben from Patrick Hockstetter, and rescue Mike from Henry. They’re the ones who provide support to each other when parents turn out to be uncaring, absentee, or straight up abusive.

But it was never Bev or Mike or Stan that I identified with—it was Richie. Richie was marginally more stable, but tormented by bullies. He used pop culture and jokes as armor, to the point that even his closest friends wanted him to shut up most of the time. The phrases “too soon” “inappropriate” and “now is not the time” do not exist in his philosophy. Normally in a hero quest, these characters are great at the outset of the story because they keep everyone’s spirits up, but at a certain point they have to grow up, get serious, accept the gravity of their situation. their addiction to joking is revealed to be shallow or damaging to the quest. But not in IT. In IT, Richie’s jokes are his weapon against Pennywise, and they fucking work. And I am so happy to say that in the movie this point is even stronger.

In the final scenes of the film, Bill’s quest to find Georgie almost turns into a suicide mission. Bill attempts to make himself the noble sacrifice to save his friends, the way certain heroic male archetypes have done throughout cinema. But his friends reject that narrative. They know that by banding together they can defeat evil, and it’s Richie, the comic relief character, who first steps up to reject Bill’s noble martyr routine. Richie becomes a hero, while remaining a potty-mouthed malcontent. Eddie’s a hero while still being squeamish, Stan’s a hero while being afraid, Mike’s a hero with all of his pain, Bev’s a hero with all of her rage at her dad, Ben’s a hero with all of his nerdiness.

I’ve written in the past about the importance of IT in my own adolescence, and I honestly believe that even with what I see as missteps with Bev and Mike, the movie sticks the landing. I think IT will be that lifeline for kids today who need it.

Beep beep, Leah Schnelbach. Come talk to her about coulrophobia on Twitter!

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