Wednesday, October 11, 2017

It Disappoints

My experience with "It" has been a bit of a roller coaster. My dad's a big Stephen King fan, and I know the book was around the house when I was a kid, but I didn't see the TV miniseries until sometime in the last couple of years (and perhaps consequently, never had a fear of clowns). I only started digging into King's novels with 'Salem's Lot a year or two ago, so my knowledge of the story was limited to that miniseries and a lot of jokes about a child orgy scene.

So I went into the audiobook expecting that I wouldn't really like it, and I was pleasantly surprised. Meanwhile, I went into the new film with high hopes and high expectations—a far cry from where I was a week or two before. I mentioned on Twitter that I thought the new version of Pennywise fell into the same trap that so much modern horror falls into, making every monster scary in and of itself, rather than having the horror come from placing this common thing in a scary context. In short, it looked a bit like Rob Zombie's Pennywise, and I thought that was an emblematic error.

But reviews have been largely positive, and from people I generally respect with regard to horror movies, so I figured I was wrong. I went into "It" expecting to be wowed.

I wasn't. Or, well, I guess I was, but only at the breadth and depth of wasted opportunities.

Spoilers ahead for "It" (2017), and "It" (1990) and It (1986), I suppose, as well.

The most common critique I've heard since watching "It" is that it isn't actually all that scary, and I think that's accurate. The thing is, I don't know how much of a problem that really is. The story isn't all that scary, either. Not in the conventional horror movie sense, anyway. There's a lot of dread and cosmic horror in places, but surprisingly little death and gore and suspense for a movie about a killer clown monster—and what there is isn't central enough to the plot to be likely to make it through the cuts necessary to bring the story down to movie-length. The horror moments that made the cut relied mostly on jump scares and Bill Skarsgård's acting chops for their effectiveness. I'm usually kind of a soft touch when it comes to jump scares, and maybe they would have been more effective if I hadn't heard ahead of seeing it that the movie was non-stop jump scares (which isn't exactly accurate). Whatever the reason, I wasn't actually scared by anything in the movie, and I thought the only scene that was effectively scary was when the kids were watching the slide projector.

There are several things about the movie that worked really well. For one thing, the production values are great, especially in contrast to the 1990 version, which looked every bit the TV miniseries that it was. I was worried that the story wouldn't work updated so that the flashback sections were in the 1980s, but that turned out to be a stroke of marketing genius, if nothing else. There is, perhaps, no better time to release a 1980s-nostalgic horror film about children fighting an otherworldly evil that stole one of their friends than in between seasons of "Stranger Things." The biggest change to the overall plot was shifting the focus from murdered children to missing ones, tying in with the stranger danger/kid on the milk carton concern of the time.

The kids were great, particularly Sophia Lillis (Bev), who should, if there's any justice in Hollywood, have an amazing career ahead of her. I think the only misstep in casting for the children was Nicholas Hamilton, whose small size and weaselly looks never quite gave Henry Bowers the sense of real menace that he's supposed to have. I never quite bought Jaeden (Bill) Lieberher's stutter, but I attribute that less to his performance and more to how lightly it was used in the movie, and how natural Steven Weber's stutter sounded in the audiobook.

I really don't want this to be just a list of things the movie did differently from the book; for one thing, that's inevitable, because the book is an enormous tome that builds the lore of Derry going back a hundred years, bounces back and forth between two main time periods, features a pretty large cast of characters, and has a climactic moment where a bunch of ten-year-olds have sex in a sewer (in a scene that, were it written today, would hopefully be less heteronormative if not less creepy). I understand departing from the book, but there are ways to do that well, and then there's the ways that "It" chose.

And the first, most significant of those changes is in how it treats Beverly Marsh. Bev in the books is not a great character. She is almost entirely defined by her relationships to the boys and men in her life, from her abusive father to her abusive husband to the boy who has a crush on her to the boy she has a crush on to the five other boys she has sex with in a desperate attempt to rebuild a cosmic bond at a critical moment. She doesn't have a whole lot of agency to begin with, but what she does have is skill and perseverance. She's the one who knows yo-yo tricks. She's the one who's best with Bill's slingshot, who actually manages to wound It. She takes down her father when It pushes him over the edge. She keeps her cool when they're trapped in the sewers coming back from It's lair. And she sacrifices the most to make it back as an adult.

She doesn't really get those moments in the movie. She gets to stand up to her father (whose abuse in the film is never as physical as it is in the book, but is much more heavily implied to be sexual), but the rest goes away, and even that feels less significant since there's so little buildup and no indication that her father isn't just acting on his own. The slingshot is gone, replaced instead by Mike Hanlon's slaughterhouse bolt pistol. So Bev doesn't get the moment of wounding It, a fact made more significant by the way the movie compresses that scene into the climax. She does get to go swimming in her underwear, so at least she still gets to be objectified by all her male friends and family. The novel gives Bev fairly little agency to begin with, but I suppose there's no amount of female characterization too small that Hollywood can't shrink it a little more.

So, with the slingshot replaced by Mike's bolt pistol, you might expect that that would expand his role a bit. Indeed, Mike gets the biggest changes from book to film, and the clearest narrative arc. In the book, Mike is a farm kid from the other side of Derry, where the black families live, and he goes to a Christian school. His relationship with his father (and his father's relationship to the town) is one of only two really positive parent-child relationships in the book, and it informs a lot about Mike's character, including his interest in town history that leads him to be the researcher and the one who stays behind when they all grow up. It's his father's history with Henry Bowers' racist father that drives Henry's targeting of Mike. The book loses all of that, killing Mike's parents in a fire, and making him work the farm with his hard-nosed grandpa. Early on, Mike can't bring himself to kill sheep with the bolt pistol, and it's implied that he's a vegetarian. After the group experiences horrors and has an act-two falling-out, he's able to kill much more coldly.

So the closure to that narrative arc is obvious: he gets to use the bolt pistol on It, striking the killing blow. But he doesn't. That moment goes to Bill.

So, if you're following along at home, they gave Bill's slingshot to Mike, removed Bev from that aspect of the story entirely, changed the narrative so that Mike's character arc would end most naturally with using that weapon to kill It, and then gave that moment to Bill. They broke two characters with one change.

And all the research and history that define Mike's character? Those go to Ben instead, who's now also the new kid in town (presumably to fuel the New Kids on the Block gags, which are genuinely funny). I'm not sure if all that is meant also to code Ben as queer, but it's easy to read that into the story as presented. Just as it was easy to read queer coding of Mike in the book. Again, it wasn't at all explicit or even clear (and was, at least in part, a result of me mishearing "vags," short for "vagrants," as something else), but I caught that Mike was gay before I caught that he was black.

Speaking of which, racism is one of the more mundane horrors in the book, but one that was pretty omnipresent, especially in the 1950s sequences. Not so in the movie. When Henry and his cronies attack Mike, they tell him "get out of my town!" but we never get any indication why they say that (especially when it would make more sense to be shouted at Ben, the new kid in town), certainly not the explicit racism that's in the book. Neither do we get the personal connection of Henry killing Mike's dog. That moment shows up here, but it's Henry saying "I wish I'd killed your family!" Between this and the fact that they made Henry's father an abusive police officer rather than a washed-up farmer with serious psychoses, it seems like some earlier draft of the film might have leaned heavier on the racism angle, might have been trying to say something, probably had Henry starting the fire that killed Mike's parents, but none of that made it to the screen. What we got instead was entirely flattened. Everything that defines Mike's character in the book is stripped away and either sanitized or given to other characters, and so is a good portion of what would make sense to define his character in the movie. It's a mess.

The only character who benefits at all from changes between the book and movie is Stan Uris, and that's arguable. Stanley's first act in the book is to commit suicide as an adult, so the book never really lingers on his character in the flashbacks. We get little bits of his personality and a decent amount on his interest in birds, but that's pretty much it. Here, his Jewish heritage is emphasized with a plotline about his Bar Mitzvah, and that could be really interesting. In particular, it'd make an interesting contrast with the plot about Bev's period, both stories about kids struggling with becoming adults. That contrast is never actually made, though, and Stan's encounter with It loses the moment of triumph. Again, what's distinct about Stan's character gets stripped away. Also, like Mike, we never see Stan encounter any bigotry. Derry has monsters, murderers, rapists, and hooligans, but no anti-Semites.

That stripping of characters' unique qualities is almost universal, and weirdly consistent in that we never see the kids' weapons against It. In the book, the power of belief makes Bill's speech therapy mantra, Stan's bird book, Eddie's aspirator, Bev's silver slingshot slugs, and Richie's voices into potent weapons that hurt It at key moments, but none of those show up here. As a result, we never really get an idea why the kids are able to defeat Pennywise. For some reason, they're able to beat up the clown and then kill it with an empty bolt pistol, but there's nothing to contextualize those moments.

And there's a lot of that out-of-context stuff, little bits left over from the book that don't work because the context was cut out. Why does a thirteen-year-old in 1989 shout "hi-yo Silver, away!" while riding his bike? What's with the references to the Turtle if we're not going to go cosmic with it? Why does Pennywise turn into a mummy at one point near the end, when we've never had mummies even mentioned in the film up to that point? Why do the kids say "beep beep" to Richie? Why does Eddie encounter a "leper" in 1989—especially after talking early on about his fears over AIDS (another moment where it seemed like maybe an earlier draft had something to say)? Why have the big Paul Bunyan statue if you're not going to bring it to life? They even removed Georgie's question about balloons, the line that contextualizes every comment about things floating in the rest of the movie.

And then there's Pennywise, who just did nothing for me. I talked before about how I think it's less effective to make him outwardly creepy from jump, and nothing in the movie dissuaded me from that. When Skarsgård is meant to be a normal clown, he's too creepy, and when he's meant to be scary, he's not creepy enough. There's none of the juxtaposition that made Tim Curry's version of the character so effective, and while anyone's going to suffer in comparison to Curry, Skarsgård was hamstrung from the start by the bizarre choices they made in Pennywise's design and mannerisms. He frequently talked too fast, which swallowed up his dialogue on more than one occasion, and the film often gave him those herky-jerky movements that have been popular in monsters since "The Ring," but here they always just looked goofy. They further served to make Pennywise less distinct as a horror movie monster; here he's just another Samara or Annabelle, a creepy monster who talks and moves in a creepy way and never surprises you when it turns out he's creepy.

A similar thing happens with the rest of the adult characters. We lose Richie and Mike's parents entirely. Bill's dad is hostile to Bill, having accepted Georgie's death in a way that Bill hasn't. Eddie's overbearing mother becomes even more cartoonish. Even Bev's passive-but-enabling mom is gone, leaving us only with sinister and hostile adults throughout the story. There's probably a lesson in there, but it means we don't get the creeping horror of the kids realizing they're alone in their fight, that It has isolated them by making the adults oblivious or by feeding their basest impulses. When Bev's dad gets slightly more physical in his abuse, it's the next logical step for his character, not a sudden disinhibition of what was kept slightly beneath the surface. By removing the juxtaposition and mingling of mundane and cosmic horrors, by removing the contrasts that make the horror function, the story—and the horror—is diminished.

And that's my overall impression of the movie, really. It's diminished. Everything feels smaller. The stakes are smaller, the real-world horrors are smaller, the methods they use to fight the monster are smaller. Everything that made the story distinct has been stripped away for one reason or another, leaving a mess of a story that feels like it's coming out of half a dozen different script revisions and focus group decisions. Instead of a story about children caught in an ancient war against a Lovecraftian cosmic horror, it's The Goonies vs. Freddy Krueger. That's a fine pitch, but it's not It.

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