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Book vs. Flick: Stephen King's IT

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Sep 18, 2018

Chances are you've seen, read, or heard something based on one of Stephen King's novels at some point in your life. Likewise, almost everyone has seen, read, or at least heard of the story of IT and the antagonist Pennywise the Dancing Clown, known for dragging small children into sewers and devouring them while making bad clown jokes. IT was King's 18th novel, and many consider it to be one of his more personal, cathartic works. At 1,138 pages, it certainly pulls out all the stops.

IT focuses on a small group of men and one woman as they try to recall what traumatized them as children, repressing their memories and refusing to revisit their pasts in the small town of Derry, Maine. They discover an entity, referred to as IT and who often takes the shape of a clown, is ultimately responsible.

The introduction of IT needs little explanation. Many have the scene of Georgie chasing a paper boat down the street during a rainstorm, only to be nabbed by Pennywise, ingrained into their memories. In the book and in the movies, this is objectively the most terrifying scene. We immediately sympathize with Georgie and wish to save him from his impending death from the moment he appears. Unfortunately, no amount of armchair heroism can save Georgie and he promptly vanishes from the book after being attacked and killed by the monstrous clown.

This brings us to the modern age, in which Georgie's older brother Bill and several of his childhood friends reconnect. The people in question once comprised a group of kids in Derry referred to as “The Losers' Club,” at first disdainfully by other characters and later as a reclamation of strength by the group itself. The Losers' Club consists of Eddie, Stan, Mike, Ben, Beverly, and Richie, all of whom are terrorized by local bullies and an unseen entity called IT that seems to be able to take the form of their greatest fears. As this story takes place in the '50s, most of those fears are based in horror films of the time, while Beverly's focus mostly on fear of menstruation and her abusive father.

We discover that one of the members, Stan, commits suicide after hearing of IT's return. The others get together at Mike's behest, who gets them up to date that IT, who they believed to be defeated, has returned. Each of the characters slowly regains their memories of childhood; Bill, specifically, remembers that at one point he had a long conversation with a space turtle that told him the key to defeating IT was to confront one's fears. That part of the book is a little much, but it's how we finally learn what IT really is: a weird spider-like entity from “the macroverse” that feeds off of fear, targeting children because their fears are purer. After many failed attempts, the Losers' Club had originally injured IT enough to drive it into a deep slumber for many years. In current time, they finally destroy IT, and theoretically, all surviving parties go on to lead happier lives.

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IT's Beverly is one of the most heartbreaking female characters to be introduced to fiction since Hamlet's Ophelia. This is partially because Beverly, like Ophelia, is victim to the machinations of a creator that seems to have little regard for her supreme inner strength. Compared to a lot of the other female characters in this book, who are described often with a profound sense of loathing from the writer, Beverly fares slightly better, but she's almost entirely described from the position of men who view her as a sex object—even when she's a young girl.

Too often, in both book and film, Beverly's source of power is defined almost entirely via her sex appeal. While she survives both childhood and marital abuse, the thing that saves her, in the end, is Bill's love for her, which is disappointing. Too often she is also defined by the male characters, and that doesn't change by the end of the book. Her relationship with her husband Tom is nightmarish, and descriptions of his sexual arousal while abusing her physically go well above and beyond describing the scenario at hand, taking a turn into over-descriptive glee. King mentions Beverly's hard nipples multiple times when she's trying to get away from Tom, forcing her to share the blame for his sexual sadism.

Women are treated incredibly badly in this book. Patty, Stan's wife, has a chapter based solely on her life, and there's an inordinate amount of focus at the beginning on how “inarticulate” she is. She views horror books and horror writers disdainfully, which is attributed generally to her lack of awareness. As a horror writer, Bill is, of course, the most aware, the most heroic, and the main focus of the book—and anyone that doesn't understand him just doesn't “get it.” The misogyny with which Eddie's wife and later, Eddie's mother, are described is also tough to stomach; he refers to them as “hogs” and thoroughly details his revulsion towards them more than once. 

We can't ignore the famously panned 10-page stint about halfway through the book where every one of the boys loses their virginity to Beverly right after barely escaping with their lives. In a comparatively recent interview, King states that he wasn't really thinking about the sex aspect when he wrote it, but as a reader, I'd disagree with that assertion. Other writers have gone to some length to describe the problems with this scene, which include but are not limited to overt sexualization of children and the incredible, previously mentioned misogyny with which this book and its subsequent films treated Beverly. This scene is indeed highly uncomfortable, but I found most of the book to be likewise. One of the best things the movies did was to completely omit this encounter.

In 1990, there was a miniseries released based on the book which became successful and hugely influential, in particular attracting a new generation to horror films with its childhood-based tale of terror. In 2017, New Line Cinema released a new film version of IT, the first installment of a planned two-parter. The second half is slated for a 2019 release.

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Out of the book, the miniseries, and the 2017 movie, the latter is by far the most entertaining. While the novel often feels like an uphill trudge through King's general misanthropy, the movie is only two hours long and moves at a more comfortable pace. Thanks to a larger budget and wider release, with the story pulled forward into a more modern time, 2017's IT does a fairly good job of disregarding parts of the book and miniseries that wouldn't translate well to the silver screen. One of the few criticisms I have with the film is that it didn't take its obvious opportunity to revitalize and revolutionize Beverly. She is still often victimized, often sexualized, and ultimately placed in the position of being the damsel-in-distress. On the other hand, she is still really likable, and actor Sophia Lillis does a great job playing up her general sense of subdued misery.

The new cast is one of the best parts of the 2017 remake. While I am a huge fan of Tim Curry, the sheer babyfaced terror inspired by Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise truly goes above and beyond the miniseries, fully living up to the twitchy, cooing monster of the book. There is a visceral terror in every moment Skarsgard is onscreen, while Curry's version played up the silliness of the character until the very last moment. Both are frightening, but I preferred Skarsgard because you never for a second forget that you are looking at an absolute monster. The casting of the Losers' Club was likewise brilliant. It's hard to decide between the original Losers' Club and the current, but the more recent version seems to have a lot more fun.

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Importantly, there's more of an emphasis in IT on the sole black kid in The Losers' Club, Mike Hanlon. Played by Chosen Jacobs, the mundane terror of his existence is one of the more frightening elements of the film. Forced into working in a slaughterhouse at a young age, he is exposed to a constant horror that doesn't exist for the other kids—with the exception of Beverly, whose home life is her monster. In the book, Mike was the historian, and in this film that interest is given to Ben rather than Mike, which is a shame as it was one of the most compelling parts of his character. Still, Mike is a standout presence. While Beverly states that she isn't afraid of IT, Mike is terrified, but he still takes charge by attacking IT with zero hesitation, surprising the other kids.

One thing that the book and the films all have in common is the way they express what it feels like to be a kid, to see glimpses of the underlying horror of the world, and to be surrounded by adults blatantly ignoring it. IT sets the background for multiple future Stephen King novels and stories based in the sleight-of-hand horrors found in small towns, and it is one of the things he does very well.

Whether or not you were a child when the miniseries was originally released, it's likely that you view Pennywise the Dancing Clown with a sense of dread. This isn't just because of what Pennywise is, but what he represents. The face painted to hide the monster beneath is an analogy for a town that pretends not to see the disturbing history on which it stands. For kids from abusive homes, there is a similarity to be drawn between the complacency in the parents in this universe to those in their own, who consistently look away and cover up trauma.

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