Friendship Is(nt) Magic: It (2017)

I knew from almost the very first scene that Andy Muschietti’s current adaptation of Stephen King’s It was going to disappoint. It’s a famous scene, one of the early signs that something in the idyllic town of Derry, Maine is not quite right. Little Georgie Denbrough runs down a rainy street chasing the paper boat made for him earlier that day by his older brother, Bill. The boat floats down a drain. Peaking down the drain, Georgie and the audience are granted the first clear view of Pennywise, the clown of nightmares and titular villain of the piece. Pennywise seduces the boy with stories of the circus that “got washed down the drain” by the rain. As Georgie is about to leave, Pennywise holds out the boat. When he reaches for it, Georgie seals his doom and sets the stage for the horrors that follow. In the original 1990 It miniseries, we see Pennywise open a mouth full of jagged teeth before the camera cuts to Georgie’s funeral. In this latest iteration, however, we are treated to the sight of Pennywise’s gaping mouth, full of multiple rows of shark-like teeth, biting Georgie’s arm off. Georgie tries to crawl away but barely gets to the middle of the road before he is pulled, screaming, into the drain. The scene is graphic, shocking, upsetting. What it is not, however, is particularly scary or moving.

And that, very simply, is the problem with the new It film: in “modernizing” the story, Muschietti has killed all the things that made the story work in the first place.

maxresdefaultComparing this version of It with the 1990 miniseries, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, illustrates the problem with the dominance of grimdark in contemporary sci-fi and fantasy storytelling. While the miniseries displays a naive charm that highlights the sweetness and power of the friendships at the heart of King’s novel, Muschietti’s film goes in a very different direction. This new It forsakes suspense in favor of visceral gore. It trades a menacing sense of dread for a proliferation of blunt and ineffective jump scares. And, perhaps most insidiously, it replaces innocence and imagination with exploitation and vulgarity. It is, in other words, a perfect example of how modern cynicism has colonized our imaginations.

Stephen King’s novel It is constructed like a Mobius strip, the stories of the young Losers overlapping with that of their adult selves to blur the lines between childhood and adulthood. This interweaving of the timeline encourages the reader to question the meaning of maturity, the nature of innocence, and whether or not the imagination is a tool that only children can wield to fight the monsters in the dark. Wallace’s miniseries adheres to this style. As each of the Losers is profiled, the series moves forward both narratively and creatively. Through flashbacks, we clearly see who each member was as a child, how they found each other, and how their experiences during this crucial summer shaped their adult personas. We likewise get increasingly graphic depictions of Pennywise with each new character backstory, a technique that allows Wallace to ratchet up audience investment on all levels. This structure is crucial to developing emotional identification with the characters; seeing where they’re going and where they’ve been simultaneously adds weight and sweetness to the adult relationships by illustrating how deeply childhood friendships can impact us despite, or perhaps because of, their ephemerality. By forsaking this structure in favor of two sharply delineated films, Muschietti’s It gives us a Losers Club that is decontextualized, unmoored in time and, ultimately, less emotionally substantial.

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The Losers Club (1990)

Yet the choice to divide the timeline could have worked if the film had focused on the most important theme of King’s story: the magic of genuine friendship. Despite struggling when it comes to writing characters unlike himself (read: anyone who is not a straight, white man from Maine), King’s work is marked by a strong sense of humanitarianism and optimism. For King, good and evil are dichotomous, and good should and generally will triumph. It is the perfect avenue for King’s voice because, at its heart, it’s a story about a lovable group of misfits whose very goodness makes them special. Innocence pervades Wallace’s miniseries. The Losers are drawn together, it is strongly implied, because only they have the power to fight Pennywise. And their power comes, not from within each of them or from some supernaturally granted gift, but from the bonds of friendship they forge with each other. Wallace’s version spends a lot of time establishing that the Losers genuinely care for each other. They build a dam in the Barrens, ride their bikes around town, protect each other from other kids and the awful adults in their lives, go to the movies, joke and laugh, and listen to Bill read his short stories. In the miniseries, fighting the creature is almost secondary to the coming-of-age narrative about how friends can help us face our fears and transcend social and personal limitations. None of these moments happen in Muschietti’s version. Aside from hunting Pennywise or dealing with the effects of his violence, the Losers barely do anything as a full group aside from fighting Henry Bowers and his gang.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine that these kids even like each other, let alone have the kind of bond that can topple an eldritch spider monster. In addition to failing to create substantial bonding moments, the characters in this new version are twisted and paper-thin versions of the Losers in the miniseries. Though the film has two hours to establish the characters, none of them feel particularly real or engaging. Some of the characterization missteps are small, while some are so drastic they imply that Muschietti doesn’t even like or understand the story he’s trying to tell.

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The Losers Club (2017)

Each member of the Losers in Muschietti’s film has been altered, some more drastically than others, from their depiction in the miniseries. Take, for example, Stan Uris. In both films, Stan is the weakest member of the team. Wallace introduces Stan last, deliberately leaving his experiences with Pennywise somewhat opaque until later, when he becomes the first member of the Losers to stare into Pennywise’s deadlights. Later, after learning It has returned, Stan commits suicide. Yet Stan’s “weakness” here actually serves to highlight the vital role of imagination in the story. Of all the Losers, Stan has the hardest time accepting that Pennnywise is real. In the key scene in which Pennywise comes alive in the pages of Mike’s photo album, the others must convince Stan that what they’ve seen is real, that he’s not imagining it. In the miniseries, it’s implied that Stan’s resistance comes from the fact that he is extremely rational; he wants to be an ornithologist and his behaviors, clothes, and manner of speaking are all ordered, precise, and fastidious. Yet Pennywise operates in the realm of imagination, psychic manipulation, and belief. Stan’s difficulties, then, can be seen as a natural by-product of the irrationality of Pennywise’s world. In Muschietti’s version, we learn none of these things about Stan. He has no specific personality at all, aside from his most obvious and limiting character trait – his fear. As such, he serves no purpose in the story.

While not quite made irrelevant to the story, Eddie Kaspbrak nonetheless plays a much smaller role here than in the miniseries. A sickly child with a controlling mother, Eddie’s vulnerability becomes a source of power in the battle against It. When the Losers go into the sewer to battle the monster, Eddie’s inhaler becomes a tool of group cohesion as each member takes a hit from it as a sort of pre-battle ritual. Later, Eddie uses his asthma inhaler to “burn” Pennywise. This is another example of  how imagination is the only real tool that can destroy It; Eddie knows the inhaler is just water, and that his mother has been controlling him with fake illnesses, yet his belief in its power makes it a weapon. No such scene exists in the Muschietti film. Even worse, the depiction of Eddie’s mother as a grotesque stereotype of an obese woman is beyond vulgar and completely different from the fussy older woman we see in the miniseries. In Muschietti’s hands, Eddie’s mother is nothing short of fat hatred in physical form.

Mike Hanlon and Ben Hanscom must be discussed together, because in this new film they are essentially interchangeable. In the book and the miniseries, Mike is the memory keeper of the group. He joins the Losers last and is the one to bring the adult Losers back together when Pennywise re-emerges. A quiet and serious boy, Mike is a historian whose records of Derry’s past are crucial to helping the Losers defeat the monster. Ben, on the other hand, is the shy, bright, chunky son of a single mother. Having lost his father in the war, he and his mother are relegated to living with an unwelcoming relative and her snotty son. In Muschietti’s version, Ben is the Derry historian with a penchant for New Kids on the Block. Mike, on the other hand…works in a slaughterhouse, killing sheep. Mike doesn’t join the Losers until the very end. Without his photo albums and love of history, he serves almost no function in the story. Worse still, in the final confrontation with Pennywise, Mike brings his sheep-killing gun into battle. It’s the most effective and real “weapon” any of the kids have. This is a major contrast from the miniseries, in which the kids are armed with nothing but a slingshot and a few silver bullets to kill the monster. Given that Mike is the only black character, the subtext here is clear: Mike is the “black brute” whose only contribution to the group is his physical strength. This change in characterization does nothing to advance the plot, adds nothing to any of the characters and is, quite simply, flat-out racist.

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Bev (2017), Bev (1990)

This adaptation spends an inordinate amount of time on the story of Beverly Marsh, the Smurfette of the group. Bev is a difficult character to capture. Abused by her father and later her husband, much of Bev’s arc is related to finding the strength to escape abuse. In the miniseries, Bev’s father is a janitor, and her poverty and tomboyish dress and demeanor cause other girls to belittle her. She finds a voice in joining the Losers and, in the end, her skill with a slingshot makes her the one who critically wounds Pennywise with a silver bullet. Though Bev is the only girl in the group, and the love triangle between her, Ben, and Bill is a clear element of her relationships, Wallace downplays the crushes the other boys have on her, choosing instead to emphasize the playful affection in their friendships. In Muschietti’s hands, the sexualization of Bev is nearly intolerable. We first see her sitting on a toilet, hiding from some mean girls who call her a slut and dump garbage on her. And that’s not the only time she’s called a slut – at least half the scenes with Bev feature someone implying or outright stating that she’s a slut. She becomes a member of the Losers after flirting with a pharmacist to help some of the boys steal medical supplies. The relationship with her father takes a nasty (and actually horrifying) turn when he attempts to rape her in their bathroom. And in the end, Bev is damseled when Pennywise takes her, forcing the boys to come together to rescue her (which only happens when Ben literally kisses her back to life). But perhaps worst of all is the way she’s sexualized by the boys themselves; in one particularly vile scene, the boys ogle her, open-mouthed, while she sunbathes in her underwear. (See that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qrreti69ePw)

Perhaps this is not fully Muschietti’s fault – King’s version of Bev is marked by a significant amount of sexism, even aside from the infamous sewer gangbang scene. Yet one can’t help but feel that Muschietti’s choices betray a desperate attempt to avoid sexism on the part of a male director who doesn’t really understand sexism. It would take a particularly dense viewer to argue that there aren’t moments of extreme objectification in the way the camera lingers over Bev’s young body. And again, in Bev we see Muschietti’s lack of appreciation for the very nature of Pennywise’s power. It takes the form of the things the kids fear. For Bev, that fear is that her sink will spit blood all over her bathroom. Given that she’s a young girl on the verge of womanhood, the symbolism here isn’t particularly subtle. Yet Muschietti includes a scene of Bev buying tampons. Fear of menstruation in a girl who is on the brink of that experience is reasonable. Since Bev has clearly crossed that threshold, her fear becomes nonsensical.

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Many reviews have focused on the problematic representations of Mike and Bev. Yet it is actually Muschietti’s depictions of Bill Denbrough and Richie Tozier that truly show the deep cynicism at the heart of this film. In many ways the leader of the group, Bill is intelligent, creative and resourceful. He also carries the core emotional weight of the story, as his brother’s death motivates him to enlist the aid of his friends to hunt and kill Pennywise. Wallace’s version of Bill is very lovingly rendered and anchored by the sweet and sensitive performance of young Jonathan Brandis. In the miniseries, one of the peak emotional moments features Bill begging his friends to help him kill Pennywise to avenge his brother’s death. In Muschietti’s version, however, Bill is convinced that Georgie is missing, as they never find his body. So instead of needing the support of his friends to face Pennywise when it appears to them as Georgie in the sewers, Bill goes chasing after It. Hoping to find Georgie? Hoping to kill the monster? It isn’t fully clear. What is clear is that one of the most important emotional components of the story has been dissolved in favor of a change that adds nothing to the plot but succeeds in undermining Bill’s motivation and personality.

Richie Tozier, on the other hand, has been altered to the point of unrecognizability. In both the novel and the miniseries, Richie is the comedian of the group. Hyper-verbal and intelligent, Richie does impressions, tells silly jokes, and baits Henry Bowers by throwing soda on him at the movie theater. He sometimes goes too far, prompting his friends to say “beep, beep Richie” as a warning to stop his joking. Yet he has a good heart and is affectionate with the other Losers.  In Muschietti’s film, Richie has been transformed into a foul-mouthed, misogynistic, snotty monster. He constantly mocks his friends, shouts out ribald comments about Eddie’s mother’s vagina, makes fun of Ben when he’s bleeding by comparing his guts to Hamburger Helper, and, worst of all, gets so angry at Bill that he fractures the group. Nothing about him is funny or charming, and almost nothing he says sounds like it could actually come from the mouth of a 12 year-old boy. This is particularly sad as, in the novel, Richie is the Loser most committed to the group, the one who insists that there’s a magical quality to the seven of them being together. In this film, he’s not magical or funny – he’s the walking, talking embodiment of the vulgarity that infects this entire film.

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The kids’ experiences with It culminate in a trip into the sewer to fight the monster. The differences in Wallace’s and Muschietti’s versions of this fight illustrate everything wrong with this current version. In the miniseries, everything the Losers do to fight It works because they believe it will. Eddie douses him with “battery acid” from his inhaler. The kids hold hands to anchor Bill when It tries to bait him with images of Georgie. And when Bev hits Pennywise with a silver bullet and splits his head open, it works because the kids believe that silver can kill monsters. Their success is entirely based in their innocence, belief, and purity of heart. This belief is the basis for the whole story– it’s how It manipulates its victims, it’s how the Losers fight back against the monster, and it’s why the adults of Derry, and later the grown-up Losers themselves, have a hard time remembering or seeing Pennywise. In Muschietti’s version, the Losers defeat It by…..bashing it with weapons. This scene is the final vulgarity that makes the whole thing grotesque. Pennywise isn’t truly a frightening villain. What makes It scary isn’t the monster but the fact that the children are so vulnerable to its manipulation, both because they’re children and because the adults of Derry are too deadened to see what’s happening under their noses. It is not, and never has been, primarily about the physical violence. In making it so, Muschietti has robbed the story of its nostalgic sweetness. Instead, he has given us a bland, cynical, violent ending. Though this ending might appease an audience stultified by our cynical and violent times, I can’t help but see the encroachment of grimdark as a loss, not just for this story, but for a society that desperately needs to hope there’s still enough magic in the world to help us fight the monsters at our front door.

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Wherein our heroine confronts the dragon…

Since I was about ten years old, people have been telling me I should write.

So naturally, somewhere around college, I developed a massive creativity block. Between negative comments from other students about the “strangeness” of my work, indifferent feedback from teachers, painful family circumstances, and a nervous breakdown that made my stomach feel like a constantly churning blender full of razor blades, creating anything started to feel nearly impossible. I went to a liberal arts college with plans to study theater and film, but retreated into the social sciences. Sociology, Anthropology, Communication – these felt safe, familiar, like mountains I could climb without slipping to the bottom or freezing to death on the ascent.

It wasn’t until I was most of the way through a PhD program that I realized I’d also retreated from my greatest passions.

It’s the vulnerability, you see. Creativity can’t flow in someone who has been taught to see their own vulnerability as shameful and dangerous. And this world gives us so many, many reasons to fear what might happen when we expose our vulnerabilities.  Yet without those vulnerabilities we wouldn’t have or make or do anything truly beautiful.

So this blog is me saying “what better way to get over these creative blocks than exposing my soft, vulnerable underbelly to the internet?!” I plan to use it as a space to talk about the things I love – like movies, art, literature, random bits of ephemera, cultural criticism, politics, the odd unicorn anecdote – in the hopes that it’ll help push me forward.

Maybe you’ll read something here that helps push you forward, too.