Ginger Nuts of Horror
Due to the recent cinema releases of The Dark Tower and IT, along with the BFI showing a season of King movies to celebrate his 70th birthday, I saw five movies based on King’s work at the cinema in the month of September. So, here’s a mini-series of trip reports - nothing so grand as reviews - based on my month of King Cinema. Spoilers for both the movies under discussion and the source books abound, so be warned. Enjoy.
I tried. I really did. I wanted to write an appraisal of this movie that took it on it’s own terms, without reference to the book. I wanted, as far as I could, to assess this as a piece of storytelling in it’s own right, and see what I had to say about the movie, rather than dissect the adaptation angle.
But let’s face it, that was never going to happen.
There is simply zero chance I can get through an article about IT the movie without referencing IT the book. It’s simply unpossible. IT is a seminal, foundational text, for me - one I have reread many, many times (in point of fact, one I am in the processing of re-reading right now), and that is branded across my soul. There’s simply no way to avoid that doubling effect, seeing a version of the story I love so much on the big screen.
So I took along my stepson, as at least some kind of bulwark/control group against that effect, to see what we would see.
And I liked it just fine.
The opening was especially powerful (and yeah, okay, faithful to the book). The moment when little Georgie got his arm bitten off, before being dragged down the storm drain… yeah, man, that set out the stall. I think it’s easy to forget, as someone from whom the novel IT is now such a comfy pair of slippers, what a truly transgressive move brutally murdering a child in the opening is, and seeing it happen on screen, in a room full of strangers, brought the shock of that moment home to me in a fresh way.
So that was good. And 80’s Derry was beautifully realised, building off the iconography of Stranger Things the audience will have been primed by - the New Kids on the Block gag was especially deftly handled in that regard. It’s also undeniably disconcerting to realise that the 80’s is as far from us now as the 50’s was from the 80’s the novel was written and published in. One of the huge attractions of the book for me was and is the evocation of 50’s childhood, the birth of rock and roll, Coke in green bottles, all of that. To realise that, for my stepson, the 80’s childhood is as exotic, and old fashioned, as semi-fictional and mythologised as the 50’s is to me… there’s a lot to unpack there, emotionally, and far from all of it’s bad, but it is kind of painful. Bloody hell, life is short.
I’m sorry, where were we? Ah, yes, the kids. Any version of IT lives or dies with the kids, for me. Especially given the probably correct decision to tell the movie in a linear fashion, with a now-guaranteed Chapter 2 taking in the adults. And I think they nailed it, in terms of the casting. None of them looked the way I pictured them, exactly, but they all looked right - and, for the most part, behaved right. Richie was the highlight for me - because, I realise on this latest re-read, Richie is the kid I most strongly identify with. For my money, Finn Wolfhard got it completely. He had that insufferable, unstoppable quality - irritating, but with juuuuust enough infectious charm to make you smile, even as you (sometimes) groaned. But I felt the kids were all good to great, in terms of their performances.
I did have some issues with some of the writing though. Mike, in particular, just didn’t have enough to do, and I wasn’t wild about the aspects of his character that got handed over to Ben (I’ll come back to this). As for Bill… the kid was fine, but each time I go through this story, I’m less convinced by Bill as a character, and the movie didn’t seem to find a way to fix this. As my stepson put it (totally unprompted by me, I hasten to add) ‘He’s just a bit.. Nothing, isn’t he, in terms of the story? I mean, apart from his brother being killed, what’s he for?’
In fact, let’s do this now: My other main issue with the film is simply that it leans too much on some very creaky horror movie tropes. Jump scares, for example. I’m not one of those purists that insist that a jump scare is automatically cheap or bad - I think a genuinely well-executed jump scare is art, albeit probably not high art - but boy, there are a lot of them here, and I felt like they showed a lack of confidence in the subject matter, to be honest. IT contains what is, IMO, one of the scariest core concepts of any horror story I’ve ever read - a whole town that is haunted, by a shapeshifting creature the feeds on the meat of terrified children, and can resemble your worst nightmares. You should not need a parade of jump scares to make that shit scary - that shit is scary, inherently.
Again, some of them are very well executed - Georgie’s murder is beautifully done (and totally justified), and the slide projector coming to life sequence (a genuinely smart and savvy updating of Georgie’s picture book, I felt) was another example of a well-earned popcorn spiller, but elsewhere, it felt like too much of a crutch - or maybe just too much of an expected convention to avoid.
That said, many of the sequences where IT/Pennywise stalked the kids were superbly executed. Whilst I wasn’t wild about Ben’s library encounter - it felt both perfunctory and overplayed, somehow - Eddie’s lepper was brilliantly realised, and the moment when Beverly’s sink belched blood was another good example of a well-earned jump scare - as well as a rare example of where I felt the on-screen horror actually eclipsed that of the book, in terms of imagination and impact.
Similarly, I was mostly fine with the changes made at the end, in terms of the final confrontation, and the notion of the kids being preserved (presumably as snacks for ITs long hibernation). Having the gang come together to physically confront and fight IT felt truer to the spirit of the novel than the TV movie’s god-awful giant spider and actors just starting as a glowing light. I bloody love the whole concept of the deadlights, but it’s a very good example of the kind of concept that a novel can do brilliantly and a movie will always struggle with. This way is probably better all round.
That said, there were two big changes that actively annoyed me. The first was, as I mentioned above, the gutting of Mike as a character - firstly by giving the librarian role of the group over to Ben, who as the pointy end of the love triangle had quite enough going on, and more importantly by changing the nature of his relationship with his father - again such a pivotal part of the novel - into something perfunctory and, well, honestly a little mean, which I felt did a disservice to the storytelling. I appreciate the struggle to truncate such a sprawling novel (or even half of it) into a palatable movie length chunk, but for me, all the kids are important, and taking an axe to the bio of the only black kid in the story… yeah, I’m not wild about that.
Similarly, I was borderline infuriated by the fridging of Bev in the final act. Again, throughout the movie, Bev is a brilliant, well realised character. To casually turn her into a quest object for the final act - to make her capture the motivator to put the band back together and get down the sewer for the big final bust up - really, Hollywood? This is the best you can do? I’m not even angry, really - just disappointed. I’m not sure what it says about us that a film made in 2017 is actually worse on gender and race representation than the 80’s horror novel it was based on, but it strikes me as a pretty epic failure of imagination.
Like I say, disappointing.
All that said, it didn’t ruin the movie for me, or anything. I enjoyed it - at moments even loved it. Richie really was my Richie, from writing to look to performance, and Pennywise was also superbly creepy - especially in moments where he emerged from small spaces, or opened his jaws way beyond human capacity - or, perhaps best of all, as a giant version of him reached out from the projected image on the wall, grabbing at our gang. The bullies were also well played (if for my taste just a little underexplored - it’s never really clear, for example, why Henry is taking a knife to Ben’s stomach, even though it’s kind of a big deal). The effects work was brilliant, for the most part, with a commendable amount of physical work that I especially appreciated.
And most of all, it was Derry, and it was the kids. They got both of those pretty well dead on, quibbles aside, and if you get them right, you’ll always have yourself a show.
I’ll be very interested to see how Chapter 2 plays out, and I wonder if, some time down the line, there’ll be a dvd/blu ray supercut that edits the two movies together, to try and recreate that duel timeline narrative that’s so integral to the storytelling of the novel.
But for now, I got to go and see IT at the cinema with my stepson in 2017, and not only did it not suck, it was an entertaining, and occasionally even brilliant moviegoing experience.
And I’ve got to confess, as the lights came up, and I saw the mostly full theatre of mostly teenage viewers pick up their coats, smiling, laughing, chatting about favourite moments, I felt an entirely unearned surge of pride.
Pride that a story I love so much still has the power to reach out and scare people.