Being kind of a film nerd, I usually celebrate the Halloween season with some sort of horror movie challenge (such as this one from PopSugar). When the lights are all turned off, & a scary movie is playing, when I’ve got a bowl of popcorn on my lap & a few pieces of early Halloween candy in my hand – such things make me very happy. However, since this year I’m in the midst of a read-a-book-per-week challenge, I really don’t have two or three hours every night to devote to my usual movie marathon. So I decided the best substitute would be to read an October’s worth of spooky books.
I do realize that I’m about a month too late for all the It-mania surrounding the September 8th release of the new movie, but I did read the book, I did see the movie, & wow, do I have opinions.
I’ve never seen the 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, so basically the only thing I knew about It before reading the book was that there’s a killer clown. For the equally uninitiated, It is about seven friends (dubbed “the Losers”) who join together to battle an evil being that is haunting their hometown of Derry, Maine. In the book, the story jumps back & forth between the 1950s (when the friends are pre-teens) & the 1980s (when they’re adults), but the movie is technically only Part 1, covering the kid-half of the story; the second adult-half is scheduled for release in 2019.
Let me start by saying that Stephen King is an astounding author, as his fans worldwide will readily attest to. He especially has a gift for writing believable children (which too often in books are little more than dumbed-down mini-adults) & for creating relationships between his characters that are complicated & full of nuance & feel utterly real. His list of creations is undeniably monumental, & his characters (such as Pennywise, the aforementioned killer clown) are so embedded in our cultural mindset that they’ve become iconic. I have nothing but praise for King. And yet…
I don’t like his novels.
At least I should say, I haven’t liked any that I’ve read so far. Any time King is brought up in conversation, people rave about his books, so I keep reading them, thinking, “This will be the one – the one that will make me a Stephen King fan.” But it never happens. However, to avoid going down any bunny trails, I’ll stick to It.
When I now think back on reading It, I try to remember the book as the story of seven friends who have one awesome summer together, full of adventures & dodging bullies & first crushes & learning to deal with the death of a sibling & realizing that adults don’t always have it figured out & then growing up a bit through it all. I try to forget Pennywise was ever in the story at all.
Pennywise’s main purpose in the book is supposedly to represent fear. When preying on children, it sees into their mind & finds their greatest fear, then changes to become whatever that is (frail Eddie is afraid of lepers, fast-talker Ritchie fears werewolves, etc.). But the appearance of said fear always bears tale-tell signs of the clown underneath with its signature silver suit, orange puffs, and/or red balloon. When farm boy Mike first meets Pennywise, the clown is in the guise of a giant carnivorous bird:
The bird’s tongue was silver, its surface as crazy-cracked as the surface of a volcanic land which has first baked and then slagged off.
And on this tongue, like weird tumbleweeds that had taken temporary root there, were a number of orange puffs.
I’m sure King had his reasons for portraying Pennywise’s various iterations in this fashion, but to me, it just made everything seem silly. Perhaps I’m the exception, but every time the words “orange puffs” appeared, then – poof! – any fear I may previously have been experiencing vanished faster than you can say, “Beep beep, Ritchie.”
And King does know how to write a terrifying scene. For example, in one section, Mike finally persuades his father to tell him what happened on the horrifying night long ago when a segregation era night club called “The Black Spot” was set on fire by the local KKK, & he witnessed “eighty or so” people burn to death. The description is everything I imagine such a massive, tragic event to be, including the depiction of the people as they burn.
Truly, actually horrifying stuff.
Then at the end of the scene, Pennywise shows up, again in the guise of the carnivorous bird, & decides to take a KKK member as a souvenir of the evening:
“It swooped down and grabbed that last man up. Got him right by the sheet, it did…and I heard that bird’s wings…The sound was like fire…and it hovered…and I thought, Birds can’t hover…but this one could, because…because…”
He fell silent. “Why, Daddy?” I whispered. “Why could it hover?”
I sat there in silence, thinking he had gone to sleep for sure this time. I had never been so afraid in my life…because four years before, I had seen that bird. Somehow, in some unimaginable way, I had nearly forgotten that nightmare. It was my father who brought it back.
“It didn’t hover,” he said. “It floated. It floated. There were big bunches of balloons tied to each wing, and it floated.”
Seriously. Balloons. Real world fire & death & hate & horror, & then King wraps it up with a giant bird & cartoon-y balloons. Poof!
The new movie adaptation changed several things from the book (many of the changes were necessary due to the book’s massive size, but many others were not – i.e. Beverly’s haircut), but the one thing I thought the film did better than the book was to make Pennywise scary. On the page, I just could not take that ridiculous clown seriously.
Aside from Pennywise, my other major problem with the book concerns pretty much everything about Beverly, the lone girl in the Losers. For all King’s gifts at writing extraordinary personalities, to me Beverly seemed less a full-fledged character than a man’s idea of what the ideal woman should be.
To start, Beverly’s defining characteristic is her beauty. Although I haven’t gone back through the book to verify, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t make a single appearance in the story without it being remarked upon how beautiful she is, or how beautiful she will be when she grows up. King as narrator describes her 12 year old legs as “smoothly muscled, beautiful.” The boys admire “the beginning swells of her bosoms” & wonder what color of underwear she has on. Basically the first description in the book of adult Beverly is that she’s “slim, but abundantly stacked.” I could go on, but you get the idea.
The second defining characteristic of Beverly is that she’s a victim. As a child, she’s beaten (and perhaps more, but it’s never explicitly stated) by her father; as an adult, she’s beaten by her husband. But rather than using this to enhance her complexity as a character, it’s basically treated as a surface level description, much like her “bright red-auburn hair.” Chapter 3:5, titled “Beverly Rogan Takes a Whuppin,” is an in-depth exploration of the psychology of her husband Tom & why he beats his wife, but nowhere in the book does King spend even a fraction of that same level of time & detail explaining Beverly’s perspective on it. She almost feels as much a victim of King’s portrayal of her as she is a victim of her abusers. Why does she stay with Tom? What does she think & feel about being abused? We never really find out.
In fact, rather than enhance her depth of character, her victim status is actually used as a tool to intensify her beauty:
“Hi, Ritchie,” Bev said, and when she turned toward him he saw a purple-blackish bruise on her right cheek, like the shadow of a crow’s wing. He was struck again by her good looks…only it occurred to him now that she might actually be beautiful. It had never really occurred to him until that moment that there might be beautiful girls outside of the movies, or that he might know one. Perhaps it was the bruise that allowed him to see the possibility of her beauty – an essential contrast, a particular flaw which first drew attention to itself and then somehow defined the rest: the gray-blue eyes, the naturally red lips, the creamy unblemished child’s skin.
But lest you think Beverly is just a pretty, bruised face, the boys also think she’s “a good guy.” She smokes & swears & knows yo-yo tricks. She laughs at all the boys’ jokes, no matter how stupid, as if they’re the funniest thing she’s ever heard. She’s basically the definition of the now famous “Cool Girl rant” from the 2012 novel Gone Girl, even though It was published in 1986. In essence, Beverly exists to fulfill the various fantasies of all the males in her life, whether they’re looking for a friend, a girlfriend, or a punching bag. Which brings me to…
That One Scene. The one that takes place in the sewers under Derry. If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about. Much, very much, has already been said about That One Scene, so I don’t really see the need to rehash these points here. The best take I’ve read on it can be found here, if you’re interested. Also of note, That One Scene is absent from the movie, & the movie still has a perfectly coherent storyline (in case anyone wants to defend That One Scene as being necessary to the plot or the characters’ development).
This is why my feelings on this book are so mixed (yet leaning more heavily towards dislike). King makes these seven friends so real, so relatable – especially as children – that you fall in love with all of them. I can absolutely see why people are passionate about this book, why so many consider It to be their favorite book of all time, & I’m glad that they were able to find something within its pages that I could not. King came so close to converting me as a fan, but for me, It fell very, very short.
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All movie stills via Movie Stills Database; intended for editorial use only.