December 24, 2017. Barnesville, Pennsylvania.
That horrifying clown from my last post seems like a good place to provide some context.
On a rainier day in Berlin, I made the mistake of watching It (2017). In an attempt to pressure-wash my mind of that cinematic stillbirth, I spent the next few days reading Stevie K for the first time since high school. I made my way through much of the book in the Gin Library, sadly, and the rest on the neverending sequence of planes that got me back stateside.
The more I read, the easier it was to remember why I hated the remake so much. Came back to me a lot like the repressed childhood Derry trauma came back to the thirtysomething protagonists.
It is two things, above all. It is a scavenging predator and a spiritual entity. Visualize a ghost vulture and you’re not far off the mark. It preys on children for the same reason dingoes eat babies, and its physical form is an afterthought at best. The book explores this better than a movie ever could, but it’s easier to understand if you’ve wasted a good chunk of your life on the Lovecraft mythos; the real It, what It truly is, exists beyond the deadlights, in the empty spaces past the edge of the universe. The shapeshifter it manifests in our reality is just an appendage.
It’s like sticking your thumb into a tub of water. Technically you’re in the water, sure, and if something bit your thumb you’d find it inconvenient, but it wouldn’t ruin your lovely evening, and it certainly wouldn’t kill you.
That was my main problem with the new It movie, aside from the fact everybody lied to me about it being scary. The kid from Stranger Things beat the shit out of him with a baseball bat and, oop, that’s all it took! The interdimensional horror beyond description, the madness that has eaten our dreams and children since the dawn of time has at last been defeated. Its weakness, this whole time, was two feet of wood!
The thrashings the kids administered put It on the defensive, but they didn’t really hurt It. They just forced It to reconsider its tactics. When Eddie pulled the whole “Battery acid, fucknuts!” thing, the point was that it wasn’t battery acid, and didn’t need to be. Belief was what mattered. It defined the rules of the game, and the kids were winning anyway. That’s why It retreated until they got scared enough to lose the upper hand, and that’s why they chased It down into the sewers.
The ritual of Chüd was what hurt It. The shamans description of “biting through each other’s tongues and telling jokes” was metaphorical, in that they had no other vocabulary to describe that level of telepathic intimacy or the consequent battle of wills. It tried to pull them into the great emptiness where It came from, and the kids tried to pull It back, functionally yanking the supernal “greater mass” of its being into our reality. Revisiting the bathtub analogy, Stutterin’ Bill and Richie were chomping into Its thumb and trying to generate the psychic torque to pull It entirely under the water, where they go for the jugular.
That was what killed It. Not Mike’s bolt gun – which, by the way, was a travesty to the character. Mike’s family were the only ones in the book who weren’t dysfunctional.
The worst thing, I think, was how the movie neutered the book. I understand we can’t say a lot of the things we used to. Stephen King used a lot of racial and homophobic slurs, but contrary to what the, uh, intellectual elites teaching your Sociology 101 class might have told you, he didn’t do it out of repressed bigotry. Stevie K isn’t big on repressing shit, as his catalog reveals. He used these terms and perspectives to paint a picture, to construct flawed human characters and illustrate the depths of their depravity (as in the case of Henry Bowers) or to foil against them and show that most of the characters and, by extension, most people, are decent, forward-thinking human beings (as in the case of any of the protagonists reacting to Henry Bowers or that fuckin’ Patrick Hockstetter kid.)
What made the book scary was the feeling of unease that these big, charged concepts created in the reader. The warped perspectives of the antagonists, the taboo words, the racism against Mike, the homophobia by the town toughs against the gay stereotypes (admittedly not King’s most sensitive work), Bower’s and Hockstetter’s differing but steadily increasing trajectories toward sadistic madness, Eddie’s Munchausen’s syndrome, Ben’s mother overfeeding him as a substitute for love, and the physical abuse and incestual undertones of Bev’s father all served to rub your nerves raw and create this this vulnerability where the monster movie jump-scares of Pennywise the Clown don’t seem so hokey anymore. All these human horrors, the psychological kinks and malformations of Derry’s inhabitants are just symptoms, and It is the cancer causing them. Or, if you’re more of a Hobbesian, the cancer inflaming them.
That’s what made the book great, and washing them out to make the tattered remains of the narrative palatable for an emotionally delicate viewership in 2017 is what made the movie suck.