It Chapter Two review

Over the weekend I saw It Chapter Two with my significant other and I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Like many of us, I remember the made-for-TV movie starring Tim Curry very fondly but there’s no getting around the fact that it mishandled the novel’s ending. In all fairness, the novel does have famously challenging ending, but the dialogue and animatronics in the early adaptation are just terrible.

While Tim Curry’s performance was truly creepy and convincing and was an undeniable strength, I don’t think Curry could carry the whole weight of the film himself. So as a fan of the book (my favorite King story after The Dark Tower novels) I’m just very happy that there is now an adaptation that treats the source material with reverence while maintaining its own strength as a film.

I realize that not everyone perceives this balance. Negative reviews typically state that the film was too long and packed with too much meandering minutia. I, however, was very pleasantly surprised with the streamlined pacing and editing.

It is a book that regularly moves back and fourth between the events of 1957 and 1984 so, since the two recent films cover the events chronologically in separate halves, a lot of structural re-interpretation is necessary.

One thing that might strike a fan of the novel as odd is that the beginning of the second film feels very much like the earlier chapters of the book with Mike Hanlon making his phone calls to the other Losers.

All of these chapters have somewhat long digressions that paint vivid pictures of the Losers as adults before getting to the phone call and it’s consequences. In It Chapter Two, each one moves very quickly and we find ourselves at the meeting at the Chinese Restaurant in short order. At this point I was actually starting to worry that the film might be awkwardly short, which luckily isn’t true.

A necessary part of these structural changes is that the scenes must serve different structural functions than they did in the novel. In the book, we don’t get the restaurant scene until the middle after we’ve had several very long and dramatic 1957 flashbacks. As a middle chapter featuring the reunion of the main characters, it does the job of tying together several plot lines and giving the reader a sense of overall perspective over the sprawling events that have happened so far.

In It Chapter Two, the restaurant is continuing the introduction of the adult Losers, giving the audience time to get to know them before proceeding with the story proper. As far as the audience is concerned, the adult Losers are new characters they need to be acclimated to.

While we’re on the subject of the restaurant scene, the fortune cookie apparitions were vastly improved over how they were presented in the original novel (this film actually improves on a few different things that King handled awkwardly which we’ll definitely be getting to).

Each cookie has a separate part of a message that the surviving male Losers are struggling to put together while Beverly is becoming frantic listening to them argue. Beverly is actually our affective anchor in this scene- pretty much the viewpoint character. The tension of the hysterical arguing builds quickly and then stops to breathe before the monsters in the broken cookie shells hatch. Absolutely delicious pacing.

This is also our first glimpse of another way in which It Chapter Two improves in its source material: Beverly as an adult is handled far better than in King’s novel.

The uneven way that Beverly is written in the book is particularly annoying to me since she starts off on such a strongly sympathetic and memorable note. Her vulnerability is expressed differently from the other male characters for both overt and understated reasons. Beverly’s personality contrasts with the rest of the Losers in the role her father plays in her fears and anxieties. Most of the Losers’ have fears that are deeply impacted by their parents except, perhaps, Richie (and his dad still seems frazzled from his energy level).

Ben’s mother dismisses his emotional needs by playing to his emotional eating, Eddie’s mother has Münchausen syndrome and has convinced him that he has imaginary illnesses, Bill’s parents blame him implicitly for the death of his brother and Mike is dogged by his father’s feud with Butch Bowers.

Beverly, meanwhile, has an alcoholic father that works long hours and sexual abuse is implied. She comes and goes from home as she will since her father is often either absent or indisposed.

In modern terms, she’s a latch key kid. So while she lives in fear of her father and his unpredictable violent outbursts, she has nonetheless experienced more independence than the rest of the Losers and is better at spur of the moment decision making.

Perhaps for those two reasons, she has natural chemistry with another Loser of contrasting influences: Richie Tozier. Richie is impulsive to the point of being socially obtuse but is also a compulsive attention seeker. Both Beverly and Richie also seem to have a kind of easy access to solitary autonomy which may come from their respective alienation. This rapport between them is one of the strong, early indications that Richie’s manic sense of humor protects a serious vulnerability of his own.

This shared alienation between Beverly and Richie (largely during the theater scene) is one of the original novel’s most successful moments of subtlety. It’s an exchange that perfectly exemplifies showing and not telling.

Perhaps, since King pulled that off so well early on, he felt compelled to avoid explanations with Beverly as an adult to the point of making her obtusely blank- nearly featureless at times. For whatever reason, King could only write one chapter with adult Beverly doing interesting things on her own initiative and it was her first appearance.

While we’re on this subject, I think It the novel had two big experiments with characterization: Beverly Marsh and Henry Bowers. At least, the characterization of Beverly and Henry is executed differently than nearly all other characters in the book.

I’ve already outlined a few reasons why Beverly stands out from the other Losers during the childhood segments. As an adult, King seems allergic to lucidly pinning down character mechanics with Beverly. Like I said earlier, it’s possible that, since he succeeded so well at showing instead of telling with Richie, Beverly and Ben at the theater, that he became anxious about being too frank. The memory that Beverly has of orgasming at the sight of birds on a power line is particularly obtuse. At the risk of sounding misandrist, it almost seems like something a man would think who believes that female sexuality is fundamentally mysterious and therefore portrays it as a series of non-sequiturs.

Granted, lots of things seem very mysterious on a subjective level, but no other character gets the same explicit attention paid to their budding sexuality that Beverly does (a possible exception being Patrick Hockstetter). When Beverly is an adult, it’s as if Stephen King wanted very badly to get into her head but couldn’t quite pull it off. To me, it looks obtuse, but it’s also very possible that every single nuance is intentional, which is why I singled Beverly out as a glaringly experimental character.

It Chapter Two got rid of the unnecessary ambiguity along with a narratively distracting love triangle between Beverly, Bill and Ben. With a film this plot-heavy, anything that can be streamlined should be and the straightforward romance between Beverly and Ben really worked for the best. A shadow of the love triangle was maintained through Beverly’s mistaken belief that Bill wrote the “January Embers” poem and the kiss at the end of the first movie, but in general Beverly and Ben are the only two members of the romance.

Jessica Chastain also brought a personal magnetism that made her portrayal of Beverly an intuitive point of empathy for the audience along with Bill, Mike and Richie. The script for It Chapter Two also allowed Beverly to maintain her lucid apprehension and independence from childhood.

Streamlining the romance between Beverly and Ben is desirable not just for keeping stray plot threads to a minimum but also because the meandering, unclear portrayal of her sexuality and romantic pulls in the book is weirdly sexist. Or at least weirdly sexualized. Once or twice, novel Beverly will say things like “you were all my boyfriends back then” or something equivalent that is unclear enough to not be taken literally but romantic enough for the possibility to be real.

This seems to allude to the sewer scene at the end- an explanation that barely makes it any less weird than if it had none at all. I also don’t feel like I need to spell out why hyper-sexualizing the one female protagonist is regrettable and slovenly. And then there’s a sexual encounter between Bev and Bill whose plot or character function has never been clear to me. Given how visual the scene was, though, I can only assume it was important to King himself. Not to mention, Beverly’s easy relaxation into the romantic and sexual sharing between the male Losers (*giggle* male Losers) has no consistency with her childhood characterization. All of this is blessedly absent from It Chapter Two.

While Beverly in the novel is an experimental character, she’s an experimental character with rather few risks (to say nothing of that memorable little scene in the sewer). From a trope / narrative standpoint, she has no inherent tendency to rock the boat, but the experiment fails in spite of that.

Henry Bowers, meanwhile, comes with a handful of glaring narrative risks. The first and most obvious of these are his flirtations with becoming a one-dimensional spooky villain. The last time I read It, I remember thinking that he was on thin narrative ice in the scene with the rock fight. Especially when King tries to highlight his growing instability by describing him, as he hangs from a fence he’s climbing, as a “baleful spider”.

In the childhood segments, any sympathy Henry elicits is purely by implication. One may conjecture that he was unlucky and tormented by virtue of having a physically and psychologically dangerous parent, not unlike some of the Losers, but we scarcely see much of that from Henry’s own point of view. As an adult though, we get to see behind Henry’s eyes for the first time.

So far from the bristling menace of the childhood Losers, adult Henry is a terrified, vulnerable patient at the Juniper Hill mental hospital outside of Derry. From Henry’s perspective, we are given an interesting kind of characterization. Henry does not have the same kind of internal dialogues the other characters do: every word formed in the privacy of his own mind is clothed in the voices of others.

At its most abstract and generalized, this happens through the voice of the moon (Pennywise, obviously, but Pennywise can only work with what a mind is ready to offer her). Henry’s self-torturing thoughts happen in the imaginary voices of the Losers. Later, with the magic of Pennywise, Henry encounters an undead version of a childhood friend, Belch Huggins, that was constructed from his imagination.

And none of these imaginary vehicles for his thoughts have a two-way exchange with him: they either berate Henry or give him orders. While he is in a car with Pennywise, disguised as Belch, he starts to wonder if Belch holds him responsible for being left to die as a child. Henry attempts to apologize and the apparition simply turns its head and says “Just drive the fucking car.” This is as close as Henry ever comes to succeeding to “talk” to one or his mental mouth pieces.

Assuming that we often talk to ourselves in ways we are used to being spoken to, this clearly comments on the relationship between Henry’s internal life and how it’s been shaped by others.

While adult Beverly came out better in It Chapter Two than she did in the book, adult Henry rather lost out. Which is unfortunate considering how well-acted he was as a preteen in the first Muschietti It movie. The actor did just fine but the direction and editing just didn’t seem to have a lot of room for him. To the film’s credit, I was truly freaked out when Henry tracked down Eddie. I knew that Eddie survived the encounter in the book but Game Of Thrones has tempered my expectations of the willingness for on-screen adaptations to kill characters who don’t die in the source material.

Luckily, though, good pacing was the only reason to be startled by that scene. Henry Bowers’ involvement in the plot ends shortly afterward when Bill Hader’s Richie Tozier plants an axe in the back of his head as he attacks Mike Hanlon.

Which brings us to another noteworthy point of departure from the book. Like many stories in the haunted village sub genre (Silent Hill, Twin Peaks, ‘Salem’s Lot, etc.) the town itself constitutes a character of sorts.

In It, this was largely conveyed by the Interlude chapters that were written as journal entries and research documents done by Hanlon, with coverage of past visits Pennywise made to Derry. These Interludes gave us the story of the fire at The Black Spot, a World War II era bar for black military personnel. Mike’s father was a private stationed in Derry at the time and was present for it, and fans of The Shining may recognize a younger Dick Hallorann among the survivors. The Interludes also contain a retelling of a shootout prompted by the arrival of the Bradley Gang in the twenties and the explosion of the Kitchener Iron Works decades later.

Essentially, we get to know Mike as a narrator before we see him as a child become the seventh and final Loser. It Chapter Two attempts an inversion of his leader-scholar status by having him appear slightly unbalanced and maybe even dishonest. One narrative function this provides is that Pennywise is able to use Mike’s omission of the dangers of the Ritual Of Chud to drive a wedge between the Losers near the end and add a bit more drama to the final battle.

The way in which Mike learns about the Ritual itself helps streamline the plot somewhat, even if it partook of the wise visionary Native trope. Mike was able to see the arrival of the creature separate from the other Losers and relayed it back to the rest of them as adults. Specifically, to Bill, who later clues everyone else in. This enables the introduction and explanation of this concept to be an exchange between characters rather than just straight explication.

The Ritual itself was also portrayed very effectively: the Losers are separated into different, specialized temporal nightmares that they need to overcome in order to face Pennywise together. This is very good visual language that pins down something from the book that’s would have been nearly impossible to film otherwise.

I would almost go as far as to say that the visual unfolding of the final confrontation with Pennywise does more than supply images for the film to hang its hat on: it is potentially more compelling than what the novel describes. At least, it is more lucid and more accessible. Since the plot revolves around how Pennywise manipulates the fears of the Losers, the approach of desperate personal nightmares puts each character arc and it’s resolution on full display.

Speaking of character arcs, this might be a good time to mention the re-imagining of Richie Tozier.

Speaking purely as a fan of the book, I felt very validated by him being portrayed as gay. And his homosexuality is more than just hinted at in the film.  When we see Richie revisiting the heart he carved at the kissing bridge, it contains R+E, and there’s only one person that E could credibly be referring to.

As a fourteen year old reading the novel for the first time, I gravitated toward that interpretation simply because every character had conventionally heterosexual yearnings except Richie. I began to wonder more about it later since Stephen King seemed to struggle with fleshing out the specific nuts and bolts of the fears within Richie that leave him open to Pennywise.

When five of the Losers speak about Pennywise for the first time in the Barrens, they all share a story except Richie.  In a later flashback, we hear about the Paul Bunyan experience, which seems almost startlingly pedestrian after Eddie’s leper, Mike’s giant bird, Beverly’s bloody sink or Bill’s bloody photo album.  Even Ben’s recollection of the mummy is more interesting than the Paul Bunyan statue.  And it took until nearly half of the book to get to it, as if King knew it was something different but couldn’t quite pin down what.  If there is a commentary track on the DVD of It Chapter Two with Stephen King, I’d be interested to hear about anything he says about the process of creating Richie, although the plainness with which his homosexuality is made clear was probably a decision made by the screenwriter.

So it appears as if Stephen King wrote Richie knowing the way that Pennywise would exploit his fears would be different from the other Losers but wasn’t sure how exactly.  Richie’s mysterious but exceptional qualities continue to be apparent when the final confrontation starts and Richie’s onslaught was the attack that really turned the fight in the Loser’s favor.  Then there’s the easy access to independence as a child that seems to lead to a platonic bond with Beverly on top of the fact that he’s the only male Loser that doesn’t seem to have ordinary heterosexual desires or fantasies.  I’m not saying that homosexuality is the only thing that ties all of these traits together but you gotta admit it would fit the bill.

While I definitely have to cop to being happy over my adolescent fan theory being validated, I can see how this might not be totally welcome, especially since they chose to follow the book with Eddie’s death rather than going all the way with the romance.  And since many of the events of the book were switched around to serve new functions in this film, the murder of Adrian Mellon at the very beginning could prompt some viewers to look for a deeper LGBT thread in the film.  One of the Losers turning out to be LGBT could predictably satisfy that instinct. This was less of an intuitive prompting in the novel since it’s placement there was clearly intended to bookend the timelines with Pennywise’s first appearance in each: it begins with Georgie in 1957 and with Adrian Mellon in 1984.

In the end, this second half of Andre Muschietti’s film adaptation surprised me with how closely it followed the plot of the original book, stood on its own as a film and even improved upon the narrative weaknesses of the source material.  With so many book-to-film adaptations falling flat, something like It Chapter Two is a refreshing reminder of what could be done with the right creative team.

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