Andy Muschietti’s It: Chapter One is an unqualified success, and I couldn’t be happier. Here, in celebration, is an assortment of my thoughts on the film and some of the critical responses to it…
(Note: Here be spoilers.)
On the Adaptation of Mike Hanlon
Though the film is largely an admirable adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel, which clocks in at a massive 1100+ pages, it does suffer some missteps—notably in its treatment of its principal black character, Mike Hanlon. As Zac Cheney Rice eloquently notes, Mike—who is a pivotal character (if not the pivotal character) in the book—has the majority of his backstory as an amateur historian taken from him and given to a white character, Ben Hanscom (whose backstory as an intuitive engineer is entirely dropped). In its place is a largely disconnected arc about Mike’s feelings of discomfort with the performance of aggressive hyper-masculinity that is expected of him by his grandfather—and, it is intimated, society at large. It’s an arc that could have worked with a more nuanced attention to detail. Mike’s feelings over the death of his parents, his unwillingness to work the slaughterhouse alongside his grandfather, his tendency toward passivity in the face of threat all could have been woven together into an intriguing meditation on the question of what we, as a society, expect of black youth. But the relegation of his character to the background of the white characters’ lives made the through-line of his story difficult to grasp. This was the crux of my disappointment in the adaptation of Mike Hanlon: not the filmmakers’ removal of his backstory but their failure to replace it with something equally compelling and more cinematically-appropriate.
For all that Mike’s depiction was a missed opportunity, though, I remain hopeful that a sequel could gather the elements of his story into a more impactful arc. Certainly, his character is not the only one in the film who suffered from a lack of nuanced handling. Though Bill, Beverly,(1) and to a lesser-extent Eddie, all had strong character arcs that fluidly connected their personal histories to their experiences of fear, Stan, Richie, and Ben, in addition to Mike, got relatively short-shrift. Of those, Stan’s personal arc is the one that—for me—came the closest to Mike’s in terms of an equal near-miss, while Richie and Ben’s fears were overwhelmingly generic and their personal histories largely excised from the narrative. But these gaps smack of inescapable time-constraints rather than indifference to the realities of media representation and could be compensated for in the second film. Indeed, one might argue that the changes in Mike’s character were an attempt to handle the character with sensitivity to issues of representation. Watching the film for the second time, I couldn’t help but reflect on how difficult Mike’s story might have been to translate from book to film without resorting to the dreaded magical negro trope.
The “magical negro” is a bonafide Thing™ in Stephen King’s writing; notable examples include Dick Halloran in The Shining, Mother Abigail in The Stand, and John Coffey in The Green Mile.(2) In the novel version of It, Mike Hanlon fares well during the portion of the story set during his youth, but he serves primarily as a guide to his adult friends when they return to Derry with only the barest fragments of their childhood memories intact. At that point, his role becomes largely mechanical as he leads them safely down the path of incremental memory recovery to the complete understanding of the past that they need to finally defeat the monstrous eldritch horror that stalks their old hometown. Furthermore, Mike also functions as a guide to the reading audience, providing them with the town’s backstory through the interlude excerpts of his unofficial history of Derry, A Look Through Hell’s Back Door, thereby hinting at the magical negro trope on a meta-textual level. Despite this, the novel version of Mike arguably escapes becoming a full-fledged magical negro trope—but only on the strength of a richly detailed backstory and an intricately fleshed-out interior life that would have been incredibly difficult to incorporate into a two-hour film.
This is not meant as an all-purpose defense of the filmmakers’ decisions, though. Movies all too-often fail their black characters, and this one—despite its many strengths—did so to a certain extent. But it’s not unfixable. Given the changes the writers have already made to King’s magnum opus, I—for one—would be very open to seeing further changes made. I’d be particularly pleased to see Ben, since he was given Mike’s backstory, get Mike’s future as well. Let Ben live out his adult years as the Derry head librarian and stay in the role of guide while Mike moves on to achieve financial and critical success as an architect. Given the way these characters have already been established, such an outcome would make far more sense than the alternative.(3)
Was That Supposed to be a Modigliani Painting?
Yes. Yes, it was.
The incorporation of a “Modigliani” painting into the narrative of It was especially pleasing to me for a couple of reasons. First, Modigliani was a Jewish painter, and the inclusion of his work in a rabbi’s office is the kind of attention to detail that I like to see. Second, the use of the Modigliani monster helped to illustrate a component of Stan Uris’ character that is devilishly difficult to translate to film: his fundamental need for order. In the book, Stan’s inability to confront the horrors of his childhood are rooted in his rejection of the irrational. There’s a particularly beautiful passage in the novel where Stan thinks, but finds himself unable to say, that while it’s perfectly possible for a person to live with fear, it’s impossible for them to live with offense. In contrast to fear, which is a part of the natural order, offense opens up cracks in one’s reason that show the slithering monstrosities that crawl just underneath the surface. The events of the book rip a hole in Stan’s ordered view of the world—one that he, ultimately, finds himself unable to live with. The motif of a figure in a two-dimensional painting coming to life is the perfect visual embodiment of everything that Stan cannot abide. I wish his backstory had been better-integrated with his experience of fear, but there’s no question that the filmmaker made the right choice when it came to the manifestation of his anxiety.
What the World Needs Now is Good, Old-Fashioned Good-vs-Evil Narratives
Chuck Wendig has a great blog post detailing his thoughts on why It: Chapter One has resonated so strongly with audiences. To whit, he argues that the film recaptures a storytelling mode that was prominent through the late-70s and 1980s: the basic, no-frills, largely uncomplicated good-vs-evil narrative. And that the social impetus that made this style of storytelling popular in the late-70s and 1980s—societal fear in the face of the cold war and possible nuclear annihilation—is largely at work again. With the world, or at the very least the US portion of it, spiraling into a landscape of deplorable evils (ascendant white supremacy, rampant police brutality, growing authoritarianism), people long for stories that give them hope: stories that show clear-cut triumphs over understandable evils that can be vanquished if we find the bravery and resolve.
There’s a potential for oversimplification in such stories, it cannot be denied, but there’s a palpable and inspiring elegance in them as well. And sometimes, with the world mired in complicated problems with intricate and hard-to-understand solutions, a reminder that goodness and honorable resolve can be enough to slay the monsters is exactly what the world needs.
Wendig’s essay is a beautiful read, and I recommend it in its entirety.
Final Thought: Jesus-Fucking-Christ, Bill Skarsgård, Stop
Stop it, dude.
Bill Skarsgårds min (döpt till Jörgen) som han använde i rollen som Pennywise i DET. Tydligen något som bara några få i Skarsgårdsfamiljen kan!. 🎈🤡🎈🤡🎈🤡🎈🤡🎈🤡🎈🤡🎈🤡 IN ENGLISH: Bill Skarsgård, aka Pennywise in IT, does his best Pennywisesmile. Apparently he used the smile to scare his younger siblings when he was a kid. Who knew it would come in handy again! #itmovie #Pennywise #IT #BillSkarsgard #Pennywise #DET#Clown #stephenking
Just fucking stop, okay.
1) Of the children, Beverly has arguably the strongest backstory, though her character-arc is badly compromised in the final act of the film. ⇧
2) Nnedi Okorafor brilliantly breaks down King’s reliance on “magical negro” characters in her essay, “Stephen King’s Super-Duper Magical Negroes.” In Strange Horizons (October 24, 2004). ⇧
3) Honestly, given his experience with his parents’ death, it would be very easy (and make a lot of narrative sense) to have Mike Hanlon grow up to be an architect whose work focuses on creating safe living spaces for low-income families. ⇧