Saturday, September 9, 2017

Movie Review: Stephen King's It

"It may be profligate, but is it not life? Is it not the thing?"

Lord Byron, in a letter to his publisher, writing about his own poem Don Juan.

Yesterday, I went to see It, the new movie based on Stephen King's thumping 1986 novel, which runs to over a thousand pages. (Actually, the movie is only the first part of a duology.) I rarely go to the cinema these days, for various reasons, but this was one movie I wasn't going to miss.

I read It a couple of years ago, and I was greatly impressed. After The Stand, I think it's Stephen King's best work. And let me get this out of the way; I believe that Stephen King is a genius, probably one of the greatest novelists of all time. There's a lot of snobbery when it comes to Stephen King, for two main reasons; the first being that he is a horror writer, the second being that his books sell in their millions and appeal to every kind of reader.

I've mentioned that I'm a member of a horror club. As far as I know, none of the other members of my horror club are keen on the writings of Stephen King. I won't accuse them of snobbery, but I do think they're missing out.

(Sadly, and incidentally, Stephen King has developed a particularly bad case of Trump Derangement Syndrome, to the extent that the God Emperor had to block him on Twitter. To be fair, Trump is uncannily similar to the villain of King's 1979 novel The Dead Zone, so King obviously has a long-standing horror of populist politicians.)

The particular power of King's writing is something that defies analysis. His plots are rarely all that original. His characters are fairly stock. There is no great ingenuity in the construction of his plots. But as a storyteller, he is up there with the best. You identify with his characters. You care about them. You buy into the story. What's happening on the page seems important. Indeed, King writes with such a sense of urgency that life itself seems more important and vivid, as seen through his stories.

As I've said, It is a monster of a book. But that's a big part of its pleasure. The story revolves around an evil entity which has haunted a small American town (King's stock-in-trade) for generations, and which comes alive every twenty-seven years. The entity can take various forms, but most often takes the form of a scary clown. In fact, this book seems to have popularized the figure of the scary clown, to the extent that hardly anybody seems to like clowns anymore. (I never liked them in the first place) The protagonists of the story are "The Losers Club", a gang of eleven-year-olds. all of whom are bulled in school.

The novel has two timeframes-- one strand of the story is set in the late fifties, and another strand is set in the present day (that is, the eighties). In the second timeline, the Loser's Club reassemble as adults, and confront the reawakened "It" once again. (In the book, the narrative shifts between these two timelines. The film dispenses with this, so that the first film is entirely set in the first timeline, now brought forward to the nineteen-eighties.)

So here we find many of Stephen King's standard themes-- childhood, plucky kids, camaraderie between kids, small-town America, a confrontation with some elemental evil, courage, and the journey of life.

That last theme, the journey of life, is the one where the book really shines. King takes a group of characters who had a traumatic, formative experience in their childhood and shows them to us as middle-aged adults. The book is as much about lived experience and the passage of time as it is about an evil clown. And King succeeds in reproducing the texture of life, the roller-coaster ride of life, with extraordinary vividness and poignancy.

The sheer size of the novel gives him scope to do this. He describes the lives of his characters in such detail that the stakes of the supernatural drama at the novel's centre seem so much higher. One particular passage, in which he describes the contents of one hypocondriacal character's medicine cabinet, lingers in my memory especially. King's gift is that he doesn't treat such scenes as character establishing moments, or as filler, but with as much seriousness as he treats the big dramatic moments. They could easily be short stories in themselves.

(One detail in the book which I adored is the glass tunnel that connects the children's and adult's sections of the town library. It has a thematic importance, but it's delightful in itself, and the author dwells on it with evident relish.)

So much for the book. What about the film?

The film was excellent. I award it four marks out of five. (Five marks are reserved for the films I watch over and over again.)

First of all, it looks amazing-- the production values are top notch. Every single frame is constructed like a tableau. The film is set in summer, and often drenched in a golden sunlight which is very appropriate to King's romantic, bittersweet vision of childhood. This is one of those films, like Inception, which takes itself so seriously that you can't help taking it seriously, too. It demands your attention from the first moments.

I don't remember all the plot details of the novel too well, but as far as I can remember, the film follows it very faithfully. (There is one big change, but I won't say what it is.) The close-to-the-bone banter between the boys is brilliantly written-- I heard a lot of laughter in the cinema. Unless I'm mistaken, much of the banter is original to the screenplay. The eighties period detail is obtrusive-- the camera lingers on a cinema marquee to show us the titles Lethal Weapon II and Batman-- but I actually liked that. (There was one detail which jarred, however. The AIDS epidemic is mentioned, but the Losers' show an amazingly casual attitude to blood. Were you a child in the eighties? Do you remember how terrifying blood became?) 

Commendably, the movie exploits all the standard conventions of the horror genre. Sometimes, it seems as though horror movies can be divided into two categories-- gory horrors full of jump-scares (that is, sudden scares that come out of nowhere and make the audience jump in their seats), and spooky movies which rely on atmosphere. There's no need for such an opposition. Jump-scares are good. Atmosphere is good. Gore doesn't make your movie trashy, necessarily. Following it source novel, It uses pretty much every convention of horror that there is-- and it uses them very well.

In fact, the faults I would find in this movie are faults that lie in the novel itself. King never really explains the powers and limits of the evil entity-- the titular "It"-- and this makes the conflict between the Losers Club and It (or Pennywise, as it calls itself in its clown form) seem haphazard and contrived. For instance, Pennywise can manipulate the human mind, and frequently induces hallucinations. Given such a power, it seems silly that a group of schoolkids should be able to mount any kind of challenge to it at all.

It bothers me in another way that's harder to convey, but I'll do my best. This is my question: what is the story about? I realize that it's about a supernatural entity that plagues a small town, but is there anything deeper going on? I'm not talking about the thematic level here. The story obviously has themes of childhood, courage, companionship, fear, and the social construction of reality (the latter because the townsfolk are willfully blind to the the fact that there's something very odd about their home). And it has plenty of other themes besides these. 

But on the level of the story's applicability-- what does a scary clown plaguing a small American town have to do with anything happening in the world today? The time-honoured device of the "town with a dark secret" seems sadly archaic these days, and was archaic long before the novel was written. Our social problems, even our existential problems, are much less parochial. Indeed, in an era when local boundaries seem to mean hardly anything at all, the "town with a dark secret plot" seems like pure escapism. There's nothing wrong with pure escapism-- but It obviously has ambitions beyond escapism. Indeed, this objection operates on the level of plot, too-- the townspeople may be able to ignore the fact that something very weird is happening in their neighbourhoods, but how has the outside world failed to pick up on a string of disappearances and tragedies spanning generations? After all, the film is set in 1989, not 1889.

In my view, if an author is going to use the town-with-a-dark-secret device today, he or she has to explain how the dark secret hasn't aroused the interest of the outside world, the media, or the government. On a thematic level, he also has to explain why this story is relevant to citizens of the information age, the age of globalization. There are undoubtedly ways to do this-- in fact, this scenario might actually be a good way to address the theme of globalization and the loss of rootedness. For instance, the citizens of the town might have founded it with the express purpose of seeking a more stable, self-contained community. But we need some explanation, some thematic updating of the convention..

(Of course, you could respond that a story is a story is a story-- a philosophy endorsed by King himself, in a memorable sequence of this very book. That's true, but the horror genre seems to thrive on deeper meanings, deeper resonances-- to the extent that I, personally, feel unsatisfied if a story seems to lack one.)

All in all, though, I can enthusiastically recommend It, and I'm looking forward to its sequel. 

Postscript: I've been reading up on the novel, and I've been reminded that King does actually set some conditions to Pennywise's powers, particularly its powers of mind control, which explain how the Losers' Club can plausibly fight it. However, my criticism still applies to the movie, where its powers are very vague.


  1. I'm currently reading IT (I read about 20% of your post and just scrolled to the bottom) which is my first King novel. So far I like it and though it's 1,000+ pages it's very readable. I've heard that King uses the fictional town of Derry multiple times in his other stories; how do you think his treatment of small towns compares to other writers and American pop culture when used?

    1. That's an interestion question. Without overthinking it, I'd say that Stephen King tends to treat small towns as places in their own right rather than simply being the opposite of the big city or the suburbs. "All human life is there", you know. Mind you, I think he's quite naive in some ways-- he wants all the folksiness without any of the prejudice. Yeah, he has prejudiced characters, tons of them, but they tend to be bad characters. All his good characters tend to be socially liberal.

      I'd be interested to hear what you think of It when you're finished.