The first half of Andy Muschietti’s IT is already a colossal success, nearly doubling the opening tracking numbers to come in at $123 million in box office receipts. That’s an incredible number, especially considering the movie’s troubled production history, hard R-rating, and 135-minute runtime. The fact that it’s a smash blockbuster and a damn good movie is even more phenomenal. Muschietti has delivered a rollicking, haunted house rendition of King’s spooky Maine epic, focusing on Raimi-esque set pieces and astute coming of age moments, amalgamating into a motion picture that wants to present you a beautiful beating heart before ripping yours straight from your chest.
For this writer, the (mostly minor) misgivings regarding the adaptation came as a double-edged sword. On one hand, the spook-a-blast approach to the frights actually operated like a really well executed action movie, as the bonding that occurred during the Losers’ Club segments acted as character development sinew, holding together the expertly set up and knocked down scare sequences. But this commitment to fun frights came somewhat at the expense of King’s unique (and admittedly problematic voice). You could sense the “scrubbing” of the material a bit, as the racial, homosexual and historical subtexts were absent from the proceedings; an unfortunate byproduct of attempting to craft an obvious mall crowd pleaser.
Though regular Park Chan-Wook cinematographer Chug-hoon Chung (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) brings King’s iconic Derry, Maine to life with a gorgeous eye for the blue collar texture many fans envisioned while reading the 1100+ page novel, the haunted municipality’s history is handled in a way that was far different than in Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer’s original drafts. Gone are the flashbacks to the Black Spot and woodsman bar massacre, replaced by relayed stories uncovered in the town library’s archives by Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). This streamlining of the narrative makes sense within Muschietti’s approach (and is rejiggered via rewrites by Annabelle / IT: Chapter Two scribe, Gary Dauberman). But while it makes sense with Ben’s reclusive new kid, it also acts a disservice to both the construction of dread Derry owns, as well as the character of Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who is mostly robbed of a central purpose in this iteration of IT.
Mike Hanlon is introduced in the slaughterhouse with his grandfather, Leroy (Steven Williams), and is unable to kill the livestock in front of him with a bolt gun. This is a great set up for the character, especially when combined with the tragic loss of his parents in a house fire. He’s a gentle soul who understands the value of life. Unfortunately, none of this is expounded upon, as Mike mostly disappears during the second act of IT (save for one truly unsettling scare sequence involving a butcher’s back door), only to be saved by the white Losers. In earlier drafts, Mike’s ancestors were presented as survivors of the Black Spot club massacre, perpetrated by the Maine Legion of White Decency (essentially the Derry equivalent of the KKK). Beyond allowing Mike to connect to the town in a way he doesn’t in the final film and act as his own sort of Derry “historian”, this development also sets up the racist disease that pervades the seemingly idyllic town to its very core.
This loss of the unsettling subtext can also be felt in Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who is boiled down to an elemental bully archetype in Muschietti’s finished film. While Bowers and his own crew of worthless heels torment the Losers, calling the boy “faggots”, the issue of Mike’s skin color never seems to cross their minds. The word “faggot” is even robbed of its horrible weight somewhat, as Eddie’s hinted at homosexuality in the novel is never brought up by the movie. Now, Bowers and his boys are slightly better drawn updates on stock hooligans from your favorite 80s staples (or: mullet-sporting versions of King’s own Ace Merrill from Stand By Me [‘86]). Again, these broader strokes and safety precautions regarding the material were perhaps performed in service of bringing IT to the widest audience possible. After all, children do viciously die onscreen in this version of IT, so it may have been a subtextual game of “give and take” with the studio in order to achieve the vision we received in theaters.
So, what changes will be made as we head into Chapter Two and catch up with the Losers Club as present day adults? Speaking with EW, Muschietti states that, “the dialogue between the timelines will be more present. If we’re telling the story of the adults we are going to have flashbacks that take us back to the 80s and inform the story in the present day.” This isn’t really a change, per se, as the novel certainly weaves back and forth at certain points when telling this decades long tale. But what is curious is Muschietti stating that these glimpses of the past won’t just be quick recollections, but a “very big part of the action.” For fans of the 90s mini-series, this structure will sound familiar, but it also feels odd after already having seen an entire film from the kids’ POV.
More concerning are further changes to Mike Hanlon’s character, who stays behind in Derry while the rest of the Losers move across the country, acting as a sort of “watchman” in their stead. In King’s novel, Hanlon becomes the town librarian, further cementing his place as the Losers’ unofficial “record keeper”. But Muschietti’s planned a much “darker” future for Hanlon, describing him as a “librarian junkie”. “I want to make his character the one pivotal character who brings them all together, but staying in Derry took a toll on him.” While that’s all well and good, turning the kids’ sole black member into a monumental “wreck” after erasing the racial torment he endured in the book might not be the best move. Furthermore, the erasure of Eddie’s blossoming sexual identity doesn’t bode well for the inclusion of the murder of Adrian Mellon, a gay man who becomes a target of the rampant homophobia that now plagues present day Derry.
Perhaps strangest of all are the hinted alterations to the Ritual of CHUD, the Native American “spirit quest” the kids take to try and decipher how to defeat Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard), and allow them to glimpse his astral plane. It’s the headiest element of King’s text, that even Fukunaga and Palmer’s drafts skipped over in favor of giant starfish and upside down waterfalls. “By the end of those thirty years [apart] Mike has figured out the Ritual of the CHUD.” Uh, what? When taking this in time with the “junkie” comments, it sounds like Mr. Hanlon is going to be diving down a drug-fueled rabbit hole that doesn’t exactly jibe with his established gentle nature.
Producer Barbara Muschietti also promises a “darker” future for Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) who ***SPOILERS*** slashes his wrists upon learning that Pennywise has returned to feed again in Derry. In the film, the twisted Old Woman from the painting in Stan’s father’s office wraps its jaws around his face, giving Stan a glimpse into Pennywise’s world (or perhaps the infamous Deadlights Bev endures, take your best guess). It’s because of this interaction with the demon Muschietti states acts as a foreshadowing glimpse into what Stan cannot face again. How that’s darker than suicide remains to be seen.
These changes, like the alterations in the first film, sound like another two-sided blade. After the success of Chapter One, it’s cool to see this creative team taking liberties with the source and making it distinctly their own. We just hope that, after some of the peculiar fine-tuning that occurred within the initial’s narrative, they’re well thought out and planned with a precise attention to detail. IT: Chapter One is one of the better mainstream horror movies to drop in some time, so that alone will buy the Muschiettis goodwill as they move into the back half of this story. All we can do is trust that they fully “get it” and deliver what fans (old and new) of the Losers desire when it comes to their final showdown with Dat Boi Pennywise.