I never really “got” Stephen King growing up. Maybe it was the lily-white New England setting or the routinely terrible cinematic adaptations that put a bad taste in my mouth, but King’s work never really clicked for me like it did for so many genre fans. Sitting through Dreamcatcher didn’t exactly inspire much excitement to crack open one of the numerous volumes penned by the prolific writer.
That’s a silly reason not to read source material, but I was a kid. Kids have their own bizarre logic, barely decipherable to the average adult. That’s an idea that runs deep within IT, both the movie and the book it’s based on. Being a child is weird, creepy things are happening to your body all the time, and no one seems to understand you. I almost wish I had read IT back in my younger days, because I might have connected more deeply with the material when I could recognize more of myself in the pages.
That IT is a massive box office success should be no surprise to anyone who did grow up with the book (or the TV mini-series). It’s a potent mix of nostalgia, horror, and humor that’s been copied numerous times at both the multiplex and on TV, from Stand By Me to Stranger Things. King’s oeuvre has lost none of its power to inspire and terrify.
One wonders, then, how it went so wrong with The Dark Tower last month. Plenty of other film writers have speculated on what made IT a huge success that will quickly spawn a sequel, while Dark Tower’s box office failure almost guarantees that this will be the only cinematic adventure for the Gunslinger in the near future. The facile, easy-to-swallow answer is that The Dark Tower was very bad and IT wasn’t.
That’s certainly true, but there’s something more at play here. In both instances, these films concern the hopes and dreams of a child — Bill in IT and Jake in The Dark Tower. Bill and Jake are seemingly average middle-class kids, one in big city New York and one in small-town Maine. Both have something about them that makes them outcasts. Jake has his apocalyptic visions of Midworld and the Man in Black and Bill’s a socially awkward stutterer obsessed with finding his missing brother. Most importantly, both Bill and Jake are attempting to overcome the grief of losing a family member. Jake’s dad died in a fire. Bill’s brother is taken by Pennywise. The theme of disaffected, withdrawn, tragic youth is all over these two films, but despite being set in 1989, IT offers a more contemporary, emotionally satisfying tale.
Again, a lot of this comes down to simple execution. The Dark Tower was clumsy, where IT was self-assured. The structure of The Dark Tower was jumbled and never built up anything resembling true tension. Save for a bit of drag after the initial confrontation inside the Neibolt house, IT feels propulsive and exciting. It also cost less than The Dark Tower, but looks far more cinematic. The real triumph of IT, though, is not its pacing, its structure, or its aesthetic. It’s the children at the heart of the story that makes this film work as well as it does.
By and large, the Losers Club in IT feels natural and the actors slip into their roles with ease. In particular, Jeremy Ray Taylor, who plays Ben, ingratiates himself to the audience without a lot of pyrotechnics or flashy monologues. His secret pining for Bev is endearing, even when it could border on creepy. Sophia Lillis, who plays Bev, has the hardest job of the entire ensemble cast. She’s asked to alternate between hero and victim — self-assured and mature one minute, vulnerable target of abuse the next. It’s even thornier, because her purpose in the story is often reduced to an object of desire for the boys.
Of course, in the book, that’s even more explicit, as it features the now-infamous group sex scene in the final moments of the 1950s section. Bev’s presence digs up all manner of “manic pixie dream girl” mental residue. There’s the lingering close-ups of her in her underwear and the fact that the boys have to rescue her and not the other way around. It’s the kind of material that opens itself up for critique when you think about it for more than a few minutes. Despite all of that, Lillis is pretty damn memorable in the part and whomever they cast as the adult Bev in the sequel is going to have quite a bit to live up to. It takes a lot of charisma to overcome some of the more cliché moments in the film, from her dramatic hair-cutting scene to the old chestnut of the “bad girl” smoking cigarettes in the bathroom stall.
IT might wallow in some retrograde notions of gender, but part of that is simply because of the subject matter and the sad reality of childhood for the generation being depicted. IT is not about heroic characters, though they end up doing some heroic things. If you know how the rest of the story plays out, you know not every member of the Losers Club lives up to their blood pact. Boys can be craven, sex-obsessed, cruel, and selfish and have a nasty habit of compartmentalizing girls into objects of desire rather than fully realized human beings. This is a story about how messy and imperfect growing up can be, and how sometimes, the scariest thing in the world is the person standing right next to you.
The Dark Tower is about a lot of these same issues, but it gets buried under mountains of exposition. It’s also not served well by Tom Taylor, the actor who plays Jake Chambers. When we meet him, he’s already an emotional wreck, which is fine. How much of Jake do we need to see before his dad dies and he starts to see visions of the Tower? The problem is that what he becomes after that inciting incident isn’t recognizable or relatable. Jake is a plot device, a way to bridge our world to Midworld, and a traveling companion for Roland. Often, fantasy movies like this feel the need to anchor themselves to our world to make them more palatable for non-fans. Or, it’s just cheaper to film, like in the lamentable Masters of the Universe movie.
For the real world to work in a fantasy world, it has to feel real. Tom Taylor plays Jake as a kid pretending to be crazy rather than someone truly disturbed by these visions. What that means in practice is hard to quantify, because it’s truly just a feeling. Another major summer release, Spider-Man Homecoming, captures something indescribable and specific about being a kid that works, even though the story includes Michael Keaton flying around on a winged jet pack and giant ray guns. That’s not necessarily due to any directorial flourish or secret formula. Sometimes, it’s just casting. IT embraced the awkwardness of growing up. The Dark Tower did everything but. When I was younger, stories about kids were so important to me, because when done well, they made me feel less alone. That IT captured even a fraction of that is worth celebrating.