~ Starring: A new Pennywise and a time-shifted Losers’ Club ~
*spoiler alert: this post contains details about the plot of It (both the novel and the 2017 film)
Pennywise the Dancing Clown has returned in a new film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 nightmare, It. More broadly, the creepy clown seems to be emerging as one of the pop culture expressions of life under Trump. (You can check out my first thoughts about this phenomenon here…) American Horror Story: Cult is directly exploring this terrain, reprising season 4’s Twisty the Clown and upping the ante with these white-faced fellas:
We’ll see where AHS is headed in the coming weeks. Rolling Stone’s Jenna Scherer has, I think, already pinpointed one of the show’s key challenges: pre-election creepy clown sightings have given way to post-election Nazi rallies. As Scherer puts it, “Clowns are scary. IRL Nazis are scarier.” I’m not about to dismiss a show before I’ve seen its story unfold. And Cult might do some very interesting things before it’s through. But the danger of being so on the (big red) nose is that it’s fairly easy to miss your mark. I kinda prefer my stories to offer insights you sense like breath on the back of your neck… before they tap you, finally, on the shoulder.
So one of the things that intrigues me about the new adaptation of It is the way it sidles up to our historical moment. The decision to reset the childhood part of King’s story in the late 1980s means that Chapter Two will take place roughly now. It also means that the kids who call themselves the Losers’ Club are no longer Boomers coming of age in the 1950s and 60s but belong, instead, to the generation that grew up with Reaganomics. They’re immersed in the late capitalist moment we’re still navigating. This isn’t to say that their terrors are drastically different as a result. One of the things I love about King’s stories is the timelessness of the childhood fears he explores. But now those fears are gathering shape and playing out in a political landscape bookended by Reagan (Chapter One) and Trump (Chapter Two). The rottenness at the heart of Derry, Maine is old. It goes all the way back to the first settlers and their mysterious disappearance. And suddenly It is about how the present—our present—inherits this rot.
I suspect I’ll have more to say on this when I see Chapter Two. For now I want to focus on the two characters whose grownup fates will, I think, determine how much the new It can illuminate about our time. I’m talking about Beverly Marsh and Mike Hanlon, the only girl and the only black boy in the Losers’ Club. Thoughtful reviewers have already pointed out that some of the choices made in this adaptation flatten Bev and Mike, in particular. So each of them is menaced not just by a terrifying clown, but also by the horror clichés that haunt them: the damsel in distress and the token black kid. What I want to do here, then, is breathe some life back into Bev and especially Mike. To notice what they do to give It texture and depth.
King’s story is about kids metabolizing the bad feelings that saturate the adult world, struggling to give those feelings story and shape. Bill, the leader of the Losers’ Club, is living in the aftermath of the disappearance of his little brother, Georgie, who’s lured into the sewer in the film’s prologue. His parents’ grief is turning Bill into a ghost in his own home. Mike, who lost his parents in a house fire when he was small, is struggling to grow into the man his uncle expects him to be—expectations that are meant to help him survive the ruthlessness and racism of 1980s America. And Bev lives alone with a father who abuses and menaces her, regularly demanding, in that too-soft voice that seems to belong to abusive men, that she confirm she’s still his “little girl.”
Part of what’s great about King’s storytelling is the way familial dysfunction is enmeshed in its social context. When Bev isn’t at home with her malevolent father, she’s navigating a town in which kids and parents alike have labelled her trash and a slut. Where the smarmy local pharmacist can be conned by a thirteen-year-old who bats her eyes at him. Bev is besieged by sexism. But she’s also a badass. While her handiness with weapons isn’t as emphasized in the film as it is in the novel, it’s Bev who decisively wounds Pennywise—twice—with a spear. And when her dad tries to lock her in their apartment, she fights back and wins, braining him with the lid off the toilet tank.
Yes, there are choices in this adaptation that undercut some of Bev’s badassery, including the fact that she’s taken by It and becomes the object of a rescue mission at the end of the film. (In the novel, the group—including Bev—tracks the monster into the sewers together.) I don’t love this storytelling move, which is where the trope of the damsel in distress really shows its teeth. But I also wonder if it says something about the way vulnerability is unevenly distributed across the Losers’ Club. After all, Pennywise takes Bev directly after the fight with her dad, when, having just expended buckets of courage, she’s momentarily overwhelmed by fear. In this sense, the monster represents a hard truth about girlhood: violence at home is often just the beginning. I think the film could make this point without having It single out and kidnap our heroine, but either way she’s one of the key characters through whom we see the lines of force connecting home and town. Through whom we see that fear has a decidedly public context.
The other character who illuminates this point about the social context of terror is (if we’re paying close attention) Mike. If Bev highlights the patriarchal dimension of Derry’s rotten core, then Mike exposes its whiteness. As Zak Cheney Rice reminds us, in the novel Mike is the historian of the group—a role the film, sadly, transfers to cute, chubby, white Ben Hanscom—and Mike’s family history is all about “living in the crosshairs of white supremacy.” But because his backstory doesn’t get the play it deserves in the film, it takes some work to connect the dots.
Let’s start with the Black Spot, a key site in Derry’s history of terror. We know from the novel that it was a speakeasy set up by Mike’s dad and some of his fellow soldiers in the 1920s and then burned down in 1930 by Maine’s Legion of White Decency. The movie pushes this event into the 1960s. You have to listen carefully to hear Ben explain, in the background of a scene, that the Black Spot was a nightclub burned down by a racist mob in 1962. And in Mike’s first encounter with It—behind the butcher shop where he delivers meat from his uncle’s farm—he sees black hands reaching around the edges of the shop’s back door as smoke curls out into the alley. The industrial-looking door, the alley, and the number of hands are all more evocative of a nightclub fire, but it’s the story of the house fire that Mike shares with the group as an account of his deepest fear. So, as I see it, the scene conjures both the fire that killed Mike’s parents and the burning at the Black Spot, suggesting that what happened to his parents is part of the history of racial violence seething beneath Derry’s surface. Mike’s final encounter with the town bully, Henry Bowers, seems to confirm this when Henry expresses sadness that he didn’t start the fire that killed the Hanlons himself.
I noticed something else on a second viewing of the film: a subtle difference between Henry’s attack on Ben and his fight with Mike. When Henry is menacing Ben with a knife, a car drives by in which two adults deliberately look away from the assault. A red balloon in the backseat alerts us to Pennywise’s role in the unseeing, but the clown himself isn’t there. But when Henry is beating on Mike down in the Barrens, Mike sees It lurking in the bushes, observing. Henry hurts lots of kids, but Pennywise only watches hungrily when Henry is hurting Mike. Which suggests that his hatred for Mike Hanlon is particularly venomous. The kind of hate that draws Derry’s demons out into the open.
So Bill might be the leader of the group. And Trashmouth Richie might steal the show a little. But Mike and Bev reveal how vulnerability and terror are differentially distributed in Derry. Mike, who ultimately pushes the murderous Henry Bowers down the well that is the heart of Derry’s rottenness. And Bev, who pikes the clown in the throat when he turns to her wearing her father’s face. These are the two I’ll be watching in Chapter Two, looking for what their grownup selves might be able to tell us about now.
A now in which a man who brags about grabbing pussies can become President… and Nazis gather in American streets.