It Chapter Two review

19 September 2019

Title:It Chapter Two
Runtime:169 min

Warning: This review may contain spoilers regarding It Chapter Two (2019), its predecessor It (2017), the TV miniseries adaptation of the same novel It (1990), and, of course, Stephen King's original 1986 novel. These spoilers are largely in the context of contrasting the multiple adaptations, so if you've seen, say, It (2017) and know the basic premise of It Chapter Two (2019) (e.g., by having seen its trailer), then the main spoilers you will get here are regarding what, ultimately, isn't in the film.

I'm a huge Stephen King fan (although those in the know will recognise that I am not his "number one fan"...). I read the novel It right around the time it came out, in 1986. It was my first encounter with Stephen King, immediately became one of my favourite novels, and remains, in my mind, King's best work in a bibliography dense with exceptionally well-written novels. Over the 20 years that followed, I read pretty much every word the man has published, often just as it hit stores, and---with considerably less enthusiasm---viewed also his entire filmography, including the many TV adaptations.

I say "with considerably less enthusiasm" because there are hardly any decent Stephen King adaptations. This stems from many reasons, but I think the main ones are the following.

King's books are written as dramas but are read as horror novels. Their strengths are in their believable characters and in the interactions between those characters. King's novels bring to life an utterly convincing Maine that is a slice of dark Americana to the point that when I had actually visited Maine I was surprised by how much not like a Stephen King book it looked.

The typical King adaptations start pretty OK. One main feature of King's writing is that there are no minor characters: every character we see has a rich internal life that we are privy to. Some of my favourite King scenes are ones that highlight characters that in all other hands wouldn't have been given a second thought. (A good example of this in It is Stanley Uris's wife. Her chapter is, to me, one of the most memorable moments in the entire book.) This style does not get translated well in screen adaptations, so even to begin with, King adaptations only start as "pretty OK" and never great, but at least you can tell that at that point the screenwriters are giving it their best shot. You are introduced to characters, you are introduced to relationship dynamics, and you feel that the film takes place in a community that is recognisable and populated by people you know (and sometimes like).

Where King adaptations go off the rails, however, is as soon as anything supernatural occurs. Screenwriters have virtually never figured out that the novel does not stop being a drama, does not stop being about the people, just because something supernatural is also in the frame. Instead, it always looks to me like the screenwriter decided at that point to take an extended vacation and let the special-effects supervisor fill in. Couple this with the fact that horror films have never grossed too well in the box office, and you also get bad, papier-mâché special effects that are more laughable than scary, and the whole thing becomes an exercise in disappointment.

My belief has always been that if one were to only adapt King faithfully to the screen, one would get something that, if not great, would at least match the quality of the original work. In support of this theory, I could always tout Frank Darabont, who is the unchallenged master of faithful King adaptations. He adapted King's excellent "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" (a rare case of a King with no supernatural elements, letting his dramatic talent take the fore) into The Shawshank Redemption (1994), not just one of the best King adaptations of all time but also considered one of the best films of all time; he then made the very good The Green Mile (1999) out of King's pretty-good serial novel of the same name. (The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for 7 Oscars and currently stands at an IMDb rating of 9.3, making it IMDb's #1 top-rated film. The Green Mile, at an 8.6 rating and 4 Oscar nominations is `only' at #28.) He then made a more-than-OK The Mist (2007), out of King's barely-OK novelette. (I don't think Darabont managed to salvage the same depth out of the original material in his short film "The Woman in the Room" (1984), but he can hardly be blamed for it: this was his debut both as a writer and as a director, he was working with a shoe-string budget, and he still, miraculously, managed to pull off a piece that is faithful to the original material and which King himself described as "Clearly the best of the short films made from my stuff.")

Which brings us to Andy Muschietti's It Chapter Two. This film somehow manages to break this theory of mine. It was as faithful to the novel as it possibly could have been (More on that later), and did not waiver for a moment from its commitment to being a relationship drama, demonic clowns from outer space be damned. This, in my mind, immediately crowned it as hands-down one of King's best film adaptations that I have ever seen.

But what it didn't make it into is a good adaptation. And what it is even less of is a good film. And I can't even blame Muschietti for any of it, because he was clearly doing the best he could with a bad hand of cards.

"'Bad hand'?" I hear you ask. "How can a director straight off of the success of It (2017), which was a critical darling, an audience favourite, and a box office hit (Not adjusted for inflation, It scared up over $0.7B in total worldwide gross to-date, making it the highest grossing film both among all King adaptations and among all horror films ever) be considered having been dealt a bad hand?"

To answer this question, let's go back to the novel, and to how we got from there to here.

It, the novel, is many things simultaneously. It is a horror novel that takes the idea of the haunted house to the next level, by presenting a "haunted town". It is a Lovecraftian tale of opposing cosmic forces battling it out, with our own small, thin and fragile universe being just one of many battlegrounds. It is a love letter to the horror genre's momentary golden-age of the 1950s, and how it has affected our perception of horror ever since. (A fact that Universal studios recently tried and failed to capitalise on, with their "Dark Universe" attempt.) It is a meditation on the nature of human evil. (A repeating theme in King's writings is the idea that our civilisation, in its entirety, is a precarious balancing act that could easily topple if one were only to subtly amplify -- or focus -- our own pettiness, selfishness, prejudices, intolerance, greed, xenophobia or one of any number of other traits that King claims are latent but not dormant. As of 2019, that critique on society seems positively prescient.) It is an ode to childhood and to the power of imagination. And it is structured, beautifully, as a literal nightmare: our protagonists are in a constant state of déjà vu, everything is foreshadowed so many times over that by the time anything happens, the reader knows exactly what is hiding behind each creaking door and who will live and who will die---and is all the more terrified for it; its progress is by association, with the boundaries of reality and of traditional storytelling progressively crumbling as the story unfolds, and things begin to happen if they feel right and not happen if they feel wrong, rather than for any logical reason. Even the ending itself, (Minor spoiler here) where the survivors end up forgetting the ordeal, is a nod to the process of awakening from a dream.

It is impossible to cram all this into a single adaptation, film or TV, so adaptations need to pick-and-choose what they go with. The standard way of doing this is to make a list of the most memorable, most cinematic points in the narrative, make sure they end up in the script, and then fill in a path that winds between these with the least amount of meandering, quite possibly ignoring the original paths taken by the novel.

This describes fairly well the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation. It was, one has to take into account, a doomed affair to begin with. The miniseries lacked the screen time, the R rating or the budget to do justice to any part of King's magnum opus. And yet, somehow, almost thirty years later it is still talked about. Part of this is the incredible, inexplicable luck the miniseries had with its casting: the adult cast included Harry Anderson as Richie Tozier and John Ritter as Ben Hanscom, the adolescents included Jonathan Brandis as Bill Denbrough and Seth Green as Richie Tozier. (This bears repeating: the two actors playing Richie Tozier at different ages are people who, by all accounts, were/are a living embodiment of the Richie Tozier essence.) Rarely has any work been so precisely cast. And yet, all these casting choices still take a back seat to Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise. In a storied career as Curry's it is amazing that it is this role that is considered by many his most iconic ever.

But what the miniseries did best, was mine those most cinematic moments to the best effect it could, given its constraints (predominantly budgetary and rating-wise). The scene in the Chinese restaurant is a prime example of this, and remains one of the most memorable moments in the entire production.

Twenty-seven years later, the writers of It (2017), Chase Palmer, Cary Joji Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, clearly understood the weight of the miniseries' legacy, and were forced to wind their way around these obvious cinematic pillars. Pivotal scenes used by the miniseries adaptation that could be avoided were avoided, those that couldn't were reworked to include only their essence (e.g., Pennywise's appearance in a book in the original, faithfully translated in the miniseries, became his appearance in a slideshow presentation). The tent-pole moments of It (2017) came from second-tier moments in the novel.

But, again, aside from those tent-pole moments, original or revised, storytelling time and budget constraints (which assumed the film's gross would mirror that of similar horror films, not that it would become the box-office juggernaut that it ultimately did) made these writers weave between these moments the simplest, most self-contained, least ambiguous story they could. It became the story of kids in a small town terrorised Freddy Krueger-style by a clown. Some of the kids are killed by the clown, some run and---for reasons that are never explained in the script---by this, escape. The ones who have thus escaped ultimately band together, deciding that what the clown cannot do is tailor a nightmare suitable for all of them together, and, under this presumption, track down the monster and kill it. In a final twist that simultaneously plays on the oldest tropes of horror films and is an honest nod to the book, the film opens the door to a sequel by having the kids swear that if ever the clown returns they would come back to hunt it again.

It is said that when Andy Muschietti took the helms of the film, the script had only five kids in the final troupe. He managed to persuade the studio to at least retain the original number (seven) and original names of the book's main characters, explaining why two of the seven barely say a word throughout the entire film. Allegedly, Muschietti also tried to convince the studio to incorporate the smokehouse scene and the ritual of Chüd, which are the scenes that would have (a) explained the origins of the clown, (b) differentiated this film from the million and a half essentially identical other horror films, and (c) alluded, at least in passing, to the Lovecraftian nature of the conflict and the magnitude of what is at stake. However, the studio shot this second request down over lack of budget.

Thus, Muschietti, after having at least tried to do right by the book, was left with little to work with, and ended up making a generic monster movie, mainly relying on jump scares, that bears precious little resemblance to its source material. The work makes a few nods towards the book (e.g., by displaying a Lego turtle in Georgie's room) but these are not nods that can be understood within the context of the film itself, only by readers of the book.

In order to rope a modern audience in more conveniently, the script's timeline was even updated: what was the 1950s in the book became the 1980s. This completely severed any connection between what scares the kid protagonists and the canonical archetypes of horror that debuted in 1950s Hollywood cinema that any modern viewer would still recognise. Instead (it is said), when the screenwriters looked at what film names should be displayed on the marquee of the local theatre, the only recognisable horror movie name they found was A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, which, for obvious reasons, they could not use. (In the actual film, the marquee reads Lethal Weapon 2.)

Side note: There is one other iconic horror film from roughly the same time period which the makers of It could have referenced: John Carpenter's classic 1982 remake of The Thing. Undoubtedly, this was avoided for exactly the same reasons as A Nightmare on Elm Street, but imagine what could have happened if it hadn't been. How difficult would it have been for It Chapter Two to start adult Richie Tozier's flashback scene by showing his younger self exiting the Derry cinema where the marquee proclaims "The Thing"? Later, in the Neibolt Street scene where Pennywise adopts The Thing's iconography, that change would have transformed the scene from one where Muschietti merely showcases his lack of cinematic inventiveness (and once again paints Pennywise as interchangeable with any of a dozen other movie monsters) to a meaningful reference, one where Pennywise is shown playing on the age's fears, a master puppeteer of horror tropes, and a sharp allegory for King himself. Instead, Tozier's scene is only used to imply that Richie is gay, something that has no origins in the novel and that in no way advances the film. And when, in the Neibolt Street scene, (minor spoiler here) a severed head sprouts spider-like legs, this moment amounts to little more than visual, cinematic theft. My guess is that Muschietti thought the majority of the audience will be too young to even recognise the reference, bringing up once again the question of why not just keep the story's original timeline. Dracula, the mummy, the blob and the creature from the black lagoon would have all been, by comparison, far more immediately recognisable to a modern audience.

And to be clear, a bunch of kids running away from Freddy Krueger is not what the original book was about even at the most surface-level reading. The novel is, at surface-level, about a monster with the ability to empower its victims' imaginations to shape their own realities, which targets kids because of their powerful imaginations and uses the iconography of their greatest fears (usually mass-produced fears, but some personal) in order to hunt and kill them. This monster is challenged and defeated by seven children who discover that the same power also allows them to use their imagination positively to fight the monster. However, 27 years later it is discovered that the monster did not die. The book's main thrust is here, in the question of whether seven adults, with the debilitating fears of adults, with the dwindling imaginations of adults, have any hope when battling this monster anew.

The film It (2017), in one telling example, shows young Bill Denbrough riding his bike. But there is nowhere any reference to the fact that this bike was Bill's major weapon of imagination, what he ultimately used to "beat the devil" in the original story not once but twice. The symbol, or at least a nod to it, made it into the film, but it was emptied of all its meaning. (This, in itself, is 180 degrees from the spirit of the book, which is all about symbolism, both as a subject matter and as a literary technique. Readers of the book break into a cold sweat, for example, at the mere mention of the colour orange, knowing full well that any "orange" will eventually morph into "orange pompoms", and is an ominous sign that heralds an appearance by Pennywise the clown, with death and destruction following in its wake.)

But then, something truly miraculous happened: It (2017) raked massively at the box office. The reasons for this, too, are complex, but can be boiled down to the following. Aside from the non-horror and hugely disappointing The Dark Tower that came out that same year, the atrocious and best not mentioned Cell (2016) and the forgettable remake Carrie (2013) that could not rekindle the King mania that was started by Brian De Palma's original, this was the first film adaptation of a Stephen King novel since Dreamcatcher (2003), a full 14 years earlier, a film that was so bad, it poisoned the King name for audiences and nixed any good will that still remained from The Green Mile (1999).

To be quite frank, that good will was in itself not built on horror. Between 1994 and 2001 King had a run of high-profile movie projects associated to his name, but none of them straight-up horror. This started with The Shawshank Redemption (1994), which proved that money can be made off of the King non-horror material, and continued with Dolores Claiborne (1995), The Green Mile (1999) and Hearts in Atlantis (2001). The only horror film from a King novel in that time period was the nearly unknown Thinner (1996), which does not really count as a King because it was written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. Thus, the last true King horror-novel-to-movie adaptation prior to Dreamcatcher (2003) was Needful Things (1993), now bringing us back to almost a quarter of a century before It (2017).

In short, King horror fans felt extremely overdue for a film adaptation, and when It was announced, adapting one of King's best and most beloved masterpieces, excitement went through the roof. With the film itself, once out, proving itself to be not a complete dud (unlike Cell), that excitement translated into viral word-of-mouth, and when it further proved that the wider audience, beyond the die-hard King fans or even readers of the novel, can also enjoy it, King's box office total grew with one film an amount equivalent to what it would have grossed had King horror films been produced regularly throughout those same 24 years of absence.

Which brings us, at long last, to It Chapter Two (2019). With the monster box-office grosses of It (2017), a sequel became an inevitability, as was Muschietti's right to direct it. And so, finally, the stars were all aligned: Budget? Check. Rating? Check. Screen-time? Check. A director who cares about the source material? Check. It was the perfect storm.

Or was it?

The problems of It Chapter Two (2019) begin with the added screen time. Muschietti secured for It Chapter Two (2019) 2 hours and 49 minutes. Together with It (2017), that amounts to over 5 hours of film, and seems, at least on the face of it, long enough to tell the thick and convoluted tale that is the novel It. Unfortunately, It (2017) was never designed with that success in mind. It was self contained and did not include the set-ups that are necessary for the payoffs that the adult half of the novel contains. And, with the highly non-linear nature of the novel, also the reverse: set-ups in the adult timeline lack the payoffs for the adolescents.

Worse, It Chapter Two, trying to weave together the story of the novel, now faced both It (1990) and It (2017) as adversaries, each using the best and most cinematic portions of the book, without setting these up in any way that It Chapter Two could capitalise on. The film was therefore forced to relegate its time to third-tier scenes from the novel, or to bastardise scenes already familiar to the viewers so much that they become unrecognisable.

The third-tier scenes work beautifully, by the way, and are the source of much of what I think of as the film's charm. Scenes that in any ordinary adaptation would have been glossed over easily here get time and focus, letting King's original strengths shine. A perfect example of this is the opening carnival scene, which I was delighted to see included and is played to powerful effect.

Places where the film needed to steer away from pivotal scenes in order to avoid stepping on the toes of its predecessor, however, misfire badly.

For example, the film begins with some beautifully fluid scene transitions: blood dripping from a bathtub morph into blood-spots dripping on a pillow elsewhere completely; or a red balloon tying together two Henry Bowers scenes, 27 years apart. Readers of the novel will recognise these transitions to be nods to the original, mid-sentence chapter transitions of the novel, and in the film they work as powerfully and as magically as they do in the book... but then they disappear from the film, whereas in the book they only grow and intensify, breaking down the linear narrative completely. Why? Because in the book they culminate in the final battle, the showdown between Pennywise and The Losers' Club, which takes place simultaneously in the 1950s and in the 1980s, and, to a certain extent, is echoed far and wide across the multiverse, whereas in the film that could not be done. It (2017) already established that seven children took down Pennywise in a completely standalone fashion, without inter-temporal trickery, appeal to cosmic forces, secret arcane knowledge, or, indeed, anything except the ability to stand beside each other in a single room. Set-up, without pay-off.

And it doesn't help that the film repeatedly broadcasts that it's about to completely disregard the novel's original ending, continuously implying that King writes terrible endings that need to be changed for the movie. I, for one, like King's endings very much, and this specific ending in particular. The repeated claim does not make it true, nor does it elevate the film's actual ending. I won't spoil it here, but many commentators before me pointed out that it's an ending that seems to legitimise the very bullying behaviours that the novel's protagonists so suffer under.

But judging by what audiences seem to most dislike about the film, it appears that It Chapter Two's greatest failing was not in losing specific scenes from the novel, but in losing the novel's structure.

The novel is entirely framed by the experience of the adults. They come to Derry without memory of their adolescent past, and much of the telling has to do with their facing the ghosts of their forgotten childhood. This can be said to be at times a greater focus than facing Pennywise. That being the case, one would think Bill Denbrough re-encountering his bike, Silver, as an adult, would allow the film to fix some of the omissions of the first film, and finally show the audience the magical emotional power at play here. But in a telling example, the film only makes the blunder of the first film worse: instead of showing us what Silver can do, Denbrough only says, as he leaves the shop with Silver, that this bike is "fast enough to beat the devil". Payoff without setup. We have no idea why he says this. It makes no sense in the narrative, neither building on what came before it nor setting up for what comes after. The bike is played for laughs at the very next second, and is never heard of after that. What a waste.

And this is typical of how the film handles the entirety of what's left of the original material. Eddie Kaspbrak in one instance, for example, is attacked by a ghoulish figure, which ultimately, instead of killing him, merely vomits on him exaggerated, copious amounts, in a scene that is played for laughs by the use of a full-volume rendition of the song "Angel of the Morning" in the accompanying soundtrack. The audience is left scratching their heads figuring out why, and what is going on.

For comparison, here's how this was handled in the original. Each of the seven protagonists is defined by two clear features, at least one of which is mentioned in almost every sentence involving them. One is a "negative" feature, which is what Pennywise is preying on, the other a "positive" feature, with which they fight back. Eddie Kaspbrak's negative feature is that he was raised by an overbearing, over-protective mother, who is herself a morbidly obese hypochondriac and is doing her best to pass this on to her son by convincing him at every turn that he is a frail asthma sufferer for whom life is too dangerous, and that the only thing he is capable of doing is taking care of his ailing mother. (Grown-up Kaspbrak, a full-blown hypochondriac, has replaced his unhealthy relationship with his obese mother with an equivalent unhealthy relationship with an obese wife. In the film all this is alluded to only by the use of the same actress, under a fat-suit, for both roles. Nothing else.) All this serves as background in the novel for the scene we are discussing and makes it much more personal, because in the book it is not a ghoul that he encounters. It is a leper. To Eddie, a leper is a symbol of every disease that his frail body barely manages to fend off day-to-day. For Eddie, a leper vomiting on him is a death sentence of the worst possible kind and without a doubt the scariest thing his mind can conceive of. It is no joke.

But the film never builds any of the seven characters their back-stories. It doesn't try to fill in the holes in the narrative of the first film, as it could have, for fear that this will impugn on the integrity of the first film, changing people's perceptions of it. I think that would actually have been a risk worth taking: challenging everything we thought we knew from the first film by setting it against a much wider context; establishing it as merely the tip of a never-ending submerged mountain of cosmic horror that the terrified adults now need to remember and grapple with. That is a film I would have loved to see. That, as they say---and in this case literally---would have been "epic".

Not only more powerful, it would have been more true to the reality-challenging, déjà vu driven, non-linear nature of the novel, and hence an adaptation more faithful to its spirit.

Instead, the film plays it safe. Instead of using the protagonists' walks around Derry as a means to tell us about this haunted town and their haunted childhood in it, the film adopts the stance that everything we needed to know about their childhood we were told in the first film, and so 90 minutes of film that correspond to some of the most inventive horror-writing ever put to page serve absolutely no purpose: they walk; they have a completely meaningless flashback; then there's a jump-scare as Pennywise stalks them as children; then there's a second jump-scare as Pennywise stalks them as adults. Nothing more. Muschietti's over-reliance on jump scares, which was a bane already of the first film, is here on full display and it seems that it is the only part of the vocabulary of horror that he has mastered. What a shame.

And exactly in the same way that we never hear about the seven adolescents' weaknesses, we also never hear about their strengths. In the novel, Eddie Kaspbrak has a compass in his mind, an uncanny ability to navigate anywhere. In the film this is once again alluded to only barely, in a nod that only readers of the book would ever notice, by showing adult Kaspbrak as head of a limousine company. In the book, this is integral, and interlocks like clockwork with the super-talents of the other six adolescents in fuelling the final showdown with Pennywise, in the underground black maze that is the Derry sewer tunnel system. No part of this makes it to the movie.

Hence, viewers of the film that need to appreciate It Chapter Two for what it is, irrespective of its source material, inevitably reach the conclusion that it suffers from an unreasonably overlong second act that leads nowhere and serves no purpose.

So, what happens next? We are now less than 90 minutes away from the end of what should have been a five-hour epic confrontation, and the film had not made in the entire time up until now the slightest progress in setting anything up. With the clock running out and the options whittling down, Muschietti opts for the tried-and-true Hollywood solution: he ignores the entire book, inventing, instead, a completely unrelated plot, centring on a new character that has no origins in the novel and happening in settings and set-pieces that never appeared in the source material, but which neatly and simply ties everything that we have seen so far in a straight line to the book's last battle. The overlong second act thus ends with a skipped third act, landing the viewer in the middle of what should have been the culmination of colossally rising stakes in an epic battle between cosmic forces of good and evil, but doing so without ever introducing the stakes or the players, thus ending what up until now was a Freddy Krueger remake... as a Freddy Krueger remake.

To the casual viewer, the film never earns its saga-length runtime; to the Stephen King fan it is an infuriating waste, merely teasing what it could have been, with nods such as a one-scene appearance of Bill's wife or another of Bev's boyfriend, and with knowing winks such as a second completely-unmotivated appearance of a toy turtle, signalling that its makers knew exactly what fans wanted, but chose not to deliver it to them.

These choices were all best-intentioned, of course. That much is obvious. But it is nevertheless just as obvious, even to viewers who never read the source material, that the makers built with this sequel a leaning-tower-like second floor over the rickety foundations provided by its predecessor. Readers of the book know how much these foundations could have been strengthened, if only the film's makers hadn't opted to please no-one by trying to please everyone.

In the end, It Chapter Two ends up being little more than five hours' worth of jump scares, a cinematic device whose effectiveness drops with each repeated use. It leaves the viewer bored rather than scared, and with big doubts whether Muschietti was the right person to helm this adaptation after all. One can only wonder what a young Frank Darabont would have done in his place.

In the flashback scenes of Chapter Two, we once again see the marquee over the entrance to the Derry cinema, only this time the title displayed there is far more honest. It says: "A Nightmare on Elm Street 5".