03 October 2017

Brunch Movie Review: It

Based on the novel by Stephen King.
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Adapted by Chase Palmer
                    Cary Fukunaga
                    Gary Dauberman
To see the full cast and crew go here.

It is a story of Derry a haunted town, and a town that is a haunt. It is also the story of the seven brave kids who decide to confront the evil that stalks through Derry’s Norman Rockwellian facade.
It is an undeniably well made and mostly well written movie. The acting is all very good the production values are all very high. The film is filled with disturbing images and, sometimes, very often in fact, dense brooding atmosphere. There are even some very worthy jump scares.1 Most of the characters from King’s novel are on screen. They come very close to feeling right. It is appropriate that Stephen King’s name isn’t on the poster though. The film feels like only a dim recollection of his novel. The experience of watching it, reminded me of seeing a high school student crash and burn on a book report they had only skimmed the night before in a desperate attempt to eke out at least a C-. The general outline is there, but the film as adaptation, like my imaginary book report,  feels deflated, and skeletal.

If you are a fan of the novel, I suspect this adaptation won’t work for you. It didn’t for me, a fact that made me incredibly sad, because this is a film I really wanted to like. I first read Stephen King’s It in the eighth grade, in the year 1987 (i had to wait for it to come out in paperback). In the intervening thirty years, I’ve read the novel through at least five times and have re-read bits and pieces here and there, to probably, if we are being generous, add up to a sixth reading. In some way or another, since that long ago year of 1987, It feels like it has been with me. To this day if I see a sewer drain,2 or see clown, or see kids, obvious friends, riding bikes to parts unknown, It sends some signal to my frontal cortex for reflection. The geography, and dark character of Derry, its villains and its heroes form easy recollections. After 1987  Bill, Ben Stan, Bev, Richie, Mike, Eddie, (seven is a strong number the turtle would have noted) even Henry Bowers and dread Pennywise itself have traveled with me.

When I could make myself forget about the source material I could appreciate the craftsmanship (generally quite good) of the film. Sadly the source material kept reasserting itself and ruining my ability to immerse myself in the film. The source material wasn’t alone. It was joined by the impossibly good and much better adapted 1990 tv mini-series starring Tim Curry. The book and that mini-series crowded in, over and over again demanding that my mind make comparisons, always to the detriment of the new film. Netflix’s masterpiece Stranger Things often joined in when it really shouldn’t have. However Muschietti and his writers elected to set part one of It 1983. Thus the kids and the feel constantly evoke Stranger Things. This is too bad, given that the latter, owes so much to King’s dark novel. I think the decision could have worked in the absence of Stranger Things, but in that series' afterglow it looks too much like copying. This comparison is not helped by the presence of Finn Wolfhard who played Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things. Finn’s Richie Tozier is on the mark, and remarkably different from Mike Wheeler, never the less, comparisons, for me at least became unavoidable.

I’m not necessarily a purist about adaptations. I thought Phillipa Boyens, with Fran and Peter Jackson, gave viewers a wonderful adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in their film trilogy. I didn’t always agree with their choices, but I thought, for the most part they captured the essences of both story and the characters.The goal in that adaptation was to attempt, as often as was possible, one to one correspondence with the book. It works. Or consider the adaptations faced by the comic book movie adapters. The kind of one to one correspondence Jackson et al did isn’t nearly as possible. Writers have narrative history spanning decades, and fans across generations. Here what is important are writing true to the characters and being true to the essences of the stories you want to adapt. Bryan Singer understood this when he tackled Marvel’s X-Men. The story had to be both new and old, but the characters had to be true. Wolverine couldn’t be suave and sophisticated and Charles Xavier couldn’t be a tap dancing kung fu master. So I get it. Movies aren’t the books they sometimes adapt and viewers should be able to set the two in different places. The two media do different kinds story telling. The adaptation has to be true though, and for inexplicable reason, the writer’s of this iteration of It, fail that the trueness test, thus as an adaptation worthy of the source material It also fails.

That is a long preface to the following conclusion. If you aren’t as attached to the novel, love scary movies and don’t mind a few horror movie tropes (these tropes were not present in the novel) you will probably really like It. 4 If you are attached to the novel, my guess is that the movie won’t work for you, and it won’t work in a big way. I could be wrong on either count, so you should definitely see the movie and decide for yourself. Tell me your thoughts in the comment box below.

Verdict 1: It as straight horror film: 8/10 or if you prefer the old, and very forgiving Ebert method 3/4 stars.
Verdict 2: It as adaptation 6/10 or 2/4 stars Ebert scale.

SPOILERS BELOW do not continue unless you don’t mind spoiling spoilers. 
Okay, you were freakin’ warned.

As a straight horror film, It works fairly well. There is a lot of brooding atmosphere. In an early scene, one of our heroes Bill asks his younger brother Georgie to go down into the basement to get some paraffin to finish a paper boat. Its a pretty fine example of what the film does well in the first two acts. It builds its dread, with admirable patience. Its on old basement, dirt floors, not well lit, the lights don’t work, and the rain that has caused record flooding is backed by a dark gray sky and the basement’s tiny ground level windows don’t provide a strong light against the dark basement. Its stellar stuff. The film manages to keep it smart like this throughout. At the beginning of the turn toward the film’s conclusion though, the writers start introducing some stock horror movie contrivances, and the contrivances of bad or rushed writers everywhere.

If the film is weak anywhere in its first two acts it is in the very underwhelming way in which it brings its protagonists together. Its also not terribly effective at demonstrating the deep almost mystical rapport of childhood friendships, which is the very heart of King’s novel. It brings the kids together I suppose, but it is all pretty perfunctory. Our heroes are Stuttering Bill Denebrough, Eddie Kapsbrak, Richie Tozier (who were friends before Georgie died), Ben “Haystack” Hanscom (he is the fat kid), Beverly Marsh (a working class girl with no real friends), and Mike Hanlon (in this film a black farm kid who lives with his weirdly dickish granddad). They call themselves the Loser’s Club. With exception of Richie Tozier, and Beverly Marsh, none of them feel terribly well fleshed out. I’m not even sure Richie and Beverly are all that well fleshed out, but they have some good lines, delivered by good actors. They are flat in a way they were not in the novel. They don’t have any real interests, so its hard to buy into their connections with each other, when we don’t feel connected to them. The Loser’s Club is opposed directly by Henry Bowers and his gang of knuckle dragging trouble makers, Victor “Vic” Criss, Belch Huggins. In the novel Henry attracted a couple of other high school psychos and kids who would rather hang with the bully than be one of his victims. The Loser’s Club is also opposed by It or its alter ego Pennywise the dancing clown. The town of Derry seems against them in many ways too. I hope I am not boring you with this summary, but its important ground work, and the film gets a C at establishing these players. It isn’t terrible for a standard horror film but it doesn’t work as an adaptation of It. 

Bowers and his friends terrorize the Losers here and there in mostly convincing ways. The Losers score a big victory when they defend Mike Hanlon from Bowers, who is increasingly demonstrating a willingness, even an eagerness to take his bullying too far.  At the edge of a creek in Derry’s pine barrens he seems ready and willing to empty Mike’s skull of brains with a large rock. The Losers have numbers and lay waste to Henry and his friends, driving them away and picking up another friend.

The film establishes that our heroes are fairly smart kids (that it seems to want to be both high school age and middle school aged). It doesn’t explore their interests, or explore their motivations very much at all, but more about that later. What we can conclude is that are not dumb kids. For some reason though, they start doing a great many dumb, dumb, dumb things. In their first confrontation with Pennywise, they march into its lair with no clue how to fight it, no clue whether they can fight it, despite the fact that they know it has been around for a very, very long time. But no, they just walk into monster’s house. Characters in dumb horror films are allowed to do dumb things. Characters in films that spend a lot of time setting a higher bar don’t later get to go under it with out commentary from the likes of me. Our heroes stupidly allow themselves to get separated. They get their asses kicked pretty good, which at least makes some sense. Then what follows is the trope of the sundering friendship. After getting a thorough drubbing from Pennywise, Richie Tozier does a riff on Private Hudson from Aliens. 

Bill concedes that Richie indeed grasps what just happened and suggests they try again. He suggests weapons next time, that they really-really not get separated next time. To which Richie, says, and I paraphrase, “whoa, whoa, fuck that noise.” Richie follows this reasonable stance up with some unreasonable and incendiary things, an insensitive reference to Bill’s missing, and likely dead brother Georgie being among them. Fight ensues. Bill and Bev plead, but the others are like, “nah, I’m out” and only two remain, Beverly Marsh and Bill Denebrough. What they decide we don’t know because the scene cuts away. Its all uncomfortably remeinsceint of the fight in Stranger Things and all uncomfortably foreign to the source material.

Not to worry the fellowship of The Loser’s Club reassembles about 15-20 minutes later. Pennywise kidnaps Bev (Bev, prior to her kidnapping, killed her dad..i think?). Stuttering Bill happens upon the scene of a big fight in Bev’s house, sees her dead prone on the floor, the tile below his head a growing pool of dark red. Pennywise has left Bill a message on the ceiling of Bev’s bathroom. “You’ll die if you try!” Bill is unimpressed and immediately Bill calls his friends (not paramedics I noticed) and with out any question they join in on the Beverly saving quest. The Losers coming back together is supposed to be a triumphant moment in the film. It almost was for me, but I also didn’t like the useless manipulation of the friendship fight trope.

It is at this point that the film hits cruise control all the way to the finish. The Losers Club goes back to the lair, this time with a sheep puncher gun and some spikes from a wrot-iron fence. They vow not to get separated. They get separated. Pennywise has recruited Henry Bowers to help. Henry almost ruins the Losers ill conceived plans but takes a fall down a well at the hands of Mike that has to function like a kind of eraser for Bowers himself. The Losers get confronted with their fears, they save Bev, and then beat the shit out of It with impact weapons. The Loser’s Club drives It away with bats, rebar,  and other improvised clubs. I’m not sure how that could work, given that earlier one of them drove a three foot make-shift spear through Pennywise’s skull, but, yeah, sure. Together they went medieval on its ass. There are some nice lines, and the action is pretty good. as I’ve said elsewhere, I probably wouldn’t have minded except...

....except for the depth and wonder of Stephen King’s epic novel.

The film lacks all of the depth of the novel. In the book the first fight the Losers have with it took place between 1957-1958.  Why set it in the 1980s? Why high school(wish)? Why ignore the racial animus the Bowers feel toward the Hanlons? Why aren’t the Bowers also farmers, with a lesser farm than the one run by the Hanlons? King wanted to say some thing about the false world of the fifties  with It, but by setting it in the 80s, the writers lose a lot of depth. Why do the kids have no real personalities? Why do they have no interests? Ben has an aptitude for engineering, Bill is a great story teller, Tozier is funny, imaginative and talented at making people laugh. Stan is logical and sharp, and Eddie is a great friend, Mike was an outsider even among outsiders in Maine in 1957. He knows a lot about Maine, so does his dad. Why the kill off Mike’s parents? Why make Richie fear clown instead of werewolves?

The movie completely ignores the kids process of figuring out how you fight a creature like It. It becomes what you fear. In the book the kids find that It is afraid of them, in a daring sweatlodge, they sort of find out why. They go to the library and learn about Chimera, they surmise that by becoming what they fear, It also is makes itself vulnerable to their beliefs about those feared monsters. It was powerful but it played by rules. They embark on a sweatlodge, they...they do things to be able to beat the monster. They don’t just pick up improvised impact weapons and beat the shit out of Pennywise.  They use Richie’s powerful fear werewolves to attack Pennywise, with the weakness of werewolves, silver. Its wonderful, insightful and sometimes sad novel from which writers could have plumbed deeply. With It as their starting point they could have given us a piece of art that did more than was merely an adequate and often good genre piece. They could have given us a film like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a film that left genre behind. They could have given us just a great film.

I say this a lot in my blog reviews, and I thought the past twenty years of movie history had finally driven the message home. Apparently my message hasn’t gotten to everyone. Source material is key and king. When it is ignored, or not honored a film adaptation is likely to go sideways. Adapting a big book, or even a small one (I’m looking at you Hobbit) is a tough task. The source material will often be a tragedy, for the adapter at any rate, of wealth. Adapting a good book must be a process or trimming. What gets cut and why? Can the writer’s combine events and characters? Do you cut and give a fan service reference? These are all tough spots for the writers adapting material, but the process should be one of what is absolutely necessary to tell this story, what events are too important to ignore? Pick the format, write a script that fits that format, and then rewrite until you have a movie that both fans of the novel will enjoy and that honors the material while grabbing new viewers unfamiliar with the source material . Also, when writing, have some faith in and respect for your audience. Marvel Studios, Peter Jackson and others have shown that if you write a good script, the audience will follow even if your hero is a talking raccoon spaceship pilot, or an Amazon warrior fighting Germany in World War I. We also see what happens over and over again, when filmmakers think they know better than the source material. Fox Studios abysmal Fantastic Four film is a wonderful example and by wonderful I mean awful. Michael Bay continues to produce fresh outrages  of this sort with his direction or producing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers “films." The same happened in both G.I. Joe movies. The filmmakers essentially gave a giant middle finger to the source material and thought they knew better. Audiences, or critics and sometimes both gave the films their own middle fingers critique.

Andy Muschietti’s It, doesn’t quite get as bad as the above unmentionables, it is a well made film after all.  However, it is hard to deny that he and his team of writers have failed the audience by electing to ignore the novel far too often and do their own thing. This is too bad. They had a great plan. Break the book into two films. That should have given them (had they aimed for longer films, say 2 1/2 or even 3 hours) all the room they need to make not only a decent piece of horror film making, but also produce two great films, filled with nuance, and depth. They settled, and it seems we have to as well.

1. In bad horror films jump scares are almost always ill conceived and the moment you stop to think about the mechanics of the scare the less sense they make. Bad jump scares ruin immersion for sharp eyed movie fans. It never annoyed me with them. Whew.

2. After I first read It, I gave sewer drains a very wide berth for nearly a year. And at night, I added manhole covers to the list of avoidables.

3. The film treatment of Faramir is the largest, most glaring, and mostly only, major misstep I felt Peter Jackson’s film made. I appreciated their reasons, for the their decisions, but I thought they probably should have trusted their audience more. That is a case to prosecute in a different blog.

4. The third act begins with a suite of horror movie tropes and tension contrivances relied upon by bad writers, television writers or writers in a hurry. Smart characters doing dumb things, things they specifically said they would not do is the most glaring of these contrivances. “Lets not get separated.’ Smart characters immediately begin making bad decisions that result in separations. Tripping while being chased, which I am sure happens (though it happened pretty rarely when I was chased at these kids ages) was incredibly popular with Director Andy Muscheitti.


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