Halloween is coming, and in honour of a fellow writer, one who may be the most popular “dark fantasy” writer in the world, I’m going to write three columns on recent media featuring the work of Stephen King. I only met King once, and that was at a very early Norwescon at the SeaTac… Hilton, Marriot, whatever. I got my first edition of The Stand autographed; fortunately, he wasn’t as big a name back in those days. (Had we all but known…)
Lots of people have called King the master of horror, as if horror—however you define that word—is all he writes. I’d argue that rather than horror, he writes dark fantasy, as I said before. Yes, much of it is horrible, and there certainly are a number of horrific people, things, and happenings in his work—but his writing probably is wider than what I consider a narrowly defined “horror.”
This whole column (and the next two that follow) will be my opinion only—I’ll be glad if I write something you can agree with, but I’m not really going to defend my opinion or argue about it. So if you wish to comment, be aware that if you hold a contrary opinion to mine, I’ll listen, but I won’t argue or defend my point of view—that’s what this column is expressing.
*******WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!********** As I discuss the various parts of the book, TV series, and movie, I will be telling some things that happened. If you haven’t seen—and wish to see—the new movie, please save this column until you have done so.
King does several things really, really well—in some ways, better than any other fiction writer I read—and a few things not so well. I’ve read some opinions on Facebook by people who say “I don’t read King because I don’t like horror,” and “King is a really lousy writer,” and things like that. First off, nobody is forcing you to read King. But if you like fiction, you’re (as my dear, departed Ma used to say) cutting your nose off to spite your face if you don’t read him because he writes “horror.”
Secondly, if you think he’s a terrible writer, I’ve just got to say you’re dead wrong. He’s not a great writer in literary terms, but in terms of readability, and of creating great, accessible characters, and in terms of setting (time and place) he ranks up there with the best.
I first read IT in 1986, when it was first published. In this book he created seven characters (in no particular order): Mike Hanlon, Beverly Marsh, Bill Denbrough, Stanley Uris, Richie Tozier, Eddie Kaspbrak, Ben Hanscom (and to a lesser degree, Bill’s younger brother, Georgie). Those seven (eight) juveniles live on those pages, along with a host of secondary characters. If you like that book, you darned near can’t forget them, because they’re so real.
The television series that was made from the movie did a pretty good job of bringing these fictional characters to life; they were all separate, and each was memorable in his or her own way, same as in the book. Each one shared the characteristics of the book version of the character. (I’ll only talk about the first half of the series, which the movie covers; the second movie won’t be out until next year.)
The new movie version is watchable, I’ll give it that much. But if you compare it to the TV series, it suffers badly. (In fact, it made me mad in quite a few places, because… well, what’s the reason for remaking a movie or TV series? One would think—if one were ignorant of the way Hollywood does business—that it would be to bring out new facets of the original, or to improve upon it in some way.
But that ain’t the way Hollywood thinks. The movie moguls, bless their pointy little heads and avaricious little hearts, think something on the order of, “Hey! This got a [whatever Nielsen share] and we still own or can get relatively cheaply the rights to do a [sequel or remake], so we don’t have to spend a bunch of money developing something new”—because nobody knows whether something new will pay off, and this has already paid off, which means it already has an audience.
That’s the studio’s thought. Here’s what the director—at least in this case—seems to think. “I’m an auteur, and the original was okay, but not what I would have done, and who the heck is this King guy and how dare he think he knows more about what scares people than I do? I don’t care how many gazillion copies this book has sold; I know film, and I know what works better than some writer.” (OTOH, as they say, some of the blame for this might be put on the three writers of the film.)
Writers have typically gotten short shrift—though, in some cases, well-paid short shrift—from studios and directors. There’s an old Hollywood joke about the starlet who was so ignorant about how to get ahead that she slept with the writer! (That sleeping around is a way to get ahead in “show biz” is now an extremely dubious proposition, given what’s been happening with Harvey Weinstein, who has—from apparently forcing starlets to sleep with him to get ahead—now lost his job, his studio, his family and his reputation. Times change, dude. Get with the program.)
So the director and/or the writer has made a number of changes to the book and/or the movie, depending on which they used as source material. Normally, that’s not a big deal; most books can’t be filmed as written.
The needs of the motion picture are not the same as the needs of the written word; for example, internal dialogue is usually expressed as voice-over (which is being used less and less these days. Characters and scenes can be dropped or combined; even unhappy endings get changed. Modern audiences often don’t understand or accept things that were common in written fiction a century (or more, sometimes less) ago.
And I can accept that the movie director wouldn’t want to film a scene-for-scene reenactment of the TV series/movie. That would make as much sense as a scene-for-scene remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or some other classic movie. (Oh. Wait….) But what is totally unacceptable to me (and, I’m sure to many others, and not necessarily just purists) is the rewriting of King’s actual work to change everything from the backstory to the characters.
In the original (from here on, I’ll refer to the TV series as “the original,” rather than the book; I’m concerned with the media versions), each character was given a scene that expanded on his or her character/backstory; here, that only happened with a few of them, and not terribly well, either.
For example, Stanley Uris (Ben Heller)—the “rational” one of the group, who belonged to the Boy Scouts and was a birdwatcher in the original—is now a kid (Wyatt Oleff) who can’t even memorize the Torah for his bar-mitzvah; he’s afraid of a painting on his father’s (the rabbi’s) office wall. Instead of an ordinary house for his encounter with Pennywise (setting off the rationality), we now have the Addams Family’s house, much decayed (a falling-down, condemned Victorian). So the whole issue—and character—of Stan’s rationality, the reason he couldn’t accept the irrational happening (and the reason he **SPOILER** killed himself in the second half of the original), is gone. The original Stan grows up to be an accountant.
Richie Tozier is (in the original, played by Seth Green, wearing glasses repaired with adhesive tape) the goofball, the funny guy who does voices and makes bad jokes; he’s likeably annoying to his friends, who (for some reason known only to Steve King) say “beep-beep, Richie” when he does so. Richie grows up to be a famous TV comedian. Finn Wolfhard (from Stranger Things) plays Richie in the movie, wearing so-called “Coke-bottle” glasses. He can’t do voices, though he tries once or twice; he doesn’t make jokes, and he’s just plain annoying—his friends now say “Shut up (or “Shut the f**k up”), Richie” and who knows what he’ll grow up to be?
Likewise, Ben Hanscom in the book is fat; in both book and movie, Henry Bowers (the juvenile delinquent human villain of the book) calls him “tits.” In the original, Ben is a big kid (Brandon Crane), but not obviously fat, and you can’t say “tits” on TV (well, you couldn’t in the ‘80s), but the new Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is quite chunky, let’s say—he fits the nickname.
The original Beverly Marsh (Emily Perkins) is a typical 12-year-old (or so) girl; the whole “blood erupting from the sink” was an obvious hint of her oncoming menses; the idea that her janitor father might be or become a sexual predator is hinted at in the original (“I worry about you, Bevvy. I worry a lot.”)
Well, the new Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is a much more attractive (IMO) young woman who appears much older than the rest of the “Losers Club.” And if a little bit of blood (channeling Kubrick’s The Shining?) was good in the original, a whole bathroom full of it must be great! And let’s make the father’s predation overt—and have Beverly kick him in the goolies! Yeah! The heck with all that subtlety stuff!
I can go on about the changes in the protagonists, and the fact that they just—except for Beverly—aren’t that memorable as characters. I could cite the fact that **SPOILER** Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) in the remake is thrown down a well and out of sight (at least thirty feet or so), and would probably not be available for part 2 (I’d like to see how they retconn that one).
But let’s talk about the clown in the room. Given the clown shoes (big ones, right?) he has to fill, Bill Skarsgård does a decent job. Tim Curry’s Pennywise was costumed and made up to appear more or less like a “normal” circus clown. In most of his actions, he doesn’t appear scary, until he reveals himself to be one creepy/scary dude. That contrast between “normal” clown and “scary” clown really helps sell the original version of IT.
There is one scene in the new one, where (for me, anyway) the CGI actually contributes a fair amount to the creepiness… A refrigerator in the “Addams” house opens, and Pennywise is inside, all folded up. He slowly unfolds himself and stands up, then his head pops back the right way and you realize it was 180° from where it should have been. Other than that, there is no time that I can think of where he wasn’t creepy. Even when he’s trying to attract Georgie Denbrough, he’s creepy, and only a six-year-old would fall for his shtick. Plus his costume isn’t a “normal” clown costume; it appears to be antique. Very antique.
And the filmmakers miss so many opportunities—one of the key elements of the book was Georgie asking whether Pennywise’s balloons float; that’s missing in the remake. Instead, Pennywise talks about smells, and how popcorn goes “pop-pop-pop.” Later in the film, he starts talking about floating, but without the setup, it lies flat. Imagine Bill Denbrough, putting wax on the paper boat, telling Georgie it will help it to float. Then Pennywise, in the sewer, with a balloon, talking about floating. There’s your setup for the rest of the movie.
And without the “Beep-beep, Richie” from the kids, Pennywise’s “Beep-beep, Richie,” after he unfolds from the refrigerator (I think that’s when it was) also falls flat. There’s no cause and effect… no setup and (as Robert Heinlein would have said) no blowoff.
Without Ben Hanscom’s putting a dam up in the Barrens—although they’re mentioned several times in the film, but much of the kids’ interaction happens in the quarry instead—there’s no setup for his later becoming an architect, although they try to substitute a paper model he makes of a Derry landmark.
Instead of discovering that Beverly is the best shot of them all with a slingshot, they retconn Mike Hanlon into the adopted son of an abbatoir worker, who dispatches sheep with a captive bolt gun. The bolt gun is then used against Pennyworth instead of the book’s melted-down silver dollars or the original’s melted silver earrings.
There are just too many changes to go into here; changes for no particular reason that I can think of. (Other than what I theorized at first; director and/or writer arrogance.) Like the balloons (that mostly say “I [heart] Derry”)–without that original setup in the sewer, they don’t work as well.
And—in closing—the whole thing of fifteen-year-old actress Sophia Lillis stripping down to her underwear (even though she’s playing 12) for the quarry thing with the boys in their underwear may be trying to play into King’s own creepy little thing of Beverly having sex with the boys; but to me it just seems prurient. And creepy.
Your mileage may vary. You may think it’s no big deal for a filmmaker to change whatever he or she wants when making a movie out of a book; I feel it’s not only unnecessary, it’s totally disrespectful not only to the book’s author, but to the thousands of people who found the book to be wonderful. I didn’t hate this movie, but I hated the unneeeded changes that were made. (One thing, however—“Pennyworth The Dancing Clown” actually did dance in one scene in this movie. That was a very successful creep factor.)
FOR WRITERS: Kevin J. Anderson has curated a Writing Bundle to help you if you want to participate in NaNoWriMo. Check it out here: https://storybundle.com/nano.
It’s good for another 49 days or so. The usual terms apply: pay what you want and get 4 books; pay $15 and get 9(!) bonus books. These are ebooks.
FOR READERS: Kevin J. Anderson (yep, same guy) has curated an Adventure Sci-Fi Bundle with the usual terms. Pay what you want and get five books; pay a certain amount ($15) and get 8 bonus books! https://storybundle.com/scifi. This one’s good for another 20 days or so. Also ebooks.
OH, WHAT THE HELL: Cat Rambo has curated a SFWA Fantasy Bundle: same terms as the previous two: pay what you want and get 4 ebooks; pay $15 and get 8 bonus books! https://storybundle.com/fantasy. This one’s good for 20 days too!
Comment on this column, please. I really like reading intelligent comments on my columns; I’m sure you can contribute something! You can comment here or on Facebook (where I publish a link in several groups). I welcome all your comments whether you agree with me or not. Remember, my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week, for my column on Mr. Mercedes!