How ‘It Chapter Two’ robs book-readers of Stephen King’s bittersweet finale

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR “IT CHAPTER TWO” AND STEPHEN KING’S NOVEL FOLLOW. 

No one who’s read the behemoth that is Stephen King’s “It” was fooling themselves that Andy Muschietti’s 21st-century duology would have been completely faithful in its translation to the big screen. Fully fleshing out the Loser’s Club’s friendships and King’s trademark themes of childhood innocence lost is one thing; imbuing visual language into the cosmic origins of the extra-terrestrial being that is Pennywise and his eternal battle with a space turtle who vomited the universe is another ask altogether.

2017’s “It” realized this to a successful degree, subtly drawing on the aspects of King’s novel that would best cater to the attentive contours of mainstream horror audiences – the omnipresence of evil in Derry’s history, the emotional anchor of the young Losers, a malevolent force that could shapeshift into our worst fears – while mostly leaving to the page the bits that were too eccentric and narratively ambiguous for a studio movie to try to recreate. This is a buzzy Warner Bros. production, after all. Not an A24 joint.

Part of what makes the recently-released “It Chapter 2” a disappointing finish to the story is its inability to practice the same level of restraint. King’s book strikes an admirable balance between the nostalgically tender and the terrifyingly strange, and despite (or because of) the near-certainty that the second part to the biggest horror movie of all time would be just as smashing a box office success, Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman clearly felt inclined for an already-bloated movie (I’m not opposed to a near-three-hour running time; I’m opposed when it feels like seven hours) to make literary references that don’t just hamper the overall experience; they drag it down. This despite the first “It” film’s finding a place among the best of Stephen King adaptations, certainly of recent years.

A consistent contributor to the new movie’s issues is narrative regurgitation that doesn’t construct a sense of dread so much as make you realize you’ve got four of five more of the same shoddily-constructed scenes and jump scares to endure before the final act—a video game-y task list as dull cinema. The only times Dauberman’s screenplay was more frustrating was when it was going out of its way to appease book readers in ways I wasn’t necessarily expecting. The issue: Many of these scenes crossed the line from subtle nods to unfulfilled promise, or – even worse – an irregular translation to the screen so as to come off as unintentional comedy.

Some of these moments manifest as character details. For example, early in the film, as Mike calls each of the Losers up after 27 years to remind them of the promise carved on their hands, we’re offered a look at where Bill, Beverly, Ben and Co. are as they enter their 40s. A grown-up Eddie Kaspbrak, played by James Ransone, is weaving through New York City at the wheel of a Cadillac SUV as he talks with his wife over the phone. We catch a quick glimpse of her, too—true to the book, you’d be forgiven for mistaking her and her authoritarian presence for Eddie’s domineering mother.

There’s a reason for that in the source material, which does a better job detailing how the adult Losers haven’t been able to completely shed the weaknesses that pervaded their nature as teens. In Eddie’s case, King’s novel explores the psychology behind Eddie’s marriage to someone who just like his mother, why he had to retain the familiar to hold onto some semblance of control over his life—even when his mother and his wife are the ones asserting that control. That nuance doesn’t only fail to translate to “It Chapter Two,” but it’s reduced to a strange – and unintentional? – laugh line when, as a call from Maine pops up on his phone, Eddie haphazardly says “I love you, Mommy” to his wife before hanging up. I don’t expect non-book readers to understand why that moment is more an indictment of Eddie’s maturation than just a line to discard, and it’s strange that the movie decides to even include it when we’re already hopping from adult Loser to adult Loser in rapid-fire fashion. Even if you get the notion that that line means something beyond an awkwardly slapsticky moment, Muschietti doesn’t allow us the time to dwell on it, and fully wonder why.

A similar inclusion of a detail later in the movie comes across as equally strange, if not totally random given the already movie is already huffing and puffing to maintain some semblance of tonal consistency from one scene to the next. In the novel, Bill’s bike, Silver, is a source of strength and bravery. The way King writes it, Silver is almost a secret weapon, a way for Bill outrun his personal demons after Georgie’s death. And in the book, his reuniting with it is a powerful moment, a reminder that returning to Derry after nearly three decades doesn’t have to mean simply returning to fear, but returning to bravery too.

In the movie, meanwhile, Bill spotting Silver in an antique shop window on the streets of his childhood hometown feels like little more than an excuse to include an extended (admittedly iconic) King cameo. The glee of seeing one of our most enduring contemporary authors pull a Stan Lee is much more powerful than the ostensibly emotional moment of seeing James McAvoy’s adult Bill trying to ride Silver for the first time in decades. The brief sequence is initially played for laughs as the rusted bike nearly falls apart as he’s on it – an achy relic of history that can’t keep up with the demand of a new century – and it sets things up for McAvoy’s triumphant shouting of “Hi ho, Silver, awayyyy!” to be reduced from a powerful motif in the novel to an eyebrow-raising moment in which we ask ourselves if McAvoy’s Bill is entirely sane or not. It’s an expendable scene in the movie, made even more so when it comes to the film’s ending (more on that in a bit), and an ill attempt on the movie’s part at connecting the child Losers to their adult selves (Part of the ingenuity of King’s novel is that abandons traditional chronology for simultaneously chronicling the events of both timelines, with parallel emotional beats and journeys to mirroring climaxes serving as the writer’s way to maneuver around a 27-year gap in his story.)

The same incredulity extends to the movie’s iteration of the Ritual of Chüd, a mutation of the mind-warping and Lovecraftian strategy the novel’s Losers use to ultimately defeat It into one that is as purely uninteresting as it questionable (Native American appropriation is the last thing I expected “It Chapter Two” to include). The argument could be made that the film’s beast of a running time could have been justified if its third act was devoted to being as fully capital-W Weird as the book, which psychologically transports the Losers across the cosmos into an encounter with Maturin, a space turtle and the benevolent antithetical to Pennywise (no, really. Really).

 Meanwhile, first movie stripped the children’s strength down to the power of belief—in a movie where the highlight was the young Losers’ chemistry, their defeat of their own fear is an acceptable enough alternative. We don’t have to delve much into why their cinematic triumph in the sequel doesn’t work nearly as well; I’d rather not discuss the concept of clown infants for the rest of my day, nor the adult Losers defeating it by essentially pulling an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on It.

Their way of beating a predatory, child-munching alien aside, the coda to the movie’s failure, for me, is the dulling of the its emotional and thematic anchors. Let’s briefly return to the reunion of Bill and Silver, as well as an earlier introduction to a minor character I didn’t expect to see in the movie, and whose inclusion doesn’t entirely pan out by the time the credits roll nearly three hours later.

Dauberman’s screenplay has us meeting Bill’s wife, Audra, an actress whose occupation mirrors her husband’s love for stories. Book readers may have perked up at the sight of her, purely as a potential indicator of things to come—namely, a potential ending recreating the bittersweetness that resides on the final paragraphs of King’s novel.

In the book’s epilogue, an unsure Audra follows Bill to Derry, where Henry Bowers is manipulated by It into kidnapping and taking her to his lair. There, his true presence proves too much to handle; she essentially enters a vegetative state. And when the book’s adult Losers defeat Pennywise, essentially ridding Derry of an evil spirit that has plagued it for centuries, Bill is left to wonder if Audra will ever be the same. Weeks after the final battle, with Audra not faring any better, Bill hops on Silver with Audra clutching him loosely, and off he takes down the street—pedaling like his life depends on it, pedaling because her life depends on it. He picks up speed on Silver, barely dodging pedestrians on the street, and hears Audra’s first words in a long while, “dazed and a little thick.” He’s reviving his adult life, while also fully – and necessarily – abandoning his teenage one. Eventually he reaches speeds fast enough to beat the devil, as the epilogue’s title suggests.

Bill stopped and turned to her. She was pale, wide-eyed, obviously scared and confused…but awake, aware, and laughing.

“Audra,” he said, laughing with her. He helped her off Silver, leaned the bike against a handy brick wall, and embraced her. He kissed her forehead, her cheeks, her mouth, her neck, her breasts.

She hugged him while he did it.

“Bill, what’s been happening? I remember getting off the plane at Bangor, and I can’t remember a thing after that. Are you all right?”

“Yes.”

“Am I?”

“Yes. Now.”

She pushed him away so she could look at him. “Bill, are you still stuttering?”

“No,” Bill said, and kissed her. “My stutter is gone.”

“For good?”

“Yes,” he said. “I think this time it’s gone for good.”

 

In the next paragraph, King invites us into Bill’s mind one last time.

 

I will write about all of this one day, he thinks, and knows it’s just a dawn thought, an after-dreaming thought. But it’s nice to think so far awhile in the morning’s clean silence, to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love. To think that what has looked forward must also look back, and that each life makes its own imitation of immortality: A wheel.

Or so Bill Denbrough sometimes thinks on those early mornings after dreaming, when he almost remembers his childhood, and the friends with whom he shared it.

It’s the ultimate coda by King in a novel that so delicately explores how we don’t just forget about our childhoods the more we grow older, but how that devolving of memories into foggy dreams – memories of rock fights in the Barrens, of young love, of defeating evil– is a keystone to advancing in life, in our subsequent relationships and careers, in our later trials and battles. The Loser’s Club may have been victorious in their defeat of It, but there’s no defeating the inevitability of growing up.

“It Chapter 2,” meanwhile, doesn’t seem to care for such emotional introspection; it’s over with Audra as soon as we’ve met her. Themes of memory and its erosion are clearly on the movie’s mind – the adult Losers who left Derry not remembering what happened there 27 years ago mirrors the novel, and the memories slowly returning to them as they reminisce over Chinese food and beer is the movie’s best scene – which makes the last-act switcheroo on King’s complex ending that much more unusual of a choice. For as much as Dauberman’s screenplay is more interested in the quirks of the novel to a much higher degree than the 2017 movie, it sugarcoats the thoughtful existentialism of King’s ending—despite introducing Silver, which has an integral role in it.

Instead of encouraging audiences to contend with the fact that moving on from our best memories is a natural part of life, the adult Losers now remember everything crystal-clear. They’ve returned to the individual cubbyholes of their individual lives, yes, but Mike’s calling up Bill to see how he’s holding up at movie’s end insinuates – both explicitly and implicitly – that they’ll always be there for each other, no matter how many miles apart they are.

It’s a naively sentimental ending that betrays the two-part saga’s themes and intentions, and robs it of a much more impactful and nuanced final scene we may have gotten if Dauberman’s fascination with the book had extended to the maturity of its final pages. At “It’s” heart is a story about characters whose reluctance to grow out of their childish whims and fears, but the real horror isn’t a killer clown…it’s the realization that, eventually, we’ll simply have to. The movie’s ending may as well have seen the adult Losers gallop into the Derry sunset, never to abandon each other.

We witness the ending of It in “It Chapter Two,” yes. But in a movie so keen on satisfying book readers, its robbery of any meaningful glimpse of what would really happen to the Losers after their battle with Pennywise is a much meaner trick than anything It ever pulls on them.

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