Movies

It: Chapter Two Adapts a Storyline About Racism Into a Storyline That’s Racist

The 2019 movie manages to be less progressive than the 1986 novel it’s based on.

Isaiah Mustafa holding a book in a library in It: Chapter Two.
Isaiah Mustafa in It: Chapter Two.
New Line Cinema

When a work you love is adapted to a new medium, it’s inevitable that you’ll focus on the sins of omission and elision, sins that are almost always necessary for the adaptation’s existence in the first place. As I explained in Slate back in 2017 on the occasion of the release of It: Chapter One, It holds a particularly cherished position in my heart—I’ve reread Stephen King’s magnum opus so many times since I first read it in middle school that I’ve literally lost count—so there was never any question that such absences were going to stand out to me. But watching It: Chapter Two, a visually inventive and at times extremely scary film that, at nearly three hours long, could have stood to omit considerably more, I couldn’t help but feel like many of director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman’s choices in adaptation were much worse than necessary sacrifices. They felt like grave misunderstandings, if not willful betrayals, of some of the richest parts of their source material.

Like most 1,000-page, decades-spanning novels about clowns who kill children, It has long been thought to be an unfilmable work. It: Chapter One acquitted itself surprisingly well in this regard, although it did so by sailing the ol’ paper boat down the road, so to speak. In adapting King’s novel to the screen, Muschietti and Dauberman made two major changes to the original material. The first was disentangling the novel’s two parallel timelines—one about the protagonists’ childhood and the other about their adulthood—to make them two discrete entities presented in chronological order. (In King’s novel these two sections are interwoven with one another.) The second was changing the eras in which these two sections are set. In the novel, the childhood sections take place in 1957 and ’58, and the adulthood sections in 1984 and ’85; in the movie, the childhood section takes place in 1988 and ’89, and the adulthood section in 2016.

It: Chapter One thus offered audiences the surprisingly enjoyable experience of watching an R-rated horror film starring a remarkably charismatic cast of foulmouthed adolescents, while collaterally benefiting from the rush on 1980s nostalgia prompted by the runaway success of Netflix’s Stranger Things, a show that owed no small debt to King’s body of work. In choosing this more linear structure, though, the filmmakers also opted to backload many of the novel’s most complex and compelling aspects onto the second movie, setting themselves up for a landing more difficult to execute than the Ritual of Chüd.

That It: Chapter Two struggles to completely stick that landing is no fatal failure, and in many ways confirms what those of us who love this novel have suspected all along: that It is, indeed, an unfilmable book. But what is particularly discouraging is the manner in which Chapter Two misses its marks, as the filmmakers’ choices too often seem to come at the expense of the moral world of the source material. “Moral world” might seem like a strange description of a book like this, but any reader of King’s knows that his best work is in fact deeply concerned with human ethics. It is a novel about many things (at that length, how could it not be), but two of its most prevalent themes are memory and abuse, in a variety of senses. Many of Pennywise’s victims are those whom the town of Derry has already deemed, in a sense, disposable: They are young and vulnerable people, many of whom have been already victimized by the quotidian horror of a world that has turned away from them.

As my colleague Jeffrey Bloomer wrote last week, It: Chapter Two begins with a brutal hate crime, a scene that, while directly lifted from the book, feels cheap and exploitative in the cold-open context of the movie. While the novel’s depiction of this event, based on the real-life killing of Charlie Howard, now reads as dated in many ways (the book is 33 years old), the murder of Adrian Mellon is nonetheless handled with far more reflection and sensitivity in the novel. Because of the aforementioned intertwined chronologies, it occurs immediately after the murder of Georgie Denbrough in 1957, and the juxtaposition of these two events—the death of a small child in the 1950s and the death of a young gay man in the 1980s—quite effectively drives home the theme that these two characters, while drastically different from one another, are united in their profound vulnerability. In the film’s present-day context, the scene’s existence feels jarring and stunted, particularly given the film’s ham-fisted treatment of sexuality in another of its subplots.

Even more egregious, to me, was Chapter Two’s treatment of one of the book’s most important characters, Mike Hanlon, the intrepid librarian and lone black member of the Losers’ Club who summons his childhood friends back to Derry. Hanlon is indispensable to the novel: For starters, significant portions of the book are narrated through his own first-person voice, the only character to whom King affords this device. But he’s also, in many ways, the book’s conscience, the one who’s stayed in Derry and has dedicated his life to studying and attempting to grapple with the town’s horrific history.

In the book, Mike is the last child to join the Losers’ Club, and his story is particularly heartbreaking. He is one of the few Losers who comes from a loving, stable family, and his relationship with his father is the novel’s richest depiction of a parent-child dynamic. But as one of Derry’s only black residents, young Mike is subjected to relentless and sometimes violent racism, particularly at the hands of Henry Bowers, the town’s terrifying bully. In one of the novel’s more wrenching scenes, Henry poisons the Hanlons’ beloved dog, Mr. Chips, in an attempt to win the approval of his own virulently racist and abusive father, who harbors a myopic resentment towards Mike’s dad for being more successful than him.

Both chapters of Muschietti’s It dispense with almost all of this backstory. Perhaps because the first movie is set in 1989, it makes the racism encountered by Mike far more implicit than explicit. The violent bullying he suffers is almost never explicitly racialized, and he’s never assailed with racial slurs, as he frequently is in the book. In a sense this is understandable: While America in the late 1980s was far from any sort of post-racial utopia, such overt expressions of racism were far more socially stigmatized than they would have been in the 1950s. But this then leads us to a narrative problem: What specific trauma, then, has, Mike Hanlon experienced to draw him into the Losers’ Club in the first place?

The filmmakers’ “solution” to this is made disconcertingly evident in the second film. As a young child, Mike Hanlon apparently watched his parents die in a fire, and he harbors guilt over not having done enough to save them. This event is hinted at in the first film, but in oblique ways that also evoked the book’s 1930 Black Spot fire, when a nightclub frequented by black soldiers was burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan–like Maine Legion of White Decency, an event that Hanlon’s father first recounts to him in 1958. It’s particularly disturbing, then, when the second film reveals that Hanlon’s parents were drug addicts (“crackheads,” specifically) who died in a fire that seems to have been either the direct or indirect result of their own drug use, while a young Mike is shown watching them burn alive while seated on his tricycle.

It is one thing for the filmmakers, in transposing a story from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, to dial down the explicit racism a young black character faces. Social mores do indeed change. But to transform the only black protagonist from the child of responsible, nurturing parents into the child of negligent crack cocaine addicts is far worse than lazy writing; it’s to actively draw from a deeply racist set of cultural tropes. In the transition from book to film, Mike Hanlon has arguably gone from a victim of racism at the hands of Henry Bowers to a victim of racism at the hands of the filmmakers. I don’t think that this was done with malicious intent, but I do think it is the product of the filmmakers not knowing how to wrestle with some of the novel’s most challenging but crucial material. Not unlike the town in which it’s set, Muschietti’s It only sees what it wants to.

Update, Sept. 10, 2019: Readers have pointed out that, in a later scene in the film’s epilogue, the newspaper headline that had earlier described Hanlon’s parents as “crackheads” has been changed to the more newspaper-appropriate “local couple.” The implication seems to be that the original headline was Pennywise’s invention. I regret not addressing this in the original article, but not only is this a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, it’s unclear what exactly to make of it. After all, Pennywise spends the movie tormenting the adult characters over each Loser’s “dirty little secret”: Richie Tozier’s sexuality, Bill Denbrough’s guilt over his brother’s death, Beverly Marsh’s abuse at the hands of her father, and so on. We are not meant to believe that any of these other traumas are simply “fake news,” so it’s not clear why Pennywise would turn to pure invention only with Hanlon or why Hanlon would believe him. Is Pennywise the real racist? Is he sensationalizing the truth, or is he simply lying and using his cosmic powers to force Hanlon into believing him? The screenwriting here is at best muddled and inconsistent, and the fact that there is any ambiguity suggests that the problem remains the same.