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Devious Dialogues: Mike Thorn and A.M. Novak on Stephen King’s ‘It’

It’s a good year to be a Constant Reader. Fans of Stephen King’s books are being treated to several TV and film adaptations of his most beloved works: Mike Flanagan took the helm for Gerald’s Game, which is in post-production, and The Dark Tower has a theatrical release date of August 4th of this year. But in just a few weeks, the world will be introduced to Pennywise the Clown on the big screen when It slithers into theaters on September 8th. The story of a group of outcast children (self-labeled The Losers’ Club) who discover a shape-shifting, child-eating monster is one of King’s most popular bestsellers, and stands alongside The Stand as some of his greatest literary work. Mike Thorn and A.M. Novak discuss the novel’s themes and resonance, as well as the film adaptations, below.

Anya: I went into the novel at age 14, but I was already aware of Pennywise the Clown, having peeked around the corner as my parents were watching the miniseries on tape, when I was far too young to watch such things. Tim Curry’s vicious performance was the source of many nightmares I had as a child. The clown, I believe, taps into our collective fear of the uncanny, a trepidation of the vaguely familiar. What was your first encounter with Pennywise, and what is it that makes him such a resonant horror icon, in your opinion?

Mike: I think I read Stephen King’s novel and saw Tommy Lee Wallace’s miniseries right around the same time, when I was 12 or 13. I can’t remember which one came first, the book or the adaptation, but they were both major presences in my adolescent and early teenage years. They’ve both stuck with me ever since, especially the book, which I’ve re-read several times. I keep coming back to the miniseries, too.

To answer the second part of your question: I think you’ve summarized what makes Pennywise such a memorable figure – he perfectly represents Sigmund Freud’s object of “the uncanny.” Sometimes, I wish that the popular narrative surrounding It wasn’t defined so prominently by the figure of Pennywise, since he/it’s only one of many conduits and expressions for fear. At the same time, I can’t deny that King’s child-killing, sewer-dwelling clown is such an eerily distinct character.

Anya: The story (both in print and on film) deals heavily with trauma and how we process it. The members of The Losers’ Club aren’t the only ones that struggle with trauma in their lives; there are hints that Henry Bowers and the other bullies are victims of poverty and abuse themselves. What do you think of the secondary antagonists and their role in the story?

Mike: I’m so glad you asked this question, because I think this is where a lot of the novel’s nuanced morality comes into play. King presents Henry Bowers as an oppressive figure, but the novel traces Henry’s violent behavior back to a horrific domestic environment. King takes time to explore this cycle: Bowers’ father is racist, homophobic, misogynistic, physically and emotionally abusive. Henry’s metaphoric role goes even further when King depicts the character’s relationship with It, who is not only a monster from someplace “out there,” but also Derry’s collectively cast-off oppression, complicity and violence. So, reading Bowers affects me in extremely ambivalent ways; he performs cruel and detestable actions throughout It, but the novel never loses sight of the surrounding culture that enables and even encourages his behavior. How about you? What are your thoughts on Henry Bowers and the novel’s other secondary antagonists?

Anya: Henry Bowers and his bullying cohorts are interesting villains, as they are, like you mentioned, symbols of Derry’s complicity in heinous crimes and injustices. Henry, in particular, is not even a monster himself, but a tool of It; his innate brutality and hatred is used toward It’s own agenda. Further, the townspeople often fall into a sort of trance during these “feedings” of It and become, by their own inaction, assistants in the generational slaughters. The villainy of those who do nothing in the face of injustice is a common theme in King’s works, especially in The Mist and in The Stand.

Another central theme in It (and a common theme across Stephen King’s works) is that when ordinary people join forces, they can achieve extraordinary things against overwhelming evil. Every individual has something special to contribute; each child has his or her strength connected to their purity and youthful imagination. When The Losers’ Club forms a bond and works together against It, the effects of each of their contributions are magnified. Their vivid imaginations and childish ability to simply believe are both a threat to their survival and a weapon against It. How do you feel about this theme, both in print and onscreen?

Mike: You’re totally on point with this career-spanning trend — we can see it as early as The Stand (if not earlier), and it’s a fixation that still lingers in King’s recent work, especially the Bill Hodges trilogy Mr. Mercedes (2014), Finders Keepers (2015) and End of Watch (2016). I think that, at first glance, this concept might seem naïve or facile to the old-school, critical-literary elite, and maybe that’s partially why his “literary credibility” has sometimes been doubted or even disregarded. But I think King’s sensibility is complicated, even conflicted, and this kind of humanist affirmation comes from an underlying optimism. For a horror writer who so convincingly plumbs the depths of twisted psychology and destructive sociopolitical trends, this positive impulse is sometimes tricky to wrap my head around. I think the impulse comes from King’s allegiance to Ray Bradbury, but I also think it comes from his insistence that the horror genre can foreground the positive even despite its traumatic and disturbing qualities. To my mind, King is equal parts H.P. Lovecraft and Bradbury, and this makes for a strange, sometimes challenging philosophy; From A Buick 8 (2002) deals with this tension in really interesting ways. What do you make of King’s tendency toward uplifting endings, rare exceptions like Revival (2014) and Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of The Mist notwithstanding?

Anya: While King puts his characters through the wringer in their battles monsters (both human and inhuman), his ultimate message is one of hope; the world is a terrible place full of terrible people, but it’s worth saving and we have the ability to save it — if we stick together. To me, it’s a far more difficult approach to take skillfully, particularly in the horror genre. King manages it beautifully. Unfortunately, his challenging philosophies can lead to some jarring scenes that even the most ardent genre fans question.

We can’t go over the It story without talking about the most controversial element in the book, one that was omitted from the miniseries and will likely be omitted from the upcoming film adaptation: the sex scene. After a nasty battle with the monster, the kids need a way to sustain their collective power, and the way they do that is with a sort of… love-in. Personally, I felt that while the scene is shocking and weird, it makes sense within the thematic context of rites of passage and the loss of innocence. Beverly, in particular, is given overwhelming agency (the entire act was done upon her insistence, after all), though her vagina is given a Freudian treatment as a mystical “home” for the boys to return to in an infantile sense. What did you think of this moment in the book, and do you believe it could ever plausibly be translated to the big screen?

Mike: I find it really difficult to talk about this scene. First off: there’s no way it’ll ever be translated to the big screen, and that’s probably for the better. To my mind, there are two aspects of the scene that make it so vexing and uncomfortable: the gender imbalance, and the characters’ ages. King does write the scene from Beverly’s perspective, and his prose is noticeably poetic and evocative; it’s almost abstract — I think, from the perspective of style, he handles the moment as tactfully as he can. And it does serve a narrative/thematic purpose, as you’ve identified. What do you make of this moment? Do you think the narrative importance justifies its inclusion, or is it invalidated by the debatably sexist symbolism?

Anya: I feel that that Freudian symbolism is unsettling to see applied to an adolescent girl (when I see Freud applied to child characters it’s rarely of a conscious sexual context), but charges of sexism strike me as weak. That’s part of a lazy trend of film and literary criticism wherein current “woke” standards are retroactively applied to works of decades past. As the scene stands within the thematic context of the story, it’s disturbing but not unnecessary. Beverly’s character arc was one partially built upon her sexuality, her body, and the fear of those things as they relate to puberty. In fact, there’s an earlier scene in the book in which she is walking through an old junkyard and finds:

“…a babydoll, its plastic skin so brightly pink it looked almost boiled. She picked it up, then dropped it with a little cry as she saw the whitish-gray beetles squirming from beneath its moldy skirt and down its rotting legs. She rubbed her fingers on her jeans” (pg. 798).

These little blink-and-you’ll-miss-them glimmers of symbolism hint at her trepidations regarding her changing body as a nexus of change to be feared. In the tunnel sex scene, she confronts this fear head-on, and restores physical power to her friends in the process, all consensually. But like you, I don’t expect to see this scene ever depicted onscreen. It’s just too controversial.

Last question. Twenty-seven years after the 1990 miniseries, how does it hold up for you? In anticipation of the film coming out in September, are there elements you’d like to see improved upon?

Mike: Taking into consideration the limitations of the cable network miniseries format, I think Tommy Lee Wallace’s adaptation is really quite good. I love that he pays respect to the autobiographical and historical significance of the novel’s timelines, setting the childhood segments in the 1950s and the adulthood portions in the 1980s. After cutting his teeth on the brilliant Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), Wallace developed a keen and genre-specific eye for lighting, composition, and special effects. Undoubtedly, the miniseries is a much tamer and radically condensed adaptation of its source, but it’s something I’ve regularly revisited for a very long time.

I’m trying to remain cautiously optimistic about the new version, but I was heartbroken by the news that Andrés Muschietti and company decided to change the novel’s timelines. For me, so much of the book’s meaning hinges on its subversive/deconstructive depiction of 1950s Americana, and on the correspondence between present and past. I have to also begrudgingly admit that the trailer did nothing for me, but I’ll wait to judge the movie until I’ve seen it. We’ll all be better off if it turns out to be a good adaptation!

In an ideal world without limitations, I can imagine how I would write and direct my own It adaptation, but the fact that the new version has discarded the novel’s historical through-line already cancels that out! Still, I’ll be there on opening night, eagerly hoping for a pleasant surprise. How about you? What are your hopes for the new film?

Anya: It has Stephen King’s blessing, and that’s as good as it gets for Constant Readers.

A.M. Novak (@BookishPlinko) is a Video Nasties columnist at Daily Grindhouse. When she’s not staunchly defending Halloween 6, she is a contributor to Birth.Movies.Death., F This Movie, Diabolique Magazine and wherever they’ll let her talk about horror movies. Read more of her work at anyawrites.com.

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.

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