Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Learnin' #2: Stephen King's IT

"Once you get into cosmological shit like this, you got to throw away the instruction manual." - The Turtle (AKA, God...I think?)

And once your ridiculously long book gets into unnecessarily goofy shit like giant turtle gods that vomit up the universe, you got to throw away the script and start over. And thank the great and mighty turtle god that that's what the producers of the 1990 film "IT" did, because holy shit is this book overrated. Stephen King's IT is, or was at least at one time, his second longest novel, clocking in at 1100+ pages just behind The Stand, which was considerably more epic in scope, inspired as it was by The Lord of the Rings trilogy. IT, by contrast, is more down to Earth, or would be if not for the aforementioned Turtle nonsense among other strange moments of excess, emblematic of an author who just didn't know when to stop. The success of the book led to a three hour long TV movie mostly remembered today for an infamously hammy performance by Tim Curry as a murderous clown named Pennywise, and as we do here on Book Learnin', its time to see how these two versions of the same story hold up after all these years.

First, a little personal history. If I remember correctly, IT was the first full length Stephen King novel that I ever read cover to cover, though I'm sure I had read at least one of his short story collections by that point, and seen many of the films based on his other work. I had not seen the film version of IT at the time, but I would almost immediately seek it out on VHS from my local library after finishing the novel. Knowing what a lazy reader I was at such a young age, its hard for me to fathom now why I would choose this thick monster of a thing to slog through, but I did, and did so with gusto, falling in love with the weird world of Derry Maine and relating at least to the childhood versions of its protagonists. And apparently, I ignored or failed to understand quite a bit of it, possibly due to my own innocence, though given just how much I'm seeing now as off putting and needlessly strange upon my second reading, I'm beginning to think I somehow got a hold of an abridged version of the book the first time and never realized it until now. No other reason I can think of for how I completely forgot about the little kid orgy at the end, but then, I'm getting ahead of myself.

As for my initial experience with the movie, IT the film may be the first example of a movie I saw after reading its source material rather than before, and the first for which I could snootily opine that, well, the book was better. I still liked the movie as a kid, as despite its many changes it still managed to capture that same supernaturally tinged coming of age story that even to this day represents one of my favorite genres, if you can call it one. But what about those changes, or rather, the omissions? All that history and world building and mythology that even a three hour event could not encapsulate or do justice to? I would recommend it to people, sure, it had a great cast and a lot of creepy moments without too much gore. But, I would smugly assert, you really had to read the book to see what you were missing. Returning to both works in retrospect for this blog, I can honestly say that the first part of that is still true, the movie is fine and perfectly watchable even today. The part about the book, not so much.

Let's start with the changes. If you ignore for the moment what was completely left out of the movie from the book, what was left in is for the most part unchanged and relatively faithful to the text. Certain events are re-arranged to facilitate the different medium of storytelling, but the same ideas are expressed in basically the same way, just lacking the depth allowed for with an omniscient narrator. The two most significant changes are in how the young versions of the characters first encounter the monster IT, and in how they finally defeat the thing at the end. I'll get to the end in a bit, but as for the set up, the movie has it over the book hands down. You may remember in the movie where Seth Green is attacked by The Wolf Man after seeing him in a movie, but the book expands on this, literally bringing out all of the big five Universal horror monsters. Instead of the more organic childhood fears like the shower scene or the ghost of one of their fathers as in the film, they're chased around by the fucking Mummy and the Gillman. Remember that scene in the film where one of the bullies is slowly and hypnotically sucked into a drain pipe too small to contain him? In the book, he's killed by Frankenstein. And that doesn't even get into the killer hobo threatening to give out evil blowjobs. Point: movie.

As for the ending, the book has, among many redundancies, two physical encounters with the creature in the 1950's section, which are basically conflated into one confrontation in the film both for time and clarity. That clarity is sorely needed when you compare the film scene to the two in the book, one which has the kids fighting It as a werewolf, and the other in its true form, first with silver, and then via a psychic game of tug of war called The Ritual of Chud watched over by a mystical Turtle that gives vague advice, the metaphysics of which is alluded to throughout but basically comes in at the last minute practically in Deus Ex Machina fashion. The introduction of these weird cosmic elements is completely out of place and adds nothing to the book, and more importantly, it takes away from the more simple story of childhood belief combating the dark unknown that is expressed much more cleanly and matter of factly in the film version. In the book, the kids aren't even really in control of their own actions, merely guided along by larger cosmic forces about which they never understand, while in the movie, this element is gone, and the kids come together out of personal friendship and mutual protection, and then ultimately through the shared obligation that that friendship entails. You never question the importance of what they do in either timeline in the film, but by the end of the book, that weight to their experiences is completely invalidated by their status as pawns on a chess board.

When the film gets any praise on its own, its usually centered around the performance of Tim Curry as Pennywise, which is well deserved to say the least. I jokingly referred to his take as hammy in my introduction, but really, its a role in which subtlety does not and cannot exist, and as such one where Curry was especially suited (not to say that he can't be subtle when he needs to be, just that he's so much better when he's allowed to go crazy). Comparing Curry's portrayal to how the character is depicted in the book, at the risk of sounding like a broken record I have to say the movie has this down too. The book doesn't even really give much of an explanation for why the character takes the shape of a clown as his default form, and apart from the first scene where he uses it to entice a child briefly before showing his true face, he's always being deliberately creepy, so its not like he's luring them in with the guise all that often. Because the film ditches the cosmic silliness, the connection of clowns as dark and creepy gateways between childhood and the adult world is much more obvious and meaningful, so the question of why he's a clown doesn't even come up. And because so much of the superfluous stuff is taken out of the film, the encounters with Pennywise make up more of a percentage of the narrative, making his presence a constant and unstoppable force, whereas the book often gets distracted from what should be the main point. Sure, the giant spider monster at the end is a bit cheesy by today's standards, but for a TV budget, its perfectly fine, and it gets brutally ripped apart by Clark Kent's mom and the guy from Night Court anyway.

About those omissions. Naturally, a book with more than a thousand pages is bound to have a lot of stuff taken out to fit into a film adaptation, but comparing the two after the fact, literally none of what was removed was in any way important. Sure, some of it added additional flavor to the story, expanding on the town's history and character, but not so much as to justify all the trees killed to basically repeat the same things over and over again. We constantly go back to interludes detailing the history of Derry, all of which are designed to make the same point about the town being a host of something evil to which its residents have acquiesced, and the big shocking twist of each installment: there was a clown in the background somewhere! Once or twice, fine, but there are at least four or five of these, and they are increasingly less impactful as they go on. Remember the photo bit from the movie where the picture comes to life. This happens in the book too, and then it just happens again, in case we forgot. We get whole characters focused on that add nothing to the story, like Patrick, a little sociopathic boy who is tangentially related to the bullies who do factor into the plot, about whom we learn all about his life before he's killed off in the same chapter. The movie covers all of this through snippets of expository dialogue and moves on to things that matter. Again: point movie.

Also, in the movie, all the little boys making up our motley crew of heroes don't pile onto the one girl in the group and have dirty prepubescent sex with her. I wish that were the longest typo in the world, but its not, and for the life of me, I don't know how I forgot this happened. The best I can figure is that all this time I've been unconsciously conflating the book and the movie in my head to construct a memory of this book I claimed to love that didn't include pre-teen orgies, which frankly isn't a coping mechanism anyone should have to develop just to fondly remember a piece of literature. If you look up this book on the popular website, this element of the story is noted under "It Makes Sense In Context". NO IT FUCKING DOESN'T! Even if I could conceive of a context in which this moment is crucial to a story, this one isn't it. Like the turtle, it comes out of nowhere and can be completely excised from the book without harming the narrative one bit. I don't think I should have to say that if you're going to put something like this in a book, it damn well better be so crucial to the story as to be unavoidable, and if the movie proves anything, it proves this not to be the case. What's more, it tops off an entire book's worth of treating the sole female main character as little more than a sex object for the other kids, suggesting she's only important in so far as she can titillate them and ultimately provide them each their first sexual experience.

And I haven't even gotten to the racism yet! At this point, I need to reveal that technically, I didn't actually "read" IT this time around, but rather listened to the unabridged audiobook, ably voiced by Steven Weber of Wings, presumably through some connection with The Shining miniseries he was involved in. If you're going to tackle the book at all, I recommend going this route, not only because its easier, but it almost makes the effort worth it to hear Weber constantly forced to slip into an Al Jolson voice every time the comic relief kid Richie does his impression of a black slave from Gone With The Wind, which over the course of the book he does A LOT. I get the point King may have been trying to make at first, encapsulating attitudes about race at the time and highlighting the racial innocence of children, but the extent to which he goes back to it goes beyond this, and clearly comes across as a white writer using historical context as an excuse to have way too much fun using racial epithets (and anti-Semitic ones too by the way). For the record, I'm not criticizing the racism or needlessly tawdry depictions of sex on some Puritanical level. Its just that it comes across as so juvenile, as if we're all supposed to rear back and acknowledge how salacious it all is. In a way, its the perfect book to discover as a kid, to make them feel like they've found something their parents would almost certainly disapprove of. The problem is, this isn't a book meant for kids, but rather adults as immature as the author.

Just recently, they've announced that a new film version of IT is in the works, apparently planned at least for the moment as two films, one featuring the childhood storyline, and the other featuring the adult storyline. Honestly, after slogging through both of them, I actually think the whole story would have been better without the parallel timeline mechanic, simply focusing on the kids' adventures and having them dispatch the creature once and for all the first time out (and needless to say, not being really racist or fucking each other afterwards). No doubt the desire to produce a remake of the earlier film is based on the same canard I once engaged in, that if not for all those changes and omissions the movie would have been so much better. One hopes that at some point in the production, someone will actually go back and read the original book and realize the flaw in this logic as I have. Or maybe its good to go back to it? On second thought, so many fans, including myself, have been romanticizing IT for too long, and much like the Loser's Club failed to make sure they'd killed the thing for good, forcing them to come back to it years later to finish the job, maybe we need a more "complete" IT movie, if only to finally show people the horror of what that would truly mean.

And naturally, it would make a nice honey trap for pedos.

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