The Lost Opportunities of “IT: Chapter One”

It Chapter One Bill Skarsgard in It: Chapter One (Warner Bros.)

While much of the final cut works, earlier versions of the script went to deeper & scarier places.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.

One of the most affecting scenes in 2017’s IT (now retroactively known as IT: Chapter One) comes about three quarters of the way through the film. A flashback sends us to the year 1879: we see patrons chatting and drinking at Derry, Maine’s own Silver Dollar Saloon. A piano can be heard tinkling merrily in the background. A man with an axe enters and, seemingly driven mad, begins to slaughter townspeople where they stand. Most folks at the bar don’t even look up from their drinks, simply continuing their conversations as blood spatters and bodies fall around them. The piano plays on—and we see that Pennywise the Dancing Clown is at its keys. 

Don’t remember this scene? You’re not going crazy. It never made the final cut.

IT took quite a journey to get from page to big screen. Before Andy Muschietti finally took over as director in 2015, the film had gone through two other directors, countless screenplay drafts, and even a different “official” casting of Pennywise. The scene above, originally from the novel, was included in the version of the script Cary Fukunaga wanted to direct. Somewhere along the way, IT lost sight of what IT is all about. 

Since Stephen King’s 1986 novel clocks in at a dense 1,138 pages, it only makes sense that many scenes would end up on the cutting room floor between drafts. Sure, the loss of the chilling saloon scene isn’t fatal to the movie. But instead of just cutting story moments or character beats, entire ideas feel stripped away, leaving an odd hollowness at its center. 

One of the most terrifying aspects of the story is not just Pennywise the Clown, but the thrall It has over the town of Derry. Even when children go missing in large numbers, the adults of Derry act like nothing’s wrong.  Although supernatural in nature, this phenomenon mirrors and amplifies the emotions of real life children, who often feel as if grown-ups are ignoring their pains and scoffing at their fears. Muschietti’s finished film contains almost no instances of adults ignoring children in distress, or overlooking violence, though the few moments included are some of the movie’s most chilling. Not only that, IT feels markedly reluctant to engage with any of the difficult social issues the novel was eager to tackle.

Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is perhaps the most short-changed character out of the central Losers’ Club, as the lovable young protagonists dub themselves. In the book and earlier scripts, Mike takes an interest in Derry’s history after his grandfather tells him about a racially-motivated massacre at a club for African Americans called the Black Spot, during which patrons were locked inside and burnt alive. Mike is the one who starts putting together the mysteries of Derry, not Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). 

But in the final version, almost everything Mike would get to accomplish is handed off to Ben, who’s already juggling plots about being the new kid in town and having a crush on Bev Marsh (Sophia Lillis). The Black Spot fire is only hinted at, as is the campaign of racially-motivated hatred good ol’ boy Butch Bowers (Stuart Hughes) and his bully son Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) are waging on the Hanlon family. Once a powerful example of how a child can be deeply affected by hate crimes of the past, Mike is reduced to the quietest and least-seen member of the Club. 

Mike isn’t the only character whose arc is confusingly dismantled by a series of changes, however. Somewhere between screenplay draft and shooting script, Bev’s mother was killed off. Bev’s big scare scene—blood shooting up like a geyser from the bathroom sink’s drain—resonates a lot more when it’s preceded earlier in the film by a warning conversation between Mrs. Marsh and her daughter about menstruation. Instead of forcing the audience to confront the idea of a mother who realizes her daughter is being sexually objectified by her husband, and does nothing, Muschietti’s version simply side-steps the difficult questions in favor of canned clichés. 

Bev’s drunken father (Stephen Bogaert) sobs about how his little girl looks exactly like her dearly departed mama as he slobbers over her. It’s gross, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in a dozen Lifetime movies and V.C. Andrews paperbacks. Later, things become even more muddled when Bev is kidnapped by Pennywise immediately after fighting off an attempted rape by her father. The timing of this twist comes is abrupt to the point of being ridiculous, and it’s likely because the rapist was supposed to be It merely taking the form of Bev’s father. In the novel, Pennywise It clearly takes the form of whatever—or whomever– scares each individual child the most; the movie’s thesis seems to be that every kid has a serious clown phobia. 

Not every change affects the film for the worse, of course. The choice to bring Stan Uris’ (Wyatt Oleff) Jewish heritage into the story in a more meaningful way is, on its face, a very thoughtful one. But yet again the movie seemingly refuses to dive deeper than set dressing, and Stan’s encounter with an eerie painting at the temple ends up being just another boilerplate jump scare featuring a creature obviously made by computers. 

IT forfeited the chance to tell a meaningful story about how trauma shapes our lives, at a time when that message could hardly resonate more.

I was personally also optimistic about the choice to shift the film’s setting from the 1950s to the 1980s. Instead of Eddie Kaspbrak’s (Jack Dylan Grazer) confrontation with the leper playing on the era’s lingering memories of diseases like polio, the sickly man might bring disturbing AIDS crisis images to mind. When I initially watched the film, I was mostly disappointed that instead of looking like a real human, the leper looked like a pile of gray CGI goo. The reveal in IT: Chapter Two that there were hints of romance between Eddie and Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) makes the lack of a connection with AIDS feel like all the more of a missed opportunity, especially given that the sequel opens with the murder of a gay man

There are many scenes that work beautifully in isolation. Some of the subtler scares, many involving the movie’s infamous red balloons, make for memorable images. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon paints a Derry that’s equal parts frightening and lovely to behold. Many of the movie’s most enjoyable scenes don’t involve scares at all, since the young cast members are all likeable and have peerless onscreen chemistry. And I would be remiss not to mention Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise himself; the practical effects of his curling grins and unfocused eyes will stick with you long after memories of CGI surprises fade. 

But It, the creature, is so much more than just Pennywise. And so is IT, the novel. That’s what Muschietti’s film doesn’t always seem to understand. Scary clowns are hot right now, but in sacrificing character development and social commentary for jump scares, IT: Chapter One forfeited the chance to tell a meaningful story about how trauma shapes our lives, at a time when that message could hardly resonate more. Children are deeply affected by the same political and personal forces that adults have to deal with, but it’s easier to blame their tragedies on a bully here, and a bad dad there— instead of insidious forces like racism, rape culture, and homophobia. 

What we are left with feels like a collection of related spooky scenes, with no overarching message other than a rather ham-fisted one about how friendship is great. There’s a lot I love about this version of IT, but it all adds up to less than the sum of its parts. When confronted with the horrifying realities of the Losers’ lived experiences, IT: Chapter One, like the adults of Derry, chooses to look away.  

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