Fear and Belief: The Power of IT

There is no fear without belief, and there is no belief without fear.

This duality is one of the cornerstones of Stephen King’s landmark 1986 novel It, so it’s unsurprising that it finds its way into the 2017 film adaptation. What is perhaps noteworthy is the way in which the particular weaving of the concept of belief into the characters, their actions, and a resulting thematic capstone (tonight’s architecture theme brought to you by Ben Hanscom) is affected by this film’s choices. Andy Muschietti’s movie is an impressive high wire act, making some pretty serious departures from the text while still feeling like a spiritually-close adaptation. But in this respect, the filmmakers may have managed to (accidentally?) hit home on something that even King only lightly touched upon.

Needless to say, we are going to be going deep into the Barrens’ weeds, here — so consider this a warning of much spoiling ahead. Turn back now if you haven’t seen the film or read the book. Something something float joke.

It deals openly with the “Losers” (our buddingly pubescent heroes) appropriately losing — or having already lost — foundational beliefs upon which most people instinctively depend. And not just because a shape-shifting clown monster in the sewer is preying on children’s fears. Bill, Bev, Richie, Eddie, Stan, Mike, and Ben run a veritable gauntlet of faith throughout the film that strips them of every haven or refuge or pillar of certainty. Some of these are more immediately clear, while others require a closer look.

Most obviously, Mike has lost his home and family in a fire, and is now struggling to fill his father’s shoes at far too young an age. Receiving only cold comfort from his grandfather, Mike is left to depend on himself, even as the town (personified by Henry Bowers) seems to want him gone. Bill was unable to protect his little brother (the added period detail of the walkie-talkies reinforcing that he took conscious steps to stay in contact, twisting this particular knife), and so clings to the notion that Georgie is merely missing and can still be rescued. He’s also learning the uncomfortable limits of his parents when his father snaps at him about said hope, verbally slapping him down. Beverly experiences a twisted mirror of this as her father takes all too much notice of her, poisoning her home irreparably even before her bathroom is bathed in blood — her father’s reaction to which causes her to doubt her own sanity. Ben takes refuge in the library and not only does he discover that Derry seems home to countless monstrous occurrences, he’s literally attacked within the stacks. Stan is tormented in his very temple by a certain Bob Gray, showing that this a creature that has no aversion whatsoever to holy ground. Eddie is told that the medicines he keeps strapped to him like a lifeline are actually snake oil bullshit, which consequently means his mother — every child’s first model for God — has been lying to him.

Fucking gazebos

Then there’s Richie Tozier, the kid who most seems to know what movie he’s in. At first, it feels a bit odd that the trash mouth is the character whose background we know the least about, but part of what has made the character so popular with viewers is also a piece of why he is arguably the lynch pin of what makes the Losers work. At the beginning of the film, Richie has declared a very specific allegiance to “Stuttering” Bill, deferring to his insistence on Georgie still being alive, being the first behind Bill to enter the sewer pipe in the Barrens, and taking up his dogged insistence on aiding an injured Ben. Richie gives pretty much everyone a piece of his quick-fire insults and quips (there’s a running “your mom” joke between him and Eddie that kills), but not Bill. Richie believes in Bill, in his foolhardy strength in the face of Henry Bowers, in his quiet insistence to help other outcasts, and this is where the child-like beliefs of the children transform. He never once says “Bill is my best friend,” but his actions positively scream his faith in that friendship.

Right up until the point that Eddie’s injury reminds the kids of their very fragile mortality, and Richie’s faith in his best friend is nearly demolished.

In King’s book, the belief of a child is a weaponized commodity, the only thing that gives the Losers a chance against It. Not only does it influence how effective things like silver slugs are at fighting back a creature that takes the shape of a werewolf, but also in the children’s ability to pull off something as outlandish as The Ritual of Chud, or even that…other ritual that Beverly initiates to bind the children together when they become lost in the sewers.

Yes, THAT part. And no, we’re not discussing that further, back in the pipe.

There’s undeniably something lost in cutting these empowered flights of fancy from the film. The question of how long we can really hold on to childish things, positing that the march of time eats away at those beliefs, blunting their once-unquestioned power as surely as it dulls our memories of that time. It’s one of many thematic pillars of the book (which, like other King threads, may or may not get threaded as neatly through the needle as you’d like for the finale), but it’s undeniably unique and potent on the page. Muschietti may end up revisiting some of these more surreal concepts for It: Chapter 2, but in their place, he’s tightened the focus on what the Losers have faith in more than anything else: each other.

Beverly is the first person to say it out loud (and put a pin in that thought, because we’re coming back to it later), but almost from the moment Ben stumbles upon them in the Barrens — and absolutely once they draw an almost literal line in the sand to stand up to the Bowers gang for Mike — it’s the Losers as a fellowship that becomes the thing that must be believed in. They are able to fight back against Pennywise because they are together, because being together makes them believe in themselves and each other. It’s not simply about being “stronger together,” but the pure, molten certainty that a child has in their friends not just being there for them, but being there for them always. It’s why Richie feels so betrayed when Bill seems willing to send his friends into a meat grinder to find a brother who they all know is dead. It’s why the Losers come back together without a moment’s hesitation when one of their own is taken, even though she could easily be dead too. And it’s why Ben’s awkward kiss really is able to bring Beverly back from the Deadlights, even though there’s no logical reason it should.

Told you we’d come back to that

(Sidebar: this is why the damseling of Bev is so frustrating — dramatically, it really does work, even though it also chips the edges of a character who has proven to be arguably the bravest and strongest of the Losers. Richie being taken would make just as much sense, from a story needs standpoint, and be less problematic.)

This culminates in the circle the Losers form when, victorious, they promise to return to Derry if It isn’t really dead. The promise is a ludicrously childish one, a pact sworn in blood to essentially “stay together” for nearly thirty years, even though memories are already becoming unreliable. It’s here, aided by the extra poignancy of the order in which the movie has the children exit the circle (book fans, you know what I’m talking about), that moved the final stone into place. To paraphrase another great King adaptation, you never really have friends like you did at that point in your life. Staring down at the turbulent waters of adulthood from the alarming height of your teenage years, the bonds you forge with those who are willing to make that wild leap with you feel so primal and powerful that they can’t not last forever…even though you know they almost certainly won’t. Maybe a couple friends manage to make it through high school and college and jobs and families, but not everyone. We drift apart, we forget, we misplace phone numbers and mix up last names and fail to remember birthdays until all you have are vague pieces in a jumbled up collage of childhood. That’s why we cling to our nostalgia so ardently, because those totems form one of the few lasting links to who we were and who we loved and the comrades that we held hands with on that road.

But this time, in that circle of seven, it has to work. This time, it will last. One assumes Muschietti is laying some serious track for the sequel, because King uses “Can they reconnect, and will it be enough?” as one of the central dramatic questions in the Adult Timeline, and his answer (which they will certainly keep intact) boils down to “Yes, sometimes you just win.” The Losers are never together again — all seven of them — after swearing that oath, but they do come back to each other. Even the absence of one of their own is taken back into their circle as they rejoin hands. Rather than the death of a friend shattering those bonds, they simply close the circle all the tighter, strong in the conviction that it will be enough.

And maybe it always is.

I know this is a long and winding road, encompassing a particular reading of the film and the possible faux pas of processing thematic elements through the lens of that comes later in the story, but break out the air horns; this is where I say the movie did a thing better than Stephen King. If there’s one thing the book whiffs, it’s the way it fails to meaningfully involve the entire cast for either of the two climactic confrontations with the Clown Way Down. But the movie picks that shit up and runs with it, echoing the Apocalyptic Rock Fight (except with way higher stakes) as each of the kids literally beats back their fear, and the Losers find out that they’re stronger that It. They win, and they win together. Not because being together makes them unafraid, but because their belief in each other is so much mightier than their fear. They know, with the crystal certainty of a child, that they cannot lose while their best friends are with them.

That is why the dancing clown’s greatest weakness is the film’s greatest strength. Because that kind of belief is timeless, even if we are not.

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