Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - It

I remember when I was young, the length of a novel was largely irrelevant to me.  While I occasionally got odd stares or questions from those who weren't avid readers, I looked down on them for it.  I had all the time in the world back then, and a 1,090 page novel just meant I was going to be spending a lot of time in one individual world and story.  While I still love reading, I don't have as much free time as I used to, and It is one of King's novels I've been putting off for a while because I knew it would take me a long time to get through.

Having now read it again, I can say that I do think it is worth that investment of time.  In a lot of ways, It is really two books in one - the story of what happened in 1958 and the story of what happened in 1985.  I could see another author splitting it, or perhaps even making it a trilogy, making the middle book full of what the characters do in the time in between (though there wouldn't be as much conflict there).  But I think King does a good job of floating back and forth between the two time periods and revealing events in the right order.  We spend a lot of time in the early part of the book getting to know these characters, but I think that is essential in order to feel the bond between them and understand what kind of people they all are.

Since King spends a good portion of the book trading perspective between the major characters, I thought it might be good to at least partially approach this review in the same way.

Bill - The leader of the group of losers, Bill is wise beyond his years thanks to the tragedy of losing his younger brother.  He is determined to kill It at all costs, and his determination gives the rest of the group strength.  He also stutters badly, and while he originally grew out of it, the stutter returns as he begins to remember the things that happened to him in 1958.  Young Bill is played by Jonathon Brandis, an actor I had a huge crush on around that time.  He was about 14 when this mini-series was made, but he manages to bring that necessary maturity to the role.  Adult Bill is played by Richard Thomas, sporting a pretty silly looking ponytail.  He also makes a good Bill, though something about the way he stutters annoys me a lot more than when Brandis is doing it.

Ben - The overweight child with a natural eye for architecture and engineering, and a very strong crush on Beverly.  While some of King's overweight characters are portrayed very negatively, Ben's size is acknowledged as a struggle on his part, but it never feels like King mocks him for it, even as the bullies do.  Young Ben is played by Brandon Crane, who had a recurring role on The Wonder Years around this time.  Adult Ben is played by John Ritter, and I can't believe I didn't remember him being here as I went to read the book again.  While Ben has lived in Derry all his life in the book, it's changed in the mini-series to have him recently moved there.  I suppose they didn't think it was credible for them to all share the same classes but never be friends before now.

Richie - The wiseguy not popular enough to be the class clown.  Man of a thousand voices, which he's terrible at in his youth but sticks with long enough to get moderately famous in his older years.  In the book he is a radio DJ, and in the mini-series he is a comedian.  Speaking of roles I couldn't remember, how was I completely surprised to find out Seth Green was in this mini-series?  He was another of my crushes in my youth, but somehow I don't remember recognizing him in this role the first time I saw it.  Meanwhile I have always remembered that adult Richie was played by Harry Anderson, another of my favorite actors since Night Court.  As such I like the Richie in the mini-series a little more than the one in the book, simply because Richie's constant joking and bad dialect humor don't really go over well with me.  There have always been things in King's books that he makes the characters find hysterical that don't make me laugh, and Richie is at the height of that.  I think both Green and Anderson have enough charm to help improve the character's silly nature immensely.

Beverly - The girl of the group with an abusive father and husband.  While Beverly has trouble standing up for herself in the beginning, I do think her portrayal here is much stronger than some of the women in King's earlier books.  By which I mean that while she may not always be mentally strong, she does feel well rounded and real.  While Beverly's hair is described as red in the book, neither Emily Perkins or Annette O'Toole have red hair.  While there are plenty of other hair color and likeness changes in the book, when you've got Ben writing a poem for Beverly saying that her hair looks like fire, it's a little out of place for her to have plain brown hair instead.

Eddie - The hypochondriac who is smothered by his mother, both Adam Faraizl and Dennis Christopher portray him well as an awkward, waifish boy and man.  In the book Eddie has married a woman who is much like his mother, but in the mini-series he still lives with his mother even as a grown man.  There's something extra sad about that.  They also have him admit he's a virgin toward the end, for no real reason except maybe they wanted his sacrifice to seem more tragic.

Mike- Marlon Taylor and Tim Reid play the group's historian who is tasked with staying in Derry and remembering the events while the others eventually forget.  Tim Reid in particular really makes you feel the weight on Mike's shoulders as he's forced to call up his old friends and bring them back to town.

Stan - The skeptic and fearful one who largely gets dragged through the whole ordeal in their youth because he loves his friends, and is unable to face his fear as an adult and commits suicide rather than come back.  I love that the mini-series portrays him wearing a bow tie both as a kid and an adult.  It  goes a long way in showing how straight laced he is.  Ben Heller portrays young Stan, who in the mini-series is also a boy scout, and the adult version is played by Richard Masur.  We intentionally learn the least about Stan since he doesn't return, but I do like that in the book at least, King does give him his own moments of bravery in his youth.  It's just that as an adult, he no longer has the imagination and belief in the impossible to handle the situation.

Henry Bowers - The main bully the kids face, the real life horror before they have to deal with the fantastic.  His insanity before encountering It is played down in the mini-series, and a rather silly effect occurs when he does encounter the monster, as all his hair turns white.  He's a necessary part to the plot because he has to injure Mike before the big showdown, but his role is so minor that I imagine someone who hasn't read the book is probably wondering why they went through all the effort to bring him back.

Pennywise - Our monster and boogeyman, who has probably sparked clown fear in who knows how many people.  I love the idea of a monster that can take on the appearance of whatever you are most afraid of, and who in fact feeds off that fear.  The clown guise is actually Its attempt to draw you closer, presenting you with something trustworthy and likeable before scaring you and eating you.  The irony, of course, is that most of us are now at least creeped out by clowns, and this guise wouldn't work well at all.  While I do remember watching Bozo the Clown as a kid, I don't think most children today feel that much affection toward them.  Pennywise is portrayed by Tim Curry in the mini-series, and he does a great job going from friendly to menacing at a moment's notice.  Some of the effects used are poor by today's standards, but I think a lot of them still work well.

The mini-series presents the narrative to us in a different order, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that this was a two part series.  As such the fight in 1958 (which seems to actually happen sometime in the 60s, since the present is 1990 rather than 1985) is presented at the end of part 1, as the characters are only beginning to make their way back to Derry.  This allows for one big fight at the end of each episode.  This fight also has more in common with the encounter in the book that happens at Niebolt Street, where they wound It but don't actually think It's dead.  Perhaps the similarities between the two major end fights made them want to do something different for the first.

While I overall do enjoy the novel, I have two major problems with it.  With Mike Hanlon being the only African American child in town, especially in the 1950s, I realize that the n word would realistically get thrown around at him and his parents a lot.  And I know African Americans often use the word themselves, to try to take away its power.  But as a reader, I became really fatigued of having to read it over and over again.  It is primarily used by the bad guys, but it's still uncomfortable to sit through.  Richie's voices also use a lot of dialects, and some of them are in really poor taste by today's standards.  I couldn't help but wonder if Mike would have really truly found it funny to have his supposed close friend talking at him in a slave voice.  In the mini-series Richie never uses the slave voice at all, and the n word is only used a total of three times, all by Henry Bowers.  I'm a little shocked they even got away with that much.

The other problem I have is the way Beverly "gets them out" of the tunnels in 1958.  An eleven year old girl having sex with six eleven year old boys in a row?  Seriously?  Surely King could come up with a better alternative to this to help unite them after everything was done.  Earlier in the book King makes a point to talk about how none of these characters are truly old enough to understand sex.  Ben, Bill and Richie feel attraction to Beverly, and she's attracted to Bill, but none of them have lustful thoughts in any tangible way.  When Beverly sees Henry and his crew lighting their farts with their pants down, she can't even say the word penis in her head.  I imagine this sharp change is intentional, but to me it's just too strong a contrast and doesn't work for me at all.  As is probably obvious since this is made for television, it does not happen in the mini-series.  In fact, they have no real problem at all escaping the sewers, and their bond remains strong when they are done.

They also made another change to keep our heroes a little more clean - while in the book Beverly and Bill cheat on their spouses together, here not only is Beverly not actually married to Tom, but she ends up with Ben instead.  On one hand, I can understand that, as Beverly and Ben end up together in the end of the book, so having her temporarily hooking up with Bill can be both confusing and irrelevant.  But I do think it worked well in the novel, because both Tom and Audra have separately made their way into town and are in fact very close by when the adultery occurs.  I can see why they chose not to include Tom's journey to Derry in the mini-series, both as a way to tone down the violence and because he literally dies off screen in the book.  But it's a nice touch in the novel to have so many key players there for the finale.

A large part of the fight with It in the book would be very hard to film, as Bill and eventually Richie are literally floating in space, a place between dimensions, and the things they use to fight the monster don't really make logical sense.  You could possibly do something like it today, and if the planned film ever gets produced we will see if they do, but given the budget for this mini-series the fight with the spider is a decent enough ending.  It also makes sense from a budget perspective that they chose not to destroy the town, though it is a nice touch in the book that It is such a part of Derry that the town cannot hold itself together once It is gone.

I hope that if the film ever does arrive, they will bring in some of these elements, as well as the turtle who supposedly vomited out the universe (what an image!), and the Other who seems to fight for the side of good.  While I'll admit it borders on hoakiness, that kind of Good vs. Evil mythos is something that has always appealed to me.  Though it will be interesting to see just how long they have to make the film to fit in everything from this very long novel.

I recommend both the book and the mini-series.  While it will probably be many years before I crack the book open again, I think it's worth the investment at least once.  The mini-series is also both a decent adaptation and full of solid performances from a very strong cast that make it worth watching even if you've never seen the book before.

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