The legacy of trauma in IT: Chapter 2

When Stephen King’s IT was published in 1986, it courted controversy and became a massive bestseller – literally. With a length of over 1,100 pages, IT isn’t an easy read, but since the publication it has become one of King’s best-known works, one that many of his fans hold up as his best work.

IT is a story of trauma and its legacy. Telling the story of a group of friends and their dealings with a terrifying being called “It,” (who usually takes the form of a clown named Pennywise,) the book alternates between their childhood in 1958, when they first encounter and seemingly vanquish “It,” and their adulthood in 1985 when they are called back to Derry, Maine to kill “It” once and for all.

When the first movie came out in 2017, the writings smartly split the narrative, only telling the childhood portion of the story (and updating it to the mid-1980’s.) The film was a runaway hit, becoming a critical success and the highest grossing horror film of all time. The group of friends, called “The Loser’s Club,” were a perfect assemblage of young actors with impeccable chemistry, and the film crafted a perfect mix of nostalgia, humor, terror, and pathos.

The sequel, released this past weekend, had the unenviable task of telling the second half of the story, taking place 27 years afterwards. In this film, the Losers are all successful adults who, with the exception of Mike Hanlon, have mostly forgotten the terror of their childhood experiences with “It,” as well as most of their memories of their hometown. After dead bodies begin popping up in Derry again, Mike calls them all back to the site of their repressed trauma to vanquish “It” once and for all.

IT is inherently a story about trauma, and its lifelong affect, but the film fails to reckon with those themes. After the Loser’s reunite, they are tasked with finding an artifact from their past, and they go out on their own to explore their childhood home, recalling their own painful memories in a series of flashbacks that make up the bulk of the second act. This set up (and the film’s 170-minute run time) should provide ample narrative space to examine the painful shadow their childhood experiences have cast on their lives, but the film never goes deeper than surface level.

Bill, ostensibly the film’s lead as played by James McAvoy, is given the most story space to deal with the lingering guilt of his brother’s death and his perceived role in it. He has multiple run-ins with a skateboarding kid, who serves as a representation of his younger brother Georgie, who was killed by Pennywise in the opening of the first film. Pennywise taunts Bill, feeding his guilt for not protecting Georgie from the monster, and in a truly scary sequence, fails to save the skateboarding kid from death at the hands of Pennywise in a Hall of Mirrors.

Bill’s resolution comes nearly out of nowhere, which has the unintended effect of leading the audience to believe he wasn’t all that affected by it to begin with. This story, which took up a sizable chunk of the run time, is resolved by some self-affirmations and Bill drowning the ghost of his guilt.

The character of Beverly Marsh is given an inimitable vessel for her story in actress Jessica Chastain, who is easily the most accomplished actor in the cast, and on paper a perfect fit for the lone female Loser. Beverly is the most complex of the Losers, a victim of childhood mental and sexual abuse at the hands of her father, who in adulthood is married to an equally abusive husband. In the first film, young actress Sophia Lillis portrays Beverly’s complexities in an incredibly astute way, showing vulnerability and strength. In that film’s third act, she confronts her abusive father and incapacitates him, only to be kidnapped by “It,” setting in motion the film’s climax.

Beverly is a textbook case of a childhood abuse victim, finding herself in another abusive situation as an adult. The cycle of abuse is one that repeats, and even in moments of strength, Beverly’s trauma rears its ugly head to undercut her.

This character’s complexities in the book and first movie lead to a crushing disappointment for the audience in It: Chapter 2. The story goes through the machinations, showing the audience Beverly’s abuse, but providing no space for her to confront it. Chastain is wasted on a script that has no interest in letting Beverly become anything other than a victim, whereas in the first film Beverly is allowed to have nuance and an internal life.

In the novel, Beverly flees her abusive husband to come back to Derry, and he follows her. That is what Beverly’s trauma does, it follows her until she is able to confront it. By cutting that plot point out of the book, Beverly returns to Derry only running away from her past, and with nothing real to achieve.

Richie Tozier, played in the film by Bill Hader and Finn Wolfhard alternating old and young Richie, is given a character rewrite in this film that colors his actions and, cynically, gives him the supplemental childhood trauma that this film required. In flashbacks, the audience is able to glean that Richie is homosexual, and is bullied because of that. It becomes a guessing game to figure out which of his friends he longs for, ultimately leading to a bittersweet conclusion to the film.

Hader plays this character beautifully, but Wolfhard, who had a very different role to play in the first film, struggles a bit to find this wavelength, and that is fair. There were no clues to this in the initial film, which is what makes its inclusion in the sequel feel unnecessarily shoe-horned in. Hader thankfully plays it well, and he and co-star James Ransone ultimately come away as the film’s strongest aspects.

Richie’s story ends on a tragic note, which is fitting for a film that controversially begins with a hate crime on a homosexual couple. That opening scene’s inclusion has drawn criticism for being unnecessary, some suggesting that they should have cut it from the adaptation. However, with hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals spiking in recent years, you can’t argue that the scene feels out of place in 2019. That scene, along with Richie’s final scene, emphasize that even with civil rights advances, the LGBTQ+ experience is still one colored by the legacy of trauma.

What ultimately makes IT: Chapter 2 so disappointing is that all of the pieces were right there. Its failure to utilize them, and instead becoming a generic studio blockbuster, undermines the book and the first film. Had this film been about the legacy of childhood trauma on this group of friends, it would have naturally been less terrifying, but would have ultimately been more rewarding for the audience. The creators who had rendered the joy and violence of childhood so perfectly in the first film completely ignored their responsibility to address the adulthood repercussions in the sequel.