Tag: books

Death Wish: Shooting for Peace, Not War

When the film Death Wish was first released back in 1974, it was met with fury and outrage. Centered around an architect (played by Charles Bronson) who becomes a gun-toting vigilante in the wake of his wife’s murder during a vicious home invasion, the film drew major criticism because of its support for the idea of the brutal punishment of criminals while rejecting due process. That said, its story is one that captured the minds of the public and sparked plenty of debate over how to handle the rampant crime that had plagued cities in that time like New York City. It is no wonder, then, how it would become so frequently discussed. However, there is one thing that some might forget these days about that movie: it was based on a book of the same name. The book was written back in 1972 by Brian Garfield, inspired by an incident in which he was scared by his own flash of anger after finding his car vandalized. As for his response to the film adaptation of his novel, Garfield hated it. He hated it for a very specific reason: unlike the movie’s pro-vigilante stance, his novel takes the side of anti-vigilantism.

Paul Benjamin was a New York accountant, a life-long liberal, and an old man. One day, which had seemed so ordinary at the start, would change his life. A call from his son-in-law Jack brought him out to a hospital. He received the news that his wife and daughter had been attacked in a random home invasion within his very apartment, one that had left his wife dead and his daughter in an increasingly catatonic state. In the aftermath, Paul now finds himself haunted. He has trouble sleeping, finds himself afraid of any dark shadows in the streets and alleyways. The police are investigating, but they have no leads and no major progress. He feels like the world is not making sense. That all changes one night, when a mugger pulls a knife on him. He is overcome with rage, swinging at the mugger and scaring him off. The feeling is intoxicating to him, a salve to the fears that had filled his mind. Soon, he comes to believe something: that people have to take back control of their lives. That someone has to stand up against the killers walking the streets. Of course, he knows he can’t just rely on his own rage. He needs a weapon to use against the thugs he wants to seek vengeance upon. He wants a gun.

Brian Garfield’s novel makes for a fascinating read. The story flows at a steady pace, painting an evocative picture of the world and Paul’s increasingly dark mental state. For those who might expect to read about a spree of killings much like the 1974 film, they might be disappointed. Instead, the bulk of the book is devoted to Paul’s change, showcasing him as he finds himself grappling with grief and seeing his left-leaning views gradually shift to a right-wing hardened edge. Along with that, Garfield also brings up and explores various aspects of crime stats and crime prevention techniques. Occasionally, there is the odd fact or statistic that feels a bit exaggerated, such as a character claiming that a crime is committed every twelve seconds in New York City. Aside from those odd moments, they fill the story with a sense of realism and a feeling that Garfield has really tried to make this a story that one could believe. Of course, that leads me into the biggest standpoint of the book, and what might in fact be its double-edged sword: the evolution of Paul Benjamin into a vigilante.

Experiencing the tragedy of a murdered spouse and traumatized daughter is a moment that would shake anyone to their core. It is understandable that Paul would become enwrapped in grief, that he would want to do anything to take back some control of his life. However, the story does not hide just how dangerous this new path would be for someone to follow. For instance, it is made clear that Paul has some trouble in how to exhibit and experience his grief. When he finds himself bursting into tears suddenly, he can’t understand it and believes that his sadness was weakness. Later, as his thoughts become consumed with the idea of bringing violence against criminals, his own view of the world around him changes. The faces that would have once brought him pity and concerns on how to help, he now presumes as those belonging to criminals and killers. Fear fills his mind, along with an anger that seeks to vent itself by lashing out at crime itself. The tragedy in Paul’s life is certainly understandable and the path that Garfield presents gives a clear understanding how someone could give in like this, but the image of him as a vigilante who intentionally draws out criminals to target him is still one presented as dangerous and one to avoid. In a way, however, one can see how a film adaptation might lean into a pro-vigilante stance. The book does a great job in presenting Paul’s change over time, and the tragedy is one which others could relate and sympathize. It does a good enough job that some might glaze over what the reality means to intentionally hurt and even kill others, throwing away our legal system just for the visceral feeling of a personal and perceived vengeance. It is a shame, then, that such a fascinating character study should be eclipsed by a more lurid film (and eventual franchise) that goes against the very point the book makes.

The name Death Wish is one that conjures up the image of a gun-toting Charles Bronson shooting muggers and a movie that supports such actions. The book it is based upon, on the other hand, goes against that stance with a character study that captures how one might change into such a person.

Advertisements

The Man Who Invented Christmas: A Writer’s Lament

The biopic is a type of movie that offers a glimpse into the life of a figure from history. They may attempt to cover a broad history of their central figure, or they may choose to instead focus their lens upon a singular event in their life. In any case, they offer a chance to examine the fascinating history behind real people, from ordinary people to grand figures in the scope of history. However, there is one particular kind of person that can pose a challenge with the biopic. Namely, a writer. Writers of course can make their impact on history with their writing, but how does one communicate their work to an audience? After all, simply showing the writer writing and then having others say their work is great can come across as dull and blunt. Thankfully, a new film about Charles Dickens has found an interesting approach over this hurdle. In the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, it takes the chance to look at Charles Dickens and his creation of A Christmas Carol. Within this delightful look at the the creation of a literary classic, it presents the writing process by having Dickens interact with his own characters as he builds the story.

Suffering from a string of three flops and finding mounting debt facing him, Charles Dickens must write a new hit. Finding inspiration all around him, in particular a little-attended funeral for a rich man, he hits upon the idea of a ghost story set during Christmastime. However, his publishers are hesitant to go ahead with the idea, not only due to Dickens’s string of flops but also due to Christmas being a then-little-celebrated holiday. As a result, Dickens takes it upon himself to self-publish his book, intending to release it in time for Christmas. Thus, he is left with six weeks to write this new story and get it published in time. Complicating matters is the arrival of his father John, a man Charles resents for his spendthrift and immature ways. In fact, it is those attitudes that had caused a split between the two of them, resulting in a past that still haunts Dickens. That haunting gnaws at him, particularly as he tries to find the ending to his story. He finds himself plagued by a simple question: can a man, trapped in his ways and past for so long, truly change after all this time?

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a breezy, delightful look at the making of such a classic piece of Christmas literature. Dan Stevens works well as the famous author Charles Dickens, lending him both an eccentric air as he captures that great creative spark and that unease when facing the chains of his own past. Likewise, Christopher Plummer is a natural fit as Ebenezer Scrooge, giving the miser a cold gaze and hardened air. There is a charming, theatrical pulse to the film as a whole, which charges ahead with a firm energy in its tale. Using the dynamic of Dickens meeting and interacting with his characters as he fleshes them out into form adds a spirited touch to the proceedings, mixing his memories and the world around him with the fantastical tale of spirits on Christmas Eve. In fact, with its element of doubling actors as both figures in Dickens’s life and characters from his story, one could almost imagine this work playing out on a stage in the West End. More than that, this idea goes into one of the best strengths of the film. Namely, it offers a visual format for presenting the writing process.

The challenge in presenting a writer at work is the fact that writing is, essentially, an internal task. It is a person bringing their ideas and thoughts to the page. Thus, a way to work around that hurdle when telling the story of a writer is to externalize that process. The Man Who Invented Christmas finds a variety of ways to communicate the writing process and Dickens’s path to creating A Christmas Carol. For instance, people and things all around Dickens plant their inspiration for elements of his story. One such example is how the name of an aging waiter and the image of chains scattered over a lawyer’s safe eventually come together to create the ghost of Jacob Marley. Most often, the film plays with Dickens talking to and interacting with his characters, finding how they develop and in turn develop the story. An early meeting upon first creating Scrooge, as an example, leads to a word association game that fleshes out the tight-fisted miser and better crystallizes the character in Dickens’s mind. More than that, it also uses these character to better explore Dickens himself. Over the course of the film, Scrooge serves as not just the bitter man who would be so central to A Christmas Carol. He also serves to represent Dickens’s fears and doubts, gnawing away at him with the concerns of his past and his present. It is a way that also communicates the personal impact of the writer, how their own life can come to affect and influence their work. All in all, it does a lot more than other works that just show a writer doing their job and showing others react to their work. It shows all the pieces that come into play, from the bits of inspiration in the world around them to those personal interior sparks.

Biopics can be made of all sorts of figures through history, but writers are more difficult to convey due to the nature of their profession. The Man Who Invented Christmas deftly handles that issue as Dickens meets the characters of his own story, offering a spirited touch to the history behind a literary classic.

Damon Runyon: More than Somewhat a Fascinating Author

It is a fascinating thing to watch as a piece of fiction grows in popularity and ingrains itself into the public consciousness. It is more interesting, in a way, when it grows such that the source behind the story might be lost to the public eye. Take, for instance, the classic musical Guys and Dolls. First premiering on Broadway back in 1950, the show has remained a classic thanks to its infectious score and delightful tale of love and gambling. Its popularity has endured and cemented the show among the musical classics, from a film adaptation back in 1955 to numerous stage revivals on Broadway and the West End that have cropped up to this day.  What most people these days might not remember, however, are the stories which inspired the musical. Specifically, the show is based on two short stories known as “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. Both stories are the creation of Damon Runyon, a journalist who would gain fame with his short story writing. So, just who is this man and how did his writing light the spark for such a hit musical? Let us begin with a peek into the life of Mr. Runyon.

Born on October 4, 1880 with the name “Alfred Damon Runyan”, Runyon’s family was one involved in the newspaper business. After moving from Kansas to Colorado as a result of his father selling their paper, he spent his days in school until the fourth grade. After that, he began working under his father and learning the ways of the business. There was a break in this work when he joined the military in his late teens, but he became a full journalist of his own after the military service. He worked across a variety of papers, before eventually moving out to New York City in 1910. His byline at the time presented his name as “Damon Runyon”, which would stick for the rest of his life.  From there, he found himself a life covering baseball and boxing for the papers. His writing quickly earned him notice, thanks to his keen eye for the weird and eccentric. In fact, he is the man who nicknamed the famous heavyweight boxer James Braddock as the “Cinderella Man”. Of course, his memorable writing is not only limited to the world of the newspaper column. He would also go on to write numerous short stories.

Within the world of Runyon’s stories, he paints a picture of a wicked yet playful underside to New York City. His tales found themselves centered around criminals, gamblers, and actors, all hustling and bustling amid crazy adventures. Oftentimes, they possess colorful names like Nathan Detroit, Good Time Charley, and Dave the Dude. Their escapades are frequently presented through the lens of an unnamed narrator, a character who seems to not be a criminal yet knows the company of shady characters well. He orchestrates his yarns with a carefully constructed sense of heart and humor, but one of the most unique parts of Runyon’s stories is how he writes them. Firstly, he almost totally avoids using the past or future tense, preferring to unfold his writing in the present tense. Secondly, he writes with an interesting mixture of street slang and a mocking sense of pomposity. In his stories, a lady is just as likely to be called a “doll” as she would a “character of a feminine nature”. That odd mixture is further enhanced by a lack of contractions, giving a precise rhythm to his pacing. The overall result is a writing style that brings pompous airs to street-level energy. This style, in conjunction with the colorful characters and criminal atmosphere he wrote about, is what helped make him such a big name.

Though his name might not be as well-known these days, Runyon had earned himself quite a popular following in his time and the years after. In addition to the stage musical adaptation of his stories in Guys and Dolls and its film adaptation, there have been nineteen other movies based on his work. A few of these other films include Lady for a Day (released in 1933 and directed by Frank Capra), Little Miss Marker (released in 1934 and launching the career of Shirley Temple), and The Lemon Drop Kid (first adapted in 1934, then remade in 1951 with Bob Hope). His short stories even had a home in anthology programming with Damon Runyon Theater, first as a radio program and then a television series. Clearly, his colorful tales about criminals and their schemes have earned him a solid spot in American literary history, yet his name has unfortunately fallen into obscurity these days. Personally, I feel his work is worth revisiting, his sharp writing style bringing an energy and feel that is still as effective as when his work was first printed. If one is interested in getting a taste of his stories, I would recommend Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Published by Penguin Classics in 2008, the collection serves as a good starting point with Runyon’s writing. In addition to the two stories that would serve as the basis for Guys and Dolls, the book features plenty of his other short stories, along with poems, newspaper articles, and other pieces of his writing. It is just the right collection to introduce someone to Damon Runyon and the colorful underworld he brought to life with his words.

Murder on the Orient Express: A Rocky Railway for the Familiar Mystery

During the 1920s and 1930s, the literary world was going through a phrase now regarded as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During that era, plenty of authors gained attention with their takes on the mystery genre, along with creating interesting detectives to sort through these clues. Among the bigger names of this period was writer Agatha Christie, who brought one of fiction’s greatest detectives to the page: Hercule Poirot. A Belgian detective fastidious in his appearance, he is also decidedly arrogant about his own genius. In fact, Poirot’s main method in solving a mystery is to talk to witnesses and suspects, using his “little grey cells” (as he refers to his brain) to figure out the truth from their testimonies instead of relying on just physical clues. Poirot has been the subject of numerous books, with one of his most famous tales being Murder on the Orient Express. Plenty of adaptations have been done of the Poirot stories, but this time filmmaker Kenneth Branagh has taken a crack at adapting that famous novel for the big screen. While the core of the story still works, the path in displaying this memorable yarn is unfortunately a rocky one.

After solving a case in Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot finds himself in need of a vacation. Unfortunately, his chance at a break from detective work is broken when a telegram urges him to London in regards to a new case. With some help from an associate named Bouc, Poirot manages to get himself a last-minute cabin on the famous Orient Express train. Among the packed train and its many riders, Poirot finds himself approached by one such passenger named Samuel Ratchett. A rather shady character, Ratchett tries to convince Poirot that someone is out to get him and that he wants to hire Poirot to protect him. Disgusted by the man, Poirot simply declines. The next day, however, Poirot and the other passengers discover a nasty shock: someone has murdered Ratchett. Even worse, an avalanche has left the train trapped, and them trapped with the murderer. With nowhere to go as they wait for officials to clear the path, Bouc implores Poirot to take the case and figure out who killed Ratchett. Using not much more than the clues on this train and the testimonies of the other passengers, Poirot must work through the twisted tangle of lies and red herrings, in search of the shocking truth behind it all.

As the latest attempt to adapt this classic story, Kenneth Branagh’s film is slightly uneven in the execution. Before getting into those points, it is worth noting that there are parts that do work in this retelling. For instance, Branagh has assembled a top-notch cast for this film, who all offer some fine work. In particular, some of the fresher faces like Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, and Leslie Odom Jr. shine through with captivating performances. Likewise, Kenneth Branagh does a fine job as Hercule Poirot, delivering a mixture of keen determination along with a warm gentility. As for how the film is shot, Branagh’s approach for lavish shots works to a degree. In addition to scenes located outside of the train, he offers a variety of shooting styles to bring variety to the singular location of a train. For instance, an early tracking shot through the hallway of the train serves to showcase some of the other passengers in one steady path, while an overhead shot of the murder scene is presented in a way that evokes design schematics. These are fine points, but unfortunately the film does suffer in certain aspects that keep it from getting its full potential.

Throughout the film, there are touches and changes that either do not add much to the story or simply are flawed in their execution. For instance, there are a few moments when Poirot pines over a picture of a lost love, despite these moments not really being followed up in the narrative. There are also a few points in the film when it decides to bring out a more action-oriented approach, which occasionally feels out of place within this sort of old-fashioned murder mystery. Most of all, there is a flawed execution in this version’s take on Poirot. His fastidiousness and desire for order are extrapolated and expanded, turned into a black and white view on morality. This movie’s version of the iconic detective sees crime as simply disorder, a fracture of the soul. Thus, the film attempts to conflict it against the bizarre nature of the crime. It is an interesting angle and one which possesses shades in the original story, but it feels like it sacrifices some of the charm of Poirot by hammering the point so hard for a grander narrative. Perhaps it could have been more interesting to explore Poirot’s own egotism and his belief in his skill of understanding order and method, bringing it to conflict against the nature of this very case. That could have perhaps allowed this film to offer something more of its own in adapting the classic story, while retaining the classic mystery feel in its core. In truth, the film’s best moments are when it commits to the sort of murder mystery that is seldom seen in media these days, capturing a glimmer of what helps this story remain such a classic.

In the world of detective fiction, Hercule Poirot is one of the most iconic detectives, with the most famous tale of his intellectual prowess being Murder on the Orient Express. This particular adaptation shows glimmers of that great tale, if only it had been more focused on capturing the strength of the original murder mystery style instead of overdoing grander ideas.

Universal Horror in the Modern Era: How to Unearth Past Nightmares

When looking at the history of the horror movie, it is clear that certain companies can dominate at different times. For instance, throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, Hammer Studios was bringing nightmares thanks to its reinventions of classic horror stories mixed with evocative violence. These days, Blumhouse Productions is the big name in horror, with its low-budget approach allowing for room to gamble on plenty of movies like InsidiousThe Purge, and Get Out. However, the original name when it came to horror was Universal Studios. Its classic horror movies and roster of monsters came to lay down an iconic view on popular horror characters. That said, the studio seems lost these days as to what to do with its iconic pool of monsters. Recently, the studio attempted to relaunch them with a shared universe of action movies labeled as “Dark Universe”, the first entry of this plan being an action movie remake of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. However, the hamfisted attempt to create this universe in a single film and propping it up with generic action movie antics has already put the plan on a shaky foundation. What can be done to bring back the thrill of these classic horror movies for a modern audience? First, let us look a little into their history.

Universal Studios was first formed back in 1912, brought together from a group of nickelodeon (an early version of the movie theater) owners led by Carl Laemmle. In the silent era, the studio had a few horror movies, but not many. Most prominent of their silent era horror films was The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney. It was not until the “talkies” that Universal would cement its name in horror, thanks to the year 1931. That was the year that Universal released two movies that would carve their niche: Dracula and Frankenstein. These two movies, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff respectively, feature a Gothic atmosphere and memorable performances that put Universal on the map. From there, the studio committed to bringing terror to the big screen throughout the ’30s and ’40s, making such films as The MummyThe Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man. They even made sequels to their hits, the most notable of them being Bride of Frankenstein. As the 1950s rolled in, the tide of horror shifted away from the Gothic towards science fiction nightmares, pulling away Universal’s stronghold with it. However, the studio still managed to make one more hit from that time which would come to be associated with the idea of “Universal Horror”: Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Now, these particular horror films might not quite have the same punch for today’s audiences as they did when they first came out. The scares might not land the same chill for a modern audience, considering the advancement in cinematic techniques and technical effects. Still, there is something that is memorable with these movies: the monsters. Not only are most of them based around classic literary characters or familiar monster archetypes, but the performances help to captivate audiences. For instance, Bela Lugosi’s performance as Dracula shines with a charming charisma mixed with a stilted nature that lends him a disconnect from humanity. Likewise, Boris Karloff’s turn as Frankenstein’s Monster offers a creature whose lumbering movements are tempered by a soulfulness in the eyes, communicating sadness and rage at his state. These movies work because their central monsters are so fascinating to watch. Whether sympathetic like Lawrence Talbot from The Wolf Man or more overtly villainous like the Invisible Man, there is still power to these classic movie monsters. What can be done with such classic figures? Well, the idea of a shared universe is not a bad idea. However, the execution of this idea should remain in these horror roots.

Believe it or not, those original films actually shared the same universe together. The sequels presented a loose continuity that existed involving these various monsters, along with crossover films both serious or comedic. This shared universe of monster movies can still happen, but not as some generic action movie collage. Instead, they should remain as horror movies. They may take place in different places and times, best fitting the subject and characters. They may unfold in the darkness of light, or bring terror to the light of day. In any case, what is most fruitful is the core idea of it: that our world is filled with nightmares. Most horror movies tend to have a single tale to tell, bringing one monstrosity into regular existence. They are isolated incidents. This shared “Universal Horror” universe could instead paint a world where the nightmares lurk all over. They may be steeped in legend, like Dracula or the Wolf Man. They might be the product of science gone wrong, like Frankenstein’s Monster or the Invisible Man. They may even be things we never knew existed, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Together, they offer a world in which terror can come from any corner of the globe, and there can be something chilling about the idea if executed right.

Though their original films might not be so terrifying to modern audiences, the monsters that make up “Universal Horror” are still iconic horror figures for a reason. Their power can still be tapped for modern audiences in a shared cinematic universe, if used to bring together horror films into a united tapestry of terrors.

Flex Mentallo – Man of Muscle Mystery: Dynamic Tension in the Comics Medium

During the British Invasion of Comics back in the 1980s, one such writer who would gain prominence in the movement was Grant Morrison. His skilled writing has helped to keep him in the spotlight, but there are many parts of him that help him shine. For instance, there is his knack for writing bizarre, fascinating concepts. For example, his revamp of Doom Patrol as part of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint reinvigorated the obscure title with a fascinating and bizarre range of characters, such as foes including the Brotherhood of Dada (a collection of super-villains waging war against rationality) and the Scissormen (beings with scissor hands capable of cutting people out of reality). In addition to his out-there ideas, however, is his knowledge of the comic book medium’s history. It is something not just demonstrated by the variety of lesser-known figures he has plucked out from obscurity. He has also demonstrated this knowledge in works like Supergods, a non-fiction book that serves as both memoir of his life and an analysis about the history of superheroes and their impact. Both aspects of Morrison came together when he teamed with artist Frank Quitely for a comic book miniseries known as Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery. Centered around a character he had introduced in Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison takes this mind-bending miniseries and uses it to explore the development and change in superhero stories.

In the world of fiction, a strongman superhero named Flex Mentallo witnesses a potential bombing at the airport. He manages to intervene, but the bomb turns out to be the latest fake in a series of attacks designed to shatter people’s sense of safety. Orchestrated by a shadowy group known as Faculty X, the police seem to have no leads into why they are launching this bizarre crusade. The only clue that grabs Flex Mentallo’s attention is a single card, one that had belonged to a fellow superhero known as the Fact. Perhaps if he can find the Fact, then Flex can find the answer to this weird crime wave. In the world of reality, rock musician Wallace Sage has taken a bunch of pills in a bid to kill himself. Feeling his life slipping into the abyss, he gets a phone and calls up a good Samaritan. He spends what may be his final moments talking to this good Samaritan, discussing his life and his own interest in comic books. Though both threads seem separate, they will eventually wind together in a mesmerizing finale that brings a hopeful hero against a grim reality.

Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is a good example of the sort of bizarre craftsmanship that Grant Morrison can deliver. In this case, he uses the multi-layered story to explore the history and then-current state of superhero comics. For instance, Flex Mentallo is a character very much rooted in the Golden Age of Comics (generally regarded as being the late ’30s through early ’50s). His Charles Atlas-inspired aesthetic and idealistic attitude work well to mark him as a figure of that time, especially in the fictional world he lives. It is a darker world than the one he knew, both figuratively and literally. Among the shadowy corridors and the cynical or corrupted figures he encounters along the way, he can’t help but think about how much simpler his life used to be. Likewise, Wallace Sage’s chat with the good Samaritan winds through his experience with comics and moments in his own life. He rambles and winds through the call, from writing and drawing childhood comics to letting his life fall apart as he wrapped himself in his work. Really, both threads are used as part of one united point: a strike against the Dark Age of Comics.

At the time of this comic miniseries’s original release, American comic books were going through the Dark Age of Comics. This was an age brought on by the success of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which is a well-crafted deconstruction of superheroes with mature themes. Unfortunately, that success led to a flood of poorly conceived comics that sold themselves on anti-heroes, brutal violence, and greater sexuality. It was an attempt to swing away from the silliness of older superhero tales, but it pushed the contents to absurd extremes of cynicism and grit. Essentially, those trying to make superheroes into more than so-called “kid’s stuff” merely wound up making immature brutes. It is that attitude which Grant Morrison challenges with this series, coming to the defense of the sillier side of superheroes. Sure, the adventures could get silly and there is something inherently absurd in a character like Flex Mentallo. However, what is important is what a character like Flex Mentallo represents: the light against the darkness, the idea that goodness and justice can prevail. They offer figures that can help to inspire us, to show a way towards a better world. In fact, it is even brought up that perhaps that is the reason why people write superhero comics: that the world does not have to be like it is, and that we can be like them.

Among the many works of Grant Morrison, his writing can demonstrate oddball ideas and a skilled knowledge of the comic book medium. Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is a fine merger of these aspects, using big ideas and comics history to tell a tale that defends the somewhat goofy nature of superheroes and their optimistic core.

It: Terror at the End of Innocence

Stephen King is an author that is often regarded as a modern master of horror. Among the works that have helped him earn such a title is his 1986 novel, It. Telling the story of seven friends reuniting in their home town to battle a cosmic evil they had previously fought as children, the book is dense but gripping with every page. It captures well a lot of recurring themes in King’s writing, such as childhood trauma and its impact on adulthood or conquering evil through mutual trust. In addition, the novel gave the horror genre a great new boogeyman to fear with Pennywise, a creature capable of forming itself to look like the things people fear but whose most prominent form is a clown. It is no wonder how the book became so popular, even getting a television miniseries adaptation in 1990 that starred Tim Curry as Pennywise. Now, at long last, It has been brought to the big screen. However, it would seem difficult to adapt such a dense novel into a single movie. As such, this film instead focuses on those seven friends when they were kids, with a sequel planned to cover the portion of them as adults. The result is a really good coming of age story with some good scares as well.

In the town of Derry, kids prepare for fun as the summer of 1989 rolls in. However, one child does not have fun on his mind, and that is Bill Denbrough. Ever since the disappearance of his younger brother Georgie on a stormy day back in October, Bill is convinced that Georgie must still be alive somewhere. With the help of his friends, like the motor mouth Richie Tozier, hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak, and shy Stan Uris, Bill intends to find some evidence that Georgie is still alive somewhere. Along the way, they end up adding more friends to their numbers, befriending new kid Ben Hanscom, local girl Beverly Marsh, and home-schooled outsider Mike Hanlon. However, there ends up being something that unites them more than just friendship: they all find themselves terrorized by personifications of the things that they fear. Realizing that they are the targets of something that can shape itself into what people fear (with its most recurrent form being Pennywise the dancing clown), they learn that whatever this thing is might just be responsible for the decades of missing and dead children that plague Derry’s history, including Georgie. With no adults doing anything about this deadly history, these seven friends decide to step up and try to stop this creature, and just maybe find the truth about Georgie.

Plenty of adaptations have been done of Stephen King’s work, but It ranks among the better attempts to bring his writing to the big screen. Certainly, it does deliver on some strong jolts of horror, in particular thanks to Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise. His turn as Pennywise is one that captures the sense of a starving predator, one that relishes his meal as his prey feels fear. From his teasing and at-times puppet-like movement to the soft-lilting voice that can effortlessly shift to a growl, Skarsgard brings this classic monster to life with a seeming ease. However, there are moments with scares that don’t land quite as well. Occasionally, the film leans a touch too often on striking with a jump scare or having Pennywise rush his target with a yell. The stronger scares come through more in the surreal torment that Pennywise performs on the children or in scenes when Skarsgard gets to carry through with the creepiness, such as when he lures Georgie from the shadows of a sewer drain. Even the normal lives of these children capture some of that horror better, such as the psychotic bullying from Henry Bowers or the creepily possessive nature of Beverly’s father. In fact, that leads me into what helps this movie shine like it does: the coming-of-age story.

In attempting to adapt such a dense novel, one whose story unfolds during childhood and adult years, the choice was made for this movie to put the focus on the main characters as children. By making this choice, the story for this film is one about these misfits facing the darker edges of life that can emerge as one grows up. True, they do face certain terror from the hands of a shapeshifting creature responsible for a history of horrors. However, their fears stem from more than that. They emerge from the horrors that haunt their everyday life. Sometimes, it comes from bullies like Henry Bowers and Patrick Hockstetter, who torment them and see them as misfits. Other times, it stems from adults like their own parents, such as Eddie’s mother constantly needling him with health concerns or Beverly’s father displaying an unsettling attachment to his “little girl”. Life offers plenty of things for these kids to fear. However, it is with their mutual friendship and trust that they can grow, facing the things that they fear and not giving in to the terror. Thanks to strong writing, a good dose of humor to lighten up between the scares, and a cast of child actors who deliver some excellent performances, the coming-of-age story captures the feel of similar tales from the 1980s. For some, the result might seem slightly jarring when it shifts hard between these portions and the more overtly horror sections, but the whole film is still a good piece of work. To borrow a reference to another King adaptation, it is as if Stand By Me periodically swerved hard into a horror story.

Among the many works of Stephen King, It is often regarded as one of his best novels. Now, It has arrived on the big screen as a terrific coming-of-age story that shines even if a few of the scares might not land.