Things To Do in Derry When You’re Dead

WARNING: The following article gives away major spoilers for It: Chapter Two.

Life is full of choices, and so is the process of film adaptation. There’s the choice of what to keep and what to discard from the source material. The choice of adding material or updating the setting. It’s the choice of deciding exactly what narrative the filmmakers want to show the world. And sometimes, especially when it comes to treatment of queer characters, the wrong choices are made.

WARNING: The following article gives away major spoilers for It: Chapter Two. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want any of it ruined, stop reading, go see the film, and come back. We’ll still be here for you.

It: Chapter Two opens in the small town of Derry with a brutal and graphic homophobic assault against a gay couple that we’ve only just met. Both are attacked, and one is even thrown off a bridge into a river after his face is beaten to a bloody pulp. He survives the fall only to encounter the demonic clown Pennywise, who proceeds to dismember the man while his helpless boyfriend watches from across the river. Neither character is ever mentioned again in any significant way.

Later on, we’re treated to a scene of the adult Richie Tozier, played by Bill Hader, encountering Pennywise in a city park. Pennywise taunts Richie by saying he knows his “dirty little secret,” which terrifies Richie to his core. While the film never outright says with certainty what that secret is, later revelations in the film highly suggest that Richie is not only secretly gay and living in the closet but has been in love with his friend Eddie for a very long time. But let me repeat, none of this is ever made explicitly clear, and Richie himself never comes out of the closet or admits his true feelings to Eddie before Eddie meets his fate in the film’s climax.

Both of these incidents are prime examples of a trope nearly as old as cinema called Bury Your Gays. It’s the idea that queer characters in a narrative are expendable, often seen as little more than plot devices or ways to affects the stories of heterosexual characters. In the worst of cases, it’s an implication that the arcs of queer characters can only end in death and tragedy. It’s a highly regressive and hetero-elitist notion that in 2019 is, frankly, a horrible look for anyone.

The assault in the film’s opening scenes is a prime example of this, as the attack only exists to kickstart the film’s main story and remind us of how violent Pennywise is and how the town of Derry is full of garbage people. Two things anyone who saw the first film would already be very much aware of. We know nothing about the victims except that they’re gay and want to leave the close-minded community of Derry. They have no connections to the main characters whatsoever; they exist solely as a plot contrivance. They’re only here to get brutalized.

It is true that this same assault is part of the original Stephen King novel in which the film is based, and it’s also true that King wrote it as a response to a real-life gay-bashing in Bangor, Maine, that happened around the time the book was written. The book also makes it clear that Pennywise — the avatar of the ancient evil entity known as It — was the one who helped spur the attackers on. It really comes off as King trying to make some rational sense out of a senseless act of ultimate violence through the supernatural metaphors he often works with.

None of this context is present in the film, and those unfamiliar with the book or the real-life incident see only a bloody attack on two gay men. It’s never clear if Pennywise is involved in sparking the attack or if he’s just taking advantage of the nearly-dead man floating in the river after the fact like a scavenger. In a film where terror and violence almost always has some kind of supernatural motivation, this comes off as a very human crime. Pennywise didn’t need to encourage the attack because that kind of thing is just what happens naturally.

It doesn’t help that the characters are written as poorly as they are. The most brutalized victim of the couple, played by Xavier Dolan, in fact has nothing but cringe-worthy Sassy Gay Friend lines that beg the question, “Has writer Gary Dauberman even met any gay people?” He’s not just gay but a rather stereotypical kind of gay as written by a straight man who watched an episode of Will & Grace once back in 1998 and thought it was a reality show. And while points should be given to casting an openly gay actor playing a gay character in a mainstream film, the fact that said character exists only to be killed off negates any kind of positive progress that might otherwise bring. The one time a minority character isn’t played by Scarlett Johansson, and they wind up dead for it.

The film in general plays fast and loose with adapting the material from the book and especially in Chapter Two cuts out entire subplots and reduces many supporting characters to one-scene cameos. Even Richie’s story arc of being in the closet was an addition made specifically for the film, as he’s not presented this way in the book at all. If anything, his friend Eddie is the more overtly gay-coded of the two there. It’s obvious that the team behind the film were not concerned with adaptation fidelity. So keeping this scene in while removing any mention of a massive cosmic turtle (because that was too ridiculous) was clearly a conscious choice.

In the same scene where we meet the gay couple, we also meet a young girl who is later on also attacked by Pennywise in a manner similar to how it attacks Georgie in the beginning of the previous film. The girl has about as much screen time, but she spends none of it covered in blood and gets literally twice as much development as both gay men put together. She also has no bearing on the plot other than to be an example of the evil It/Pennywise is capable of. Given that it’s been established that Pennywise’s favorite food is children, was there any compelling reason why the gay-bashing could have been written out and this scene used as the opening instead? It would have been much more on-brand, and it would have helped keep the film from being excessively long, which was a near-universal criticism of the final product.

If the gay-bashing had tied in to Richie’s story arc of being in the closet, it would have at least given some justification for its inclusion. But it’s never even made sure if Richie knows about the attack at all, and nobody ever refers to it after the fact. The closest we get is a flashback to Richie’s own experience with homophobia in Derry where as a young boy he tried to connect with another boy over video games, only to find out that said boy is the cousin of the town’s head bully, who taunts Richie with homophobic slurs. But that kind of behavior is a quick and easy go-to for bullies and in and of itself doesn’t mean much.

To be fair to the film, Richie’s arc is one of the most interesting of all the main characters, and Bill Hader plays the hell out of it. He’s far and away one of the best performers in a cast full of solidly-talented actors. What makes Richie’s side of this so infuriating though is the lack of proper closure to his story. His arc flies so far and so high, but he’s not even given an opportunity to stick the landing. He just falls out of the sky and crashes.

A major theme of It: Chapter Two is facing the past, and every other character gets a very clear, visible, even public resolution to their inner conflict. Not Richie. He never comes out of the closet, and he never says the word gay. In fact, nobody says the word unless it’s used as an insult, which is arguably problematic in and of itself. Richie never tells Eddie how he really feels, and while he says “I love you” to him at one point, the moment is couched in friendship and not romantic attraction. If an audience isn’t used to the coding of cinematic gay subtext, in fact, Richie’s arc could just be seen as him just learning to be less of a jerk who uses trash talk as a defense for his own insecurities.

Richie’s ending amounts to a major cop-out on the creative team’s part. During the epilogue, a voiceover montage contrasts the adult characters with their childhood selves. Richie is shown carving his and Eddie’s initials into the town bridge, something he began as a child and never finished. That’s all the closure he gets. For all we know, he goes on staying closeted to protect himself and his career and never knows the peace of mind that being openly true to yourself brings. Unlike every other character, who are given relatively prosperous and happy endings, we’re not given a sense of what Richie’s future holds. That this scene takes place as the voiceover says “proud” makes the the whole thing even worse, and it comes off as a Brokeback Mountain-level moment of gay tragedy porn played for straight audiences.

The message this final moment sends is that as far as this story is concerned, it’s acceptable and dramatically necessary for gay men to die and know tragedy but not okay for them to live a fully-actualized life free of hatred. And that most definitely includes self-hatred. It’s acceptable to show them as bloody punching bags, but when it comes to showing them at peace, let’s just be coy about it. Had the film kept the book’s much less-enlightened setting of the mid-1980s, that might be understandable to a point, but in 2019, this just feels outdated, ignorant, and even a slap in the face to queer audiences.

And what makes it worse is that it could have been avoided. It could have been different, but the creative team behind It: Chapter Two made their decision. An otherwise well-constructed and entertaining film ends up getting undone by the tone-deaf and callous treatment of its gay themes. Queer characters and queer audiences deserve better than to be treated as props and plot devices and to have our stories squelched and muted into subtext. It’s time for filmmakers to make better choices.

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