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Stephen King has always been about more than just the scares. It is more than Pennywise. It is about generational fears and the lasting friendships that can assuage them. And with the new film moving from the ‘50s to the ‘80s, it’s able to tackle an entirely new set of problems.
When it was first adapted as a miniseries in 1990, the time-alternating story hopped back and forth between 1960 and thirty years later. The novel It occurs between 1957 and 1985, close to its television adaptation. But the new film, directed by Andy Muschietti, moves the timeline up significantly, to the year 1989 after Bill’s (Jaeden Lieberher) brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) disappears. This change alters the thematic heft in surprising ways — and isn’t just about the ‘80s references, as some might assume.
The original story, about the picturesque small town of Derry, Maine, housing a horrible secret, captured the pseudo-innocent ‘50s. The era’s buried post-war angst crawled out of the sewers and ate kids, its dark secrets reemerging in the ‘80s when its protagonists were adults. Innocence is lost and reclaimed and lost again in this story, following a similar trajectory of King’s own works in our nostalgia-obsessed culture.
For King, having the ‘80s look back on the ‘50s allowed the conservatism of both decades to act as a reprimand of small-town small-mindedness. This was a nostalgia where everything that looked perfect on the surface actually hid something sinister. This was a ‘50s where everyone tried to look like Ward Cleaver, while still housing the fears and pains of World War II.
But as the 2017 film looks back on the ‘80s, it’s looking back toward a different type of pseudo-innocence. It’s a Spielbergian nostalgia, heavy with pop culture references and also its own, ‘80s-specific horror corollaries.
The fear of strangers, oddities and unknown sources of bodily fluid hangs over this new version of It, making ignorant attitudes about HIV a reminder of an ugly side to history and how we treated people in need of help. There are also quips and filmmaking choices that allow October 1988 through the summer of ‘89 to be deeply felt throughout the film. There’s its wardrobe (ringer tees, big sweatshirts and denim vests) and set design (movie theater marquees featuring Batman, Lethal Weapon II and Nightmare on Elm Street 5).
The wonderful cast talks about playing Street Fighter in the arcade all summer and one is a huge fan of New Kids on the Block. Michael Jackson, Molly Ringwald and Geraldo Rivera are referenced; “Bust-a-Move” plays; and a hypochondriac kid wielding dual fanny packs is a high-strung product of ‘80s fear-mongering media.
These kids have a healthy distrust of the self-centered adults around them, showing signs of the ‘90s rebellion soon to come (just as ‘50s kids showed signs of the rebelious ‘60s right around the corner). It‘s nostalgia is not ironic nor rose-tinted, which its R-rating insures, but an indictment of ‘80s selfishness. When the children face Pennywise, it attempts to pull them apart and set them against each other, angling them toward the individualism, decadence and excess that was personified in the likes of Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko.
The kids, revolting against this, demonstrate more than just childhood friendship. It’s rebellion. The film, one of the best King adaptations ever, has more ‘80s heavy metal angst than ’50 facade, and it is all the stronger for placing its audience in the midst of the period’s fears, strengths and culture.
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