Just like Pennywise himself, the story of It and its relationship to sexuality has often shifted in weird and even startling ways, most notably in the franchise’s latest instalment, It Chapter Two.
Sink your teeth into plenty of It spoilers from here onward
Who can forget the controversy that ensued when fans first discovered Stephen King’s book ends with a prepubescent orgy in the sewers? Other sexual encounters that didn’t make either movie’s final cut include the leper’s desire to orally pleasure Eddie Kaspbrak and the awkward handjob Patrick Hockstetter gave Henry Bowers.
When IT first floated off King’s pages into the 1990 miniseries, each of these moments were left on the cutting-room floor as well— although this first adaptation for the screen did add some dialogue where Pennywise questions Eddie’s sexuality, adding new levels of queerness to the text.
Since then, Bill Skarsgård’s version of the Dancing Clown has surprisingly become a gay icon of sorts following the success of It Chapter One, and some fans even paired him up with the Babadook as part of everyone’s favourite power couple.
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However you might feel about #PennyDook, It Chapter Two quickly deflates any notion that Pennywise might be a queer ally with its very first scene.
Lifted directly from King’s story, the film opens with a brutal attack on Adrian Mellon, an openly gay man who’s played by LGBTQ+ director Xavier Dolan. The character was infamously inspired by the real-life Charlie Howard, who was murdered by homophobes in the author’s home town of Bangor.
In the book, King uses this tragedy to highlight how Pennywise has infected the people of Derry with his insidious presence, but in It Chapter Two, this connection is downplayed, making it less clear why the attack was even included in the first place.
Sure, it’s sort of progressive to see homophobia’s devastating impact play out on multiplex screens, but without any further reference to the attack later on, Adrian’s death feels like it was included just for shock value.
On-screen LGBTQ+ characters are often seen as expendable still, especially compared to their heterosexual counterparts, but the team behind It Chapter Two would probably argue that this homophobic streak is balanced out by a new development that comes courtesy of Richie Tozier.
While he’s not explicitly labelled as queer in the source material, Richie’s relationship with Eddie inspired Andy and Barbara Muschietti to add a new storyline where Bill Hader’s character wrestles with his own suppressed sexuality.
Barbara expanded on this development more during a conversation with Digital Spy:
“I remember, when I first read the book at 15, that… Eddie’s death stuck to me, because of that feeling. I felt that there was a love from Richie that was… you know, that was special. And it always stuck with me.”
Flashbacks reveal that this “special” love caused Richie a great deal of pain in his youth, most notably when a boy he has a crush on rejects him in the local arcade. Not only does this establish that homophobia’s been part of Derry’s fabric for decades, much like Pennywise himself, but it also sets up one of the film’s best scenes, which takes place later on in front of a giant Paul Bunyan statue.
Trapped between this hyper-masculine symbol and a group of dancing cheerleaders, adult Richie is forced to confront his true feelings as Pennywise floats down and taunts him about his “dirty” secret.
On paper, this all sounds remarkably progressive for a blockbuster horror, but Richie’s sexuality isn’t directly addressed again for most of the movie. Even that earlier arcade scene feels like it was shoe-horned in because there was no acknowledgement of his feelings in the first film.
Director Andy Muschietti told Digital Spy that “it’s pretty clear” Richie is gay by the end of the movie, believing it’s better to “let people do the math,” but when LGBTQ+ representation on this scale remains so scarce, it’s unfortunate that the film has so little to say in this regard.
Even at the end of It Chapter Two, after Eddie has died and Richie scratches their initials together into the fence, he still can’t verbalise his true feelings. Of course, some things don’t need to be spelled out but the film spends a disproportionate amount of time celebrating the love shared between Ben and Beverley at the expense of Richie and Eddie, who, you know, actually died.
Coming out is still difficult for many LGBTQ+ people in 2019, but you’d think that Richie would no longer be afraid to live his truth after surviving his far scarier encounter with Pennywise, the self proclaimed “Eater of worlds.”
During a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Stephen King described these changes to the source material as “genius,” pointing out that Richie’s love for Eddie creates a powerful bookend with the ugliness of the film’s opening scene.
“At least there’s love involved. Somebody cares for [Eddie]. And that echoes the love that Adrian’s partner has for him. So that was cool.”
In that sense, King’s not wrong. By ending on this note, It Chapter Two comes full circle, but the execution of this idea still doesn’t sit quite right.
LGBTQ+ characters in the book are portrayed as victims and nothing more, so it’s commendable that the most prominent gay character in the film is also one of the central survivors. Unfortunately, Richie’s reluctance to describe himself as such undermines this new development.
Although the film clearly has its heart in the right place, It Chapter Two‘s representation of queerness isn’t all that removed from the backward messages of yesteryear. Once again, gay men are either killed or silenced – and it’s rather telling that the blows which rain down upon Adrian are far louder than Richie’s journey into acceptance and self-worth.
It Chapter Two is out now in the US and UK.