If you haven't seen IT, I'm gonna ruin IT for you in this post. You have been warned.
WARNING—this post is Rated R
Because IT is Rated R, I’m not gonna hold back on my language during this post. If that sounds offensive to you, be the adult here and stop reading now.
WARNING—this post is gonna be LONG
Because there is SO MUCH WRONG with IT, and I’m really, really pissed that they did such a crappy job of storytelling with IT, I’m gonna rant about IT! A lot! Now, before you go thinking I’m not a fan, let’s make this very clear. I WANTED to love this movie. The movie, however, WANTED me to hate it.
WARNING—this post is gonna make me sound like an asshat
Because of the way this industry works, “at best” this post is going to make me seem like I’m contradicting myself. “At worst”, it’s going to make me sound like I’m a jealous and spiteful man. Which I may be, but that’s not the point here.
Still, I want to discuss what I think is the number one “most stupidest” (yeah, I wrote it like I meant it) idiocy within this industry - the way this industry marks “success”.
The thing that pisses me off more than anything is the fact that this industry (and I’m including the fans here) equate success to sales. Period. And personally, I think this is wrong. Just because a story sells a bazillion units DOES NOT mean the story is any good. Unfortunately, despite my feelings, that’s exactly the way it is.
In other words, in the eyes of the very industry in which I make my living, E. L. James (the woman who “wrote” 50 shades of grey) is a better writer than me.
If the two of us were at a convention together, she would get doted upon, while I would be brushed aside as a nobody. The attendees would flock to whatever room she was speaking in, leaving me teaching my highly-rated creative writing classes to an empty room.
Why? Do you really have to ask? Our culture is stupid over fame. ANY fame. Deserved or not. Fame is what rules the land.
I mean, we have people who are famous just because they are famous. These people have no talent or skill. They simply are. And the world worships them.
Look, my point here isn’t to trash on E.L. James, or celebrities who are celebrities because they are celebrities. My point here is to say that I’m about to rip a new one into a movie that was one of the highest money-making movies of 2017. Irony, right?
And yet, I stand by my statement – just because a story made money, does not mean it’s a good story.
To that end…
Let’s talk shop
As angry as I am over the piece of garbage that is the movie IT, the fans spoke with their wallets, and there will be a second IT movie whether I like IT or not. (Yea. I'm gonna have fun overusing the word IT throughout this. 😊)
With a production budget of just $35 million, the fact that IT brought in a whopping $700 million guarantees that. Which shouldn't be a surprise since Stephen King has the Midas touch. I mean, the man could sneeze on a tissue and make whatever came out into a movie that would make millions!
But does that make it right? Does name recognition mean you can produce a crap sandwich and expect everyone to be happy eating it?
Not in my world. Most the rest of you seem O.K. with IT though.Mindless sheep…
Because despite me hating IT, the average critic rating was 8.5 out of 10, with an 84% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Even Stephan King said he loved the movie.
Bulbous red hair flying in the air, running gayly over green fields, singing and fancy free. What’s not to love?
So, why didn’t I connect with IT when IT seems the rest of the world did?
Look, I'm not here to rain on such a commercial success. I mean, good on you writers and directors. Bravo. You made a product that people gave you money for. Lots of fucking money. I’m not jealous… not one bit. Rassa-frassin’ fur-bearin’…!
Okay, now that I’ve done the obligatory, “you made money, so you must be better at your job than me” pat on the back, let me explain why this movie fails so miserably, and why you should NOT do things in your story the way IT was done in IT.
What I thought
I could not have hated this movie more unless Pennywise himself had literally jumped off the screen and ripped one of my arms off. And since I left the theater feeling as if $12 hard-earned dollars had been viciously ripped from my wallet, IT felt about the same.
Why? Well for starters, I was promised a HORROR FILM! You know, a film that is scary from start to finish. Yet, every scary scene in this movie was in the trailer. Yea! They fit ALL the horror scenes from a horror move into ITs 60-second trailer. That shouldn’t happen. I mean, there are tons of comedy movies where every funny line is in the trailer, and the rest of the movie is a stinkburger – but none of those made $700 million at the box office! In fact, the trailer for IT was not only scarier, it was more entertaining to watch, more immersive, and just a better overall story than the actual movie was. I have more connection with the sandwich I ate yesterday than most of the characters in this film. Also, CHAPTER FUCKING ONE?!?! Oh… so pissed about that… but more on that later.
Okay, okay. Let me back up. Speaking of sandwiches, my team has been prodding me to try out this new thing they call a "compliment sandwich”. Let me attempt to practice that right now.
(Compliment) The trailer was really great, and made me want to spend money to see this film.
(Criticism) Everything from the start of the movie to ITs end was an insult to me.
(Compliment) You saved me $12 because there’s no way in Hell I’m watching “Chapter Two”.
O.K., so that last line was more of a backhanded compliment.
Fine! I’ll try again.
(Compliment) If you can overlook that this was a horror film without any real horror in it, the fact that they failed miserably to tell any compelling or complete story of any type, and the fact that they tried to cram WAY too many stories into one film, I’d agree with the statement that, “This was a terribly executed, poor-man's version of Stand by Me.”
What? All right…. I know… not a compliment either. Fine! Fuck sandwiches! Let’s get to the meat.
Let's talk about the Structure of IT
Or, more specifically, let's talk about the importance of Benchmarks.
So, not a Horror flick, which is fine, as IT doesn’t follow any of the normal Horror conventions when it comes to Structure. So, what is IT? This story could definitely fall under the category of a Coming of Age/Maturation Story Arc. Or, to be more accurate, this was SEVEN Coming of Age/Maturation Story Arcs, all crammed together in the worst possible way, with no attempt to Viscerally Connect the audience to any of them! But since they failed so spectacularly at all of these, this is not really the Structure the film hangs its meat on, either.
So, what is the Structure of IT? Well, let’s look deeper at the story itself and see if we can’t figure IT out.
Basically, a bunch of kids are in this town that’s cursed by a monster who eats children. Since their parents have given into fear in one way or another, these kids are left to fend for themselves. This is what “should” give us the Benchmarks for the Coming of Age/Maturation Arcs.
I mean, at its heart, a Coming of Age/Maturation story is all about moving from a helpless child to an independent adult, right?
But that’s not what happens in IT. Not really, anyway. Not enough to sell this type of story.
You see, the main thrust of the story follows a character whose little brother is brutally murdered and eaten alive by this monster/evil spirit/dancing clown called Pennywise who lives in the sewer. (They never actually explain what Pennywise really is during the move, so if you haven’t read the book, you’re shit out of luck in understanding this part of the story. Which would have been fine had they given a free copy of the novel away with every ticket sold. Since they didn’t, this is the worst kind of insult to the audience – expecting them to know the story BEFORE you tell them the story.) Still, this main thrust sets up the only “real” Structure used—the Closure Story Arc. Cue children screaming and crazy eyed monster/evil spirit/dancing clown laughter.
Yeah. Not about growth. Not about becoming a hero. Not about making the world a better place. Not even about killing the crazy clown-demon that ate his little brother. Just a simple story about a simple child who needs to find some closure after the disappearance of his kid brother.
“Wait, what?” you say. “No, this is about that little boy getting revenge on Pennywise for killing his brother.”
Oh, I agree with you. THAT’s what IT “should” have been about. But, IT’s not.
Poor little Bill Denbrough is never out for blood, never out to kill the demon that killed his brother. Nope. Not once does he state this, nor do his actions show this. He’s just out to find his brother, either alive (so he can bring him home), or dead (so he can bring his body home). That’s it. In fact, had lil Bill been able to avoid confronting Pennywise all together, he would have been happy so long as he found his brother and got his closure. And I KNOW this because at the end, after Bill gains this closure by killing the illusion of his brother, little Bill gives up. He’s more than willing to sit there and let Pennywise kill him as well. (More on this in a moment.)
And since the Closure Story Arc is kinda counterintuitive to the fundamentals of what a Horror film should deliver to its audience, can ya see why this movie left me so frustrated and unfulfilled?
But IT was WAY more of a disappointment than that… oh, so much more than that. Let’s talk about…
Alright, so, in order to talk about IT, I'm gonna have to break down Benchmarks—what they are and why they are so important if you plan on telling a story that’s worth a shit. In fact, you’re gonna get about 500% of the government’s daily recommended allowance of Benchmarks in this one post alone. Let's hope it’s water soluble.
Benchmarks are all those wonderful moments in a story that create that vitally important Visceral Bond between the audience and the story. Basically, these are the things you need to put into a story so the reader actually cares about whatever it is they’re consuming. Benchmarks are unique to each different type of Story Arc, each different Character, and each unique story. So, I can’t just give you a list of ‘em, because, “It don’t work dat way.”
I can tell you that Benchmarks are the HOOKS that connect the reader to the story. The HOOKS that makes the reader care about whatever it is you want them to care about. And without them, the reader doesn’t care. Let’s look at a few examples, so hopefully you can get my meaning.
You're gonna write a Love Story? Awe… You need some Benchmarks that viscerally connect the reader to HOW the main character feels about Love, WHY they need to find Love, WHAT that character will lose if they don’t get Love, and HOW either finding or not finding Love AFFECTS their life in the end.
Without figuring out how to get these Benchmarks into your story, and as close to the beginning of said story as possible, the reader will never care about your story.
An Action/Adventure Story? Amazing! You need some Benchmarks that viscerally connect the reader as to HOW the main character is personally affected by the conflict of the story, WHAT that character has lost/is going to lose that gets them involved in attempting to stop the conflict of the story, WHY, once they are dragged into the story, do they keep moving forward toward the end of the story, and HOW either overcoming this life-shattering event or not overcoming it will AFFECT their life in the end.
Again, fail to put these into your story, and as close to the beginning as possible, and you fail as a storyteller.
Coming of Age Story? Spectacular! You need some Benchmarks that viscerally connect the reader to WHAT the main character is missing by being a youth, WHY they need to mature, WHAT they will lose if they don’t mature, and HOW gaining or not gaining this maturity will AFFECT their life in the end.
I could go on, but hopefully you’re starting to see the big picture here.
You do all this Benchmark stuff because, as your story continues, your scenes can build upon these Benchmarks, letting your readers FEEL the increased intensity in tension, character development, or really anything that your reader needs on an emotional level in order to enjoy your story. Without setting up your Benchmarks, the reader will never give a shit about the story, because they will never give a shit about your characters moving through said story, nor care if they overcome the climax. Period. It’s that simple.
If you don’t make the reader care, and care quickly, everything else you’ve created is worthless.
Let's take a look at one scene in particular. One that should have made this story perfect, but in reality, went a LONG way in ruining this movie for me. What I like to call…
The best Horror Movie Benchmark ever filmed – but missed its mark by a country mile
I’m talking about the opening of the film here. THE place to set your biggest, most Viscerally Compelling Benchmark. And I have to say, I’ve never seen it done better.
When Bill Denbrough's little brother, Georgie, meets Pennywise for the first time, it’s breathtaking. Seriously, I’m not sure there is a better-written scene in a Horror film.
IT opens with that beautiful scene of the boy’s in Bill’s room. Bill is “sick”, and can’t go out with Georgie. But being the dutiful brother, builds Georgie a toy ship. This is an important Benchmark. It gets the audience to “buy in” to the brother’s love for each other. Very important for the classic Horror Movie Revenge Arc. Because if the audience doesn’t believe that Bill loves his dead brother enough to fight a demon from Hell, they won’t care if he succeeds or not in the end.
So, set a Benchmark to make audience believe Bill loves his little brother. Check!
Step outside, and the tension rises as we follow little Georgie chasing after his boat in the rain. The cinematography of this scene is breathtaking. Truly a wonderful piece of movie making. The gloom, the rain, the subtle music. Even the little moment where poor Georgie hits his head on the warning sign—all of it is incredible at building the tension to a moment the audience KNOWS is coming. It becomes so obvious as you watch, that you begin to dread it. You start hoping it doesn’t happen – that the trailer was wrong. Misleading. This perfect little child is not going to be dragged into a dirty sewer and eaten alive. He can’t be! You want to scream, “Don’t go that way, Georgie!” but you know it’s useless. You KNOW Georgie is going to die.
This is the second very important Benchmark. If the audience doesn’t care about Georgie living, they won’t care about the rest of the story.
So, set a Benchmark to make the audience care about Georgie’s survival. Check!
However, you KNOW little Georgie MUST die. Without Georgie’s death, there’s no story. At least, there’s no story this film is building up to, the one the trailer promised – the classic Horror Movie Revenge Story.
On one level, you’re not happy with this little child’s sacrifice. Yet on another, you NEED to see this child die. You must bare witness to this tragedy so that you can be Viscerally Connected to the story you “think” you’re being fed – the classic Horror Movie Revenge Arc. And Georgie’s death is the pivotal Benchmark that’s absolutely needed to Viscerally Connect you to this type of story. Once you witness this despicable act, you and Bill will become one. You both will have the same burning desire – at all cost, Pennywise must die!
So, set a Benchmark that makes the audience and Bill one person. Check!
Now, none of this comes as a surprise to the audience. You KNOW all this is about to happen, and it’s AWESOME! It’s why you’re here. You knew what type of movie you were walking into… or at least… you thought you knew. (Wait for it!)
Getting back to this opening scene.
Sure enough, once the boat disappears into the underworld, and little Georgie starts peering into the sewers, that fucking clown pops up! Perfectly clean in the bowels of that nasty storm drain.
They have an unsettling conversation and all you can think is, "GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE, GEORGIE!" even though you know that’s not gonna happen.
And it CAN”T happen.
I mean, think how you’d feel if everything happened just as I described above, but then, after Pennywise popped up, he simply smiled and handed little Georgie back his boat. He warned him that it was dangerous to play around storm drains, wished him a good day, and waved to him as the boy ran home. It wouldn’t have been the same.
So, as expected, the worst happens. Cute little Georgie is reaching for the boat, reaching for the boat, reaching for the boat, and…
I want to take a moment here to chase a rabbit and talk about one of the Golden Rules of Storytelling – “Never do terrible things to children or dogs”. This is something that can really bite the hand that feeds it. I.E., if you do terrible things to children or dogs in a story the audience can turn on you quicker that a pack of rabid badgers who just realized you pissed in their cornflakes. It can get ugly fast, and ruin your career.
Still, on those few occasions when it’s done well, it’s can be one of the most dramatic and impactful moments in entertainment history.
And that’s EXACTLY what they did in this scene. I can’t stress enough how much I LOVED this scene. Does that make me a sick fuck? Probably. But if you ever want to watch this Golden Rule get broken perfectly, study this scene!
You KNOW they’re gonna break this Golden Rule and kill little George. But you THINK they are at least going to leave most of it up to your imagination. There’s no way they’re going to make this a terribly graphic scene. I mean, just the image they had in the trailer was terrifying enough, right? In that we got to see little Georgie’s tiny body being sucked into the sewer. It’s probably the scene that made you go, “OH! I’m So seeing that movie!”
However, that’s got to be the worst of it, right? Perhaps they’ll add a bit. Like the camera quickly panning up, and some blood will shoot into the air. Maybe even add high-pitched scream that’s abruptly cut off. Plenty to let us know the poor child is dead. But there’s no WAY they would force us to live every moment of the horror, would they?
Oh, yes, they would!
The audience gets to suffer right along with this poor little 7-year-old child. We are forced to watch as the boy gets his arm bitten right off in full gory spender! Even more impressive, they continue to film this small child as he turns away, whimpering as his little nub of an arm spurts blood onto the rain-drenched street. He's in agony, and the audience agonizes right along with him for what seems like an eternity. He falls, screams for help that everyone knows isn’t coming. He feebly tries to use his one remaining arm to pull tiny body away from an even worse fate.
And you sit there, dumbfounded at the horror of it, waiting for the axe to drop and finally end both the child’s and your suffering.
Just… incredibly… amazingly… terrifying.
Overkill? Not in my book. What they did here was create a very powerful Benchmark. They set the Benchmark of what this story will deliver on the horror-o-meter. The audience came to this story with a knife, only to realize too late that the story came with a bazooka! And in the first few minutes of the film, shot a small child in the face!
And this scene leaves you with no doubt that this story will do it again! It’s making you the promise that kids will be murdered, it will be bloody and horrible, and you are gonna suffer right along with them through every single bite of their tender flesh.
Well… it would be… if that was the movie that was then delivered.
I mean, think about what I just described.
You now know that Bill loved his little brother Georgie. So much that he’d be willing to fight a demon from hell to avenge his death.
You fell in love with Georgie as well, and are now willing to fight that demon right along side Bill.
You watch in GRAPHIC DETAIL what happened to little Georgie, and you are shocked, stunned, appalled. But most important – YOU WANT REVENGE!
PENNYWISE MUST DIE!!!
Unfortunately, that’s not what the movie delivers.
Drake, Drake, wait. Wait, what did you mean
“That’s not what the movie delivers?” I mean, you
don’t mean they don’t get revenge. You’re only
You want me to break this movie down or not?
Who gets Pennywise?
I don’t understand.
Who kills Pennywise? At the end. Sombody’s got
to do it. Is it Bill, who?
Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.
You mean he wins? Jesus, Drake, what did you
break this down for?
Yup! Just like the little boy from the Princess Bride, I felt gipped.
I mean… all those beautiful Benchmarks that were setup at the beginning of this movie, some of the best every created, and they were ultimately wasted. IT never delivers on the promise IT makes in the open scene.
Let’s look at a Benchmark I haven’t mentioned yet. Well, I made a bazooka/horror-o-meter crack about it, but never really explained it.
Another Benchmark setup in that Georgie death scene is the sheer graphic horror of IT. What they setup was, “Hold on to your stomachs, people. This is going to get messy!” And yet, they never did it again.
Seriously, for the rest of the fucking movie, Pennywise appears, dances around like that drunk cousin at weddings you know is never gonna get laid, does creepy shit, and then vanishes. Even when the kids were at their lowest points, when fear was at its highest (like Georgie was just before he was ripped apart), Pennywise simply wanks off.
That opening scene sets a tone for the movie that they NEVER do again. And even when the opportunity to match that level of intensity arises later (and here I’m referring to the scene where the teenager in the sewer who was a part of the bully squad dies), they pan away! They leave the horror to the audience’s imagination. Which is fine. I mean, Hitchcock made his career off that very tactic. But you can’t OPEN a movie with that level of graphic horror and then never return to it. Things through a story must GROW! Tension, mystery, stakes… everything must GROW! IT made a promise to the viewer, then didn’t maintain that level of intensity or ramp it up for the rest of the film.
A Benchmark was set, then never supported.
In doing this they take away all the power of that scene and turn it into nothing more than a pathetic gimmick. Basically, it felt like they made the first scene really terrifying just so they could use it as the movie trailer and trick people into purchasing tickets. Knowing damn good and well that the rest of the movie didn’t follow suit!
Pathetic! You can’t have the most tension-filled scene be the first scene of the movie. That just means that for the rest of the story, we are in a downward spiral.
And don’t give me that bullshit about, “But the bloody bathroom scene! It was at that level!” No. It wasn’t. I mean, it was good. And yes, it was gory. In fact, it was pretty damn great, when held up by itself. But on the tension-o-meter, it had LESS tension than the Georgie being eaten scene. And since it came AFTER, it’s still a weaker scene.
EVERYTHING MUST RISE AS THE STORY PROGRESSES!!!
They set a bar with the Georgie scene. From there on out, they must continue to raise that bar until they reach the climax. And whatever the climax is better damn-well blow that opening scene away!!!
If it had, I’d dare say that IT could have been one of my favorite movies of all time. I mean, the novel was wonderful. So, they had a great story to build off.
But that’s just one Benchmark they promised and then failed to deliver. The other Benchmark was the entire scene I described above. That entire opening PROMISES me a Revenge Story. You made me buy in to the brother’s love, made me care about the victim, made me and Bill one in the same, and made me want revenge. All of it was perfectly executed for a story that was never delivered.
Is it any wonder why I was disappointed when IT went in a completely different direction from what it promised?
And because IT wasted time setting up Benchmarks for a story they didn’t even tell, IT failed to deliver the needed Benchmarks to viscerally connect the reader to any of the (way too numerous) Coming of Age/Maturation Story Arcs it shoved down the audience’s throat as well. Worse when you realize that this movie isn’t even a Coming of Age story either!!!
But that’s not even the end of IT.
Let's talk about the Benchmarks that need to be set so the audience understands something that’s “special” to your fictitious world. When you have something “special” or “magical”, say like a demented clown who sleeps in the sewers, only surfacing every so often to snack on terrified children, you MUST set Benchmarks so the audience can start to understand this “special” thing. If the audience doesn’t understand IT, they will be confused. And a confused audience is NOT an engaged audience.
In IT, IT wasn't until the end of Act II that the audience starts to learn even the basics of some of the rules that govern this demonic clown. (The Library scene with Ben Hanscom reading about the history of the town. You know, over an hour into the movie? Yea, that’s the first time you start to learn anything about this “special” monster.) Things like, Pennywise only comes around every 27 years, Pennywise eats more children than adults, Pennywise is more interested in eating your terror than your actual body, if you don’t fear Pennywise (ha! good luck with that), he can’t eat you.
And since they don’t start giving the audience this information until the end, it comes out of left feel and feels rushed. More like an afterthought. It’s like they made 2/3rds of the movie and some intern said, “Hey? Isn’t this supposed to be a Horror film about a demented clown?” And everyone was like, “Shit! Totally forgot about that part. Eeh… let’s just shove it in at the end. No one will notice.”
Unfortunately, by the time I start gaining some of this information, I'm already past the point of caring.
Remember, the reason we put our Benchmarks as close to the front as possible is we NEED the audience to buy in, or they won’t care about what they’re watching.
By the time the library scene rolls around, I’d lost all interest in the stupid clown, his reason for being in the story, and the desire to see him come to justice. All that powerful emotional attachment I had when I watched poor Georgie get ruthlessly murdered is gone by that point.
Why? Because the Pennywise story had become a distraction to me because the story shifted gears and has now spent a crap ton of time setting up new Benchmarks for some completely different types of stories.
And because these other Benchmarks had been lain, and the Pennywise “classic Horror Movie Revenge Story” had been placed on the back burner for so long, I was more interested in these new story arcs. Hell, truth be told, by that point I’d kinda forgotten all about that creepy clown – not a good thing in a movie that is all about a creepy clown!
It’s why so many people have said they liked the kids story WAY more than the Pennywise story. Because in reality, there was never a complete Pennywise story. There wasn’t a complete kids’ story either, which for IT, is bad.
Why? Becuase IT was billed as a horror movie, not some crappy redo of Stand by Me with some horror elements thrown in as an afterthought!
And I’m not just angry that because that’s what the book is about. No. I’m not one of those “book purists”. I get that film is a completely different medium than prose, and therefor creates completely different stories. I’m angry because the FILM was presented as a fucking horror movie about a creepy clown eating children, and even the opening scene promised that same thing, and yet the movie didn’t deliver on that promise.
And I think I’m even more angry over the fact that NORMALLY when a film fucks the duck that bad about promising one thing and delivering something else, IT FAILS WITH AUDIENCES!
Look at Hudson Hawk, my all-time favorite Bruce Willis movie. It bombed. Not because it wasn’t a good movie. It was great! But it wasn’t Die Hard – and for whatever reason the brain children in marketing decided to bill it as the next Die Hard. And that pissed off fans and critics alike, who all poo-pooed the movie, and it became a commercial failure.
Again. Stephen King = Midas touch. Nuff said.
Hopefully, I’ve beaten this Benchmark thing into the ground, and you are starting to see my point. Benchmarks are VITAL to your story’s success. When done right, your audience is promised something, becomes viscerally connected to seeing that promise delivered, and then becomes satisfied when that promise comes to a conclusion.
IT promised something IT never delivered. Very bad, and should have been enough all by itself to get this movie panned as a piece of crap. But, wait, my friends. That’s not the only mistake IT made. IT also had…
Too Many Stories for One Story
As I said above, IT broke ITs promise to the audience, and got sidetracked with other stories. To that end, let’s look at all the things the writers of this story tried to shove into this 2-hour and 15-minute hodgepodge.
The biggest offender to my mind was trying to give every kid their own Coming of Age/Maturation Story Arc.
All fucking seven of them!
You can’t flesh out seven major story arcs in one movie, there just isn’t enough time. And keep in mind, we just spent a ton of time talking about an EIGHTH major story arc – the Pennywise Horror Story Revenge Arc!
Unfortunately, they didn’t even stop with eight story arcs. No! The brilliant team behind IT decided to shove 17 complete story arcs into a 135-minute movie! Well, attempted to shove, anyway. In my not so humble opinion, they failed miserable at all of them.
Why? Because having so many story arcs in the limited medium that is film means you’ll never have time to setup the Benchmarks needed to Viscerally Connect the reader to all the story arcs, you’ll never have the time to add in the scenes needed to grow the characters through the story arc, and you’ll never have the time to resolve them all. Period. And IT didn’t fail to disappoint in being disappointingly bad at delivering this.
So, let’s count ‘em down, shall we?
1-The Pennywise Revenge Arc. This should have been a no-brainer. I mean, a creepy fucking clown who lives in a sewer and eats children. How bad do you have to fuck this up to make it NOT scary? And yes, they didn't actually use this Story Arc at all, but they set it up, so I'm counting it, dammit!
2-The Bill Denbrough Closure arc. This one is the only one they almost succeeded at. It definitely gets the most screen time, so by default becomes the one story arc that audience find the most satisfying. There are several Benchmark scenes that set this up, more scenes that build upon this and grow the character, and it does get resolved when Bill kills the illusion of his little brother, which is his way of coming to terms with the loss of his little brother and finally being about to let that go. But with just a bit more, they really could’ve hit a homerun with this story arc. They just needed a few more scenes to really hook the reader into this. As an example; a scene to show me how much Bill blamed himself for his little brother’s death. They never did this, and that’s a shame. I mean, they showed that Bill was “probably” faking his illness when George went to play in the rain. But they never allowed Bill to explore that emotion. That regret. That remorse. That guilt that could have turned into self-loathing would have been a wonderful tool to allow the audience to grieve right along with Bill. That’s a hook right in the reader’s heart they totally missed. So, I’ll be generous and say they got 80% of the emotional hooks (Benchmarks) needed to pull off a Closure Story arc. Which is why, for most people, this is the only part of the story they remember when asked to give details about IT.
3-The Beverly Marsh Overcoming Oppression arc. Well, pretty sure this is that. I mean, I “think” her dad was raping with her. They elude to it enough to have me make that leap. But since they never took the time to really show it to me, really make me loath her father, in the end she just straight up murdered the man for no justifiable reason. Was she justified? Perhaps? Not sure? I mean, her father was definitely overly controlling, but is that justification for murdering your own father? Again, I “think” he may have done despicable things to her, but I was never given the proof. Meaning, without this proof, I’m not sure if Beverly did a great thing by killing an incestual rapist, or a bad thing by unjustly murdering her father. Plus, without any Benchmarks to start this story, as they did with the Pennywise Revenge arc and the Bill Denbrough Closure arc, this whole story felt rushed. I mean, in one scene daddy’s all like, “You’re still my little girl, right?” And the next he’s tackling her? That seems like a strange, harsh transition, right? And then BAM!, he’s dead on the bathroom floor murdered by his daughter? WTF?
4-The Ben Hanscom Finding Acceptance arc. Again, since this cute little pudgy guy kinda came out of nowhere, the entire arc is rushed. It’s almost like they shoehorned him in as the Messenger (a Plot Device in the story that brings information the hero needs just when he needs it most) more than an actual flesh-and-blood character. So, this entire character just felt… awkward… like being forced to take your kid brother along with you on a date where you’re trying to get laid. Kinda kills the mood for all concerned.
5-The Eddie Kaspbrak Overcoming Oppression arc. I mean, a story about a mother who smothers her child and keeps him at home with placebo drugs and imaginary illnesses is interesting. But they only scratched the surface of this one, so it was more like an annoying itch than a fulfilling story. If he had more time, say, like his own standalone movie, you could really turn this into something interesting.
6-The Stanley Uris Overcoming Personal Fear arc. This one they showed more than the others, but showing the fear does not Viscerally Connect the reader to the fear. Why does he fear what he does? How has it shaped his life to date? What will he lose if he is unable to overcome this fear? Etc. You must setup Benchmarks that make the reader give a shit that this little boy succeeds in overcoming his fear. Since they didn’t, this arc simply feels like it’s included purely for its shock value, which is not satisfying to the audience. Again, had they had more time, say, like giving him his own standalone movie, they really could have turned this into something interesting.
7-The Mike Hanlon Overcoming Prejudice arc. Yes, we get a scene of him getting beat up by some racist asshats. We even get a scene about him learning that you are either the one holding the gun, or the one being shot by the gun. Both of these are important Benchmarks the reader needs so they understand how and why the overcome happens. But these are not enough. They do nothing to Viscerally Connect the reader to this character. Yeah, as an afterthought in Act III we learn that his parents were killed in a fire by other asshats. But again, by that point, it’s too late. I don’t care. Mike came out of nowhere, and is just a distraction.
8-The Henry Bowers Slip into Darkness arc. Sure, intro this character as a secondary character who’s the racist asshole who beats up children, great. I’ll buy that without any Benchmarks at all… because he’s a secondary character. Not even the real villain, since we’re supposed to have that amazing DEMENTED CLOWN!!! These types of characters can be a as 2-demintional as hell without hurting the story. Unfortunately, they didn’t leave him as a secondary character. Oh, hell no! The more plot arcs the better, right?!?! So, let’s also show his slip into darkness. Only, let’s not actually show it at all. Let’s just intro him as a secondary 2-dimensional character (Racist Bully), then escalate that without any rhyme or reason to where he slits his own father’s throat. Yea! Audiences will love that!
Keep in mind, those are just the MAIN plot arcs they tried to cram into this story. But lucky for us, we get MORE!!!
9-There’s also the Love Triangle Story arc between Beverly, Bill, and Ben. This should have been what we call in the biz as the “B” story. But only if the “A” story was just one story and not 16 other stories. Like, I don’t know, just off the top of my head, a great “A” story that would pair well with this “B” story could have been something like that AMAZING PENNYWISE REVENGE STORY YOU PROMISED ME IN BOTH THE TRAILER AND THE OPENING SCENE!!!
10-There’s also Henry’s own little Overcoming Oppression story with his overbearing cop father. Though this story fails even worse than the others for two main reasons. One: sure, shooting live rounds at your child’s feet is probably not the best example of good parenting, but the dad never did anything that would convince the audience he deserved to get his throat slit. And Two: it gets totally washed out and lost by the inclusion of his Slip into Darkness story arc.
11- 12- 13- 14- 15- 16- & 17-Keep in mind, at the start of this section I mentioned ALL seven of the “hero” kids get their own Coming of Age story arcs. So we, the already overtaxed audience, get to deal with each of their individual paths of growth on topics like parents, sex, the world around them, and their place within it. – If you really want to study the PERFECT example of how to pull off the Coming of Age arc, just watch or read Stand by Me.
Because they tried to shove so many story arcs into one film means they couldn’t give any of them the attention they needed to make them emotionally satisfying in the end.
To bring home this point about why including too many story arcs is so bad, let me close with this. The struggle IT had with Viscerally Connecting me to any of the numerous stories they tried to shove down my throat was, because there are so many, I only got a few pieces of each. Not enough to connect me to any of them, and made ALL of them feel rushed.
Worse, the addition of all these story arcs only add to the destruction of what the main thrust of the story should have been about, what was promised to the audience through the trailer and the opening scene of the movie – a group of kids dealing with the terror that is a demonic clown who eats children.
The equivalent to this type of horrible overreaching in Prose is when a writer Head Hops. You shove so many perspectives at the reader that they end up not caring about anyone in the story. It’s why I preach so fervently against Head Hopping.
One Final Gripe
And this isn’t really a Benchmark, per se. Still, as Benchmarks are about setting up your audience’s expectations, I’m gonna include this one here.
How fucking dare they not tell me this was Chapter One!?!?!?!
This is totally unforgivable. Seriously. If the title of the movie was: IT – Chapter One, then when I got to the end, and I was unsatisfied because they didn’t actually give me a complete, fulfilling story, I might have been (at least a little) more comfortable with things. I’d have the EXPECTATION that this movie was not going to tie everything up, because I would’ve known ahead of time that there was at least one more movie coming my way.
Instead, here’s a little one-Act story on how NOT knowing this was only part-one affected me as a fan.
Drake sits staring in disbelief as the movie comes to an end. What
the fuck? He thinks. That’s not an end. That’s not even a story. That’s
just poor writing. He then notices something has appeared on the screen.
Big words draw his eye, so he reads.
END OF CHAPTER ONE.
“Oh, you motherfuckers!”
Fuming, Drake storms out of the theater, vowing to never watch
CHAPTER TWO, even if it comes out on Netflix.
Which is a shame, because as much as I hated this movie, I probably would’ve seen Chapter Two… had they simply let me know ahead of time that this first movie was only Chapter One!
Believe it or not, a reader’s expectations are real. It’s why Obligatory Scenes are so important to Speculative Fiction. I mean, if I pick up a book that’s in the Murder Mystery genre, and there’s no murder in the book, I’m not going to be happy with the writer.
And this mistake simply boggles my mind. Why? Why not title this movie, “IT – Chapter One”? Holding that information back adds NOTHING! Worse, it actually hurts the story, because everyone who starts that movie is expecting it to be one complete story. Finding out after it’s all said and done that this was only half the story is just an insult to our intelligence. Well… my intelligence, anyway. Again, most of you felt this movie was amazing.Mindless sheep…
So, what is right with IT?
I’ve already doted on the opening scene. I still say it’s the best opening to any Horror film ever made… had it been the opening of an actual Horror film, that is. It wasn’t, so it’s wasted.
Still, if you’re a clever reader, and I know you are, you might have noticed I left out one of the “hero” kids in my story arc breakdown above. Why? Because the Richie Tozier character is the ONLY character who DOESN’T have his own personal story arc. And, he shouldn’t. Nor should any of the other kids outside of Bill, and perhaps, at the most, the Beverly Marsh character.
But doesn’t it feel odd that the main character’s best friend is the ONLY character WITHOUT his own story arc? Well… yes… but only because they gave everyone else story arcs. The reality is, NONE of them should have gotten story arcs. And had they not, the omission of this would not be noticed.
Even so, let me take you down a path of why this is how things should be done.
So, Richie Tozier doesn’t have a story arc. Nor should he. Why? Because he’s a secondary character. A supporting cast member who is there to help the main character through the story. And that’s EXACTLY how they used him. (See! I can give compliments!) Richie pushes Bill, sometimes in harsh ways. (Like what he said about that missing girl being dead, and that it was stupid for her family to even look for her. This forced Bill to look at the folly of his own actions. Powerful!) Sometimes, Richie pushes Bill in good ways. (Like being there with him when he enters a creepy sewer or a scary abandoned house. Talk about a loyal pal!) Sometimes in a Tough-Love way. (Like when Richie confronts Bill for being an asshole in his pigheadedness about leading the gang to their deaths.) But best of all, Richie supports Bill in a loving and supportive way. (Like the amazing scene that happens after Bill is in the clutches of Pennywise and has given up. Remember, Bill doesn’t want to kill Pennywise. He just wants closure over the loss of his brother – IT’s a Closure Story arc. So, at the end, once Bill gets his closure, he tells the others to leave. His story is over, and he’s willing to die because his Closure Story arc is done. So he has no other reason for living. It’s the Richie character that shows Bill he can still fight. This is one of the best written moments of the film. And had this film followed through with IT’s promise of being a Revenge Story arc, this would have been an amazing “Rescue from Without” scene that would have given Bill the power to rise up and overcome! Man! I really would like to watch my movie version of IT. Arrogant, I know. Still, IT is what IT is. 😊)
But what does all that add up to? The quintessential sidekick character. And Richie is written perfectly. He pushes the main character to be better, adds humor when needed, forces the main character to stay grounded, etc. Everything he should have been.
You see, you can have secondary characters that are important to the story, AND become loved by the audience, WITHOUT giving them their own FUCKING STORY ARCS!!!!
Because they never gave Richie anything more than the sidekick role, he never detracts from the story. He only ADDS to it. Because time must be spent on the other character’s stories, they only detract from the main story.
Had they done this with Ben Hanscom, Eddie Kaspbrak, Stanley Uris, Mike Hanlon, Henry Bowers, etc., keeping them as Secondary Characters without forcing each to have their own story arcs, they would not have wasted all that precious screen time trying to develop each of their respective story arcs, and instead could have better spent that screen time developing an compelling and complete story.
In other words, had they simply stuck with the very powerful and horrifying “A” story that was promised to us, and then added in the wonderful complexity of a Love Triangle “B” story, this movie would have probably rocked.
But wait, let me answer what I think should be running through your mind by this point and discuss…
The Difference between a Novel and a Movie
Yes, I get that ALL those story arcs I’m bitching about above are in the novel as well. However, there is one very important difference here. THIS ISN’T A NOVEL!
There’s a reason why everyone says, “The book was better.” And that reason is NOT because a novelist is a better writer than a screenwriter. (Though, in this case, I do lay the blame for this movie failing so spectacularly at the feet of the screenwriters. And for all the reasons I listed above.)
The reality is, Novels and Movies are Different Mediums. And different mediums have their own different limitations. And when it comes to adapting a novel to a film, there are several HUGE differences that will ALWAYS make the book better.
However, the one they screwed the pooch on here is not understanding the Canvas. As a novelist, I get to paint on the Canvas of the reader’s imagination. It’s limitless. There’s no production budget. No actor restrictions. No edges of the screen. No technological limitations. And even the amount of time I get to tell the story is pretty limitless. I mean, sure, I’m supposed to hit 140,000 words within my epic fantasy novel. But I also get a +/- 20,000 words! You want to know how much amazing story I can tell in only 20,000 words? Hit up mywww.MaxwellAlexanderDrake.com website and read one of my Sony novellas. They’re about 20K, and A LOT happens in one. So, “story time” is NOT a limiting factor to a novelist.
As a screenwriter, I’m not so lucky. I get 90 to 110 minutes of screen time as my Canvas. Have you ever looked at a screenplay? Have you ever wonder why we screenwriters format all our screenplays in that crazy, annoying way? It’s all centered in a thin strip down the center of the page with TONS of wasted space. Well, because when you format a screenplay correctly, you magically write one minute of film time per page of your screenplay. Nifty, huh? What that means is, using the time above, I get 90 to 110 pages to tell my tale. (Just for accuracy, IT was 135 minutes long, so the screenplay for IT was 135 pages long.) That’s it. That’s all you get. Normally, this breaks down to 40 scenes. You get 40 scenes to do EVERYTHING NEEDED to tell a compelling story when you write a movie.
So, to take a novel from its nearly limitless Canvas to a 90-page version that has at most 40 scenes, you gotta cut, and cut deeply, so that you still tell a complete and compelling story. Basically, you have to figure out what the “core” story the novel is trying to tell and make that into a movie. In other words, YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL! Because there simply isn’t enough time in the medium that is movies.
And this was the biggest mistake of those who write this screenplay. They wanted to put EVERYTHING from the novel in. However, because of the limited amount of screen time they get, this was their Achilles heel, and the reason I hated this adaptation so much. There was no time to completely flesh out all 17 stories they were trying to tell, so they ended up with pieces of them, making them feel rushed and incomplete – and therefor unsatisfying.
Still, after all my ranting, let’s not lose sight of…
Why was IT a Success?
Because, that’s the rub for me. How could a movie with so many horrible mistakes still become a commercial success?
Please know that I’m gonna speculate here – which is just a fancy way of saying this section is just a bunch of shit I’m gonna make up.
Still, I feel I do know why IT was a success. And I want you to understand this for a very important reason. I can’t tell you how many times I run into a noob who has written something that they based off something like this IT movie. Same mistakes, same crappy writing, same crappy story execution. And when I tell them, “Your project will never sell.” their response is always the same, “Of course it will, it’s written exactly like [insert title here], and that was a HUGE success!”
But what they don’t get is, their project does not live in the same situation as the one they are attempting to emulate.
So, why, with all the issues I listed above, was IT successful?
The BIGGEST reason by far is name recognition. Stephen King is a household name. A project with his name attached to it is going to draw an audience. Period. Now, I’m not saying everything he does is guaranteed to be commercially successful. However… it’s as close as you can get.
And guess what? You’re not Stephen King. So, even if you wrote an exact duplicate of IT, that means nothing.
The next is marketing. A big Hollywood studio spends an average of just under $40 million to market one of its movies. However, that’s an average. For projects they feel really good about, oh, like say a movie that’s riding on the shoulder of a giant like Stephen King, that cost can rise to as much as $200 million. And if you will recall, every time you turned around there was an ad for IT. Meaning… they spent more than $40 million to market. The truth is, we purchase what we are advertised. Because we are sheep.
And guess what? You don’t have $200 million to market your project. And since you have no name, no big studio is going to put that kind of cash behind you.
Another contributing factor was nostalgia. Millions of people read the novel IT. Millions more watched the 1990 TV mini-series of IT. NEVER underestimate the ability to revisit a new adaptation of a beloved classic. That fact alone pretty much meant this project was going to make money.
And guess what? Your project doesn’t have a built-in fan base of millions of people.
And last, begrudgingly, while to me, this movie adaptation of IT was a fucking train wreck, the truth is, there is enough good in this movie to make those who are less critical than me (which is most of the world, admittedly) feel like they had a good time. The opening scene was amazing. The bloody bathroom scene disturbing. The pull into the kid hero’s worlds fascinating. Oh, yeah, and having a creepy fucking clown doesn’t hurt, either.
Add all this together, and most of the mass market audience will forgive you for trying to shove 17 stories into one movie. Still, my point in writing this Brutal Breakdown is to help YOU not make that mistake. Because, as you can see from this section, success has way less to do with the quality of the writer’s ability than it should.
And, how this ties into you is, don't ever expect your project will be a success just because it's written exactly like something else that was a success. As you hopefully gleaned from above, the quality of the writing sometimes has very little to do with a projects success.
Keep in mind why I do these Brutal Breakdowns – as a way for YOU to see stories the way I do, and hopefully use that insight to become a better storyteller. I’m not doing these to rain on anyone’s parade. Was I harsh on IT? Certainly. Mostly because I feel IT deserves it. Still, this isn’t about me ranting on what I like or dislike, it’s for you.
To that end, let’s wrap this already-way-too-long-post up.
Hopefully, this post has opened your eyes to the importance of Benchmarks. Without setting up the proper Benchmarks, I.E., the hooks the reader needs so they care about what’s happening in your story, you will never gain a reader’s support.
While there is no definitive “list” of Benchmarks, there are Obligatory Benchmarks that need to be set depending on the type of story you are telling. I listed some above, but really there is no definitive list for this either. This is where some of the talent of storytelling comes into play – the understanding of what Benchmarks are needed to ensure your reader is Viscerally Connected to the unique story you’re telling.
And your in-depth understanding of how to set the proper Benchmarks is how you will Viscerally Connect your readers to your characters/plot/conflict/etc. Sometimes Benchmarks can be as little as beats, sometimes they are as big as a creepy clown horrifically ripping off a small child’s arm and waving it about while he laughs. But without these Benchmarks setting the needed hooks into the reader’s heart, you’ll fail to satisfy the reader’s unknown emotional needs.
How do you learn what’s needed? YOU READ! A LOT! IN THE GENRE YOU WRITE IT! I can’t tell you how much it pisses me off when I speak to a wannabe writer who says, “Oh, I don’t read.” IF YOU DON’T READ, FOR ALL THE LOVE THAT’S HOLY, DON’T WRITE!!! Because reading is your TOOL to learn what needs to be done. Period.
I hope this way-too-long rant helped you learn about Benchmarks. If not, reach out and ask me follow-up questions. Hit me up on Facebook or Twitter, or ask me in my Private Facebook Group.