The first thing you’ll notice picking up Stephen King’s It—even before the terrifying, child-eating demon clown does his child-eating thing—is its sheer size. The novel is more than 1,000 pages long, and you’ll feel every bit of It if you lugged this monstrosity around middle school for weeks on end. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of It would understandably question why a book about an evil clown named Pennywise terrorizing a group of people as kids—and then again, as adults, 27 years later—needs to be such a lengthy tome. But categorizing It as the “evil clown book” betrays the true spirit of King’s text: It’s a messy, melancholic, but ultimately engaging story about inherited trauma, growing up, and confronting your fears. Even Pennywise is just one of many forms the novel’s principal evil takes; the creature is not a clown so much as an amalgam of all the central characters’ fears and anxieties. (But yes, the monster is oftentimes a clown because clowns are objectively frightening, no offense to the clown community.)
The book is also, with all due respect to the Master of Horror, absolutely wild—and full of bizarre tangents that an editor really should’ve cleaned up on the first draft. The most infamous example is the dreaded child orgy scene, wherein the Losers’ Club (as preteens) become lost in Derry’s labyrinth sewer systems and—unfortunately this is true—take turns having sex with the sole female member of the group. The best-case interpretation for this sequence is that, by defeating Pennywise in the sewers, the group has left childhood behind, but the theme of growing up could’ve been presented in other ways. It’s about as horrifying as anything the clown does, and goes on way longer than you’d expect. Unsurprisingly, director Andy Muschietti decided to omit the orgy scene in his 2017 adaptation. Once the gang stops Pennywise, they just so happen to make their way out of the sewers; problem solved. That was a pretty obvious solution, but not all the bonkers developments in King’s novel could be cut from the story so easily. With It Chapter Two arriving in theaters this weekend, the franchise would have to find a roundabout way to address the cosmic space turtle in the room.
Oh, you’re not familiar with the space turtle? Here’s a brief, spoiler-filled info dump on It, the novel: Pennywise must be defeated by performing the “Ritual of Chud,” a psychic battle of wills between the monster and the Losers’ Club. A person is supposed to stick out their tongue and overlap theirs with the monster’s, both bite down on one another’s tongues, and then the first one to laugh at the other’s jokes will be banished to the netherworld—no, really. Helping the Losers on their quest is Maturin: a benevolent, interdimensional turtle god that is the universal counterbalance to the evil of Pennywise. Oh, and the true form of Pennywise—at least on the physical plane of Earth—is that of a giant alien spider, and as the adult Losers are shocked to discover, the monster happens to be pregnant with a bunch of eggs gestating in its sewer lair.
That ayahuasca blast of a paragraph is but a glimpse of Its climactic turn toward the metaphysical, but you get the idea. When King enthusiasts express concern that It is an unadaptable text, it’s got nothing to do with depicting the horrors of a child-eating clown: It’s everything that comes after that. The 2017 It eschewed this cosmic dilemma by simply punting the wonkier stuff to the sequel, which was one of the key advantages in splitting the two films between the Loser Club’s adult and child timelines. For the time, that was a smart gambit: It became the highest-grossing horror film of all time, surpassing $700 million at the box office. The wide appeal of the first film is easy to understand, especially off the heels of Stranger Things—both franchises even share Finn Wolfhard—as a satisfying blend of ’80s nostalgia and jump scares, something occasionally frightening but easily digestible. (It also didn’t hurt that the kids were adorable, impeccably cast, and had great chemistry.)
It Chapter Two wouldn’t be afforded the same benefits. The narrative jumps ahead 27 years upon Pennywise’s reemergence in Derry; callbacks to the New Kids on the Block would have to be put on hold. And the Losers’ Club is now made up of adults, so despite Chapter Two including a few flashback sequences, the kids are now supporting characters, at best. (Though it certainly helps that the sequel cast the likes of James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, and Bill Hader.) But most importantly, screenwriter Gary Dauberman needed to figure out just how faithful Chapter Two would be to King’s novel—turtle god, weirdo vision-quest ritual, and all.
Ultimately, the film splits the difference between getting cosmically strange and keeping things conventional. I’ll try and keep the spoilers to a minimum, but our turtle pal is nowhere to be seen—unless you count the wooden turtle situated on a desk at Derry Elementary School, one of several apparent turtle-themed Easter eggs—and the Ritual of Chud does make an appearance, albeit one that’s somewhat neutered from the text. Chapter Two‘s principal weirdness is left to Mike Hanlon, the sole member of the Losers’ Club who stays in Derry as the town’s librarian and unofficial historian. In his spare time, Mike ingests hallucinogenic roots with the local Native American tribe; he also stole one of their artifacts and neglects to tell the rest of the Losers’ Club that the tribe’s own Ritual of Chud failed miserably and resulted in myriad gruesome deaths. (You know, minor details!)
That Chapter Two doesn’t go full “turtle god and overlapping tongues with a monster in a psychic laughing contest to break the cycle of evil” isn’t to the film’s detriment. The main issues with the underwhelming Chapter Two—aside from a monstrous, nearly three-hour runtime befitting one of King’s most admirable yet tedious novels—is the repetitive rhythm of its scares, which largely follows the pattern of the first film: One of the Losers encounters a form of the monster, freaks the hell out, and eventually escapes unscathed. (No shade, but Pennywise has a really weak K rate.) The film won’t be considered a failure by any means—like its forebear, it’s projected to make a shit ton of money—but it’s still a shame Chapter Two didn’t tip the scales into full-blown, peak King weirdness, if only to set a precedent for how strange studio films can get nowadays.
For major studios, projects based on intellectual property remain box office gold. But while It does fit that bill—and once again, King-related IP is becoming a hot Hollywood item—the sequel had a huge platform to get wildly experimental that’s rarely afforded to the horror genre. (Imagine if something like Midsommar or Goodnight Mommy made as much, or were watched as much, as a Marvel movie.) Instead, Chapter Two is content sprinkling a little Ritual of Chud-weirdness here and turtle iconography there—just strange enough to feel faithful to the text without potentially alienating large swaths of its audience.
Perhaps it was overly optimistic to imagine Chapter Two embracing everything that made King’s epic so bizarre, overwrought, and captivating in equal measure. But without paying complete deference to a text with grander metaphysical ambitions—even if King, unlike Pennywise, bites off a little more than he can chew—in the end, it makes Chapter Two feel like a missed opportunity. Rather than going for broke, it’s content just being the “evil clown movie.”