IT Movie fails female Constant Readers by turning Beverly Marsh into a tired cliche


Photo Brooke Palmer Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ IT/ Acquired from WB Media Pass

The most horrifying part of the recent IT Movie isn’t Pennywise the clown. It’s the stock treatment of the novel’s sole female protagonist, Beverly Marsh.

Even if you’ve never read the book, you probably know what Stephen King’s IT is about. A rag tag group of tweens, who call themselves The Losers’ Club, band together to fight an incarnation of true evil that frequently manifests into the shape of a freaky clown. Then, a quarter century later, the same kids are called back to their hometown to make a final stand against the creature.

After a ton of hype, the new film, following the ‘kids’ half of the novel, was officially released today. And, as a Constant Reader of King’s work, of course I was expecting to be let down. After all, the book is always better than the movie, right? I knew that some of my favorite scenes wouldn’t be included, that some of the dialogue would ring hollow, or that the effects might not hold up. Yet, I was along for the ride, excited to see a new version of King’s book brought to life. That is, until I saw the sharp and wholly unnecessary shift in the characterization of one of my favorite King creations, the whip smart Beverly Marsh.

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The climax of the recent IT Movie revolves around Bev, the only female in the Losers’ Club, but not in the way most fans of the novel might think. While the infamous teen orgy from the novel has been (thankfully) omitted, the writers of the film reached for something expected instead and transformed Bev into something she was never meant to be: the damsel in distress.

And, despite all the Pennywise hype, the ease in which the film falls back on tired old tropes in an era of daring storytelling is one of the most terrifying things about this recent adaptation of King’s 1986 masterpiece.

Note: Spoilers for IT – both the novel and film – follow, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, you might want to float on out of here. 

Like many other teenage girls, I grew up devouring Stephen King’s novels, one after another. And while his stories are full of carefully drawn and wonderfully flawed male characters – he’s surely more skilled at writing men than women – there are a few ladies that stand out from the crowd. As a teen, I especially adored Fran Goldsmith’s tenacious honesty in The Stand and Bev’s gritty sass in IT.

Stephen King’s female protagonists are many things, but they’re rarely helpless. In an era before the female anti-hero found purchase in the pop culture zeitgeist, King’s women were messy, determined, and frequently saved the day.

Fans of King’s novels know that Beverly Marsh is certainly one of those characters. When IT begins, she’s a female who is struggling with an abusive father while she’s coming to terms with her own femininity. But she quickly finds refuge in a group of friends that love and accept her for more than just her sexual promise. As the group’s friendship blossoms, the guys take time to marvel at Bev’s bravery, patience, and marksmanship… not her budding breasts. The film turns this entire conceit on its head and situates Bev as a marked object of desire, singling her out for being a girl in a group of boys, instead of integrating her into their ranks as a full member.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ IT/ Acquired from WB Media Pass

Throughout the film, undue emphasis is placed on Bev’s ability to use her sexuality as currency. Her first encounter with Ben, while adorable, is just a reversed version of Natalie Portman’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Garden State. She coquettishly nabs Ben’s headphones, teases him about what he’s listening to, and then signs his yearbook with a flourish. Then she’s off. Next, when she meets the rest of the gang, she offers to seduce a slimy, middle aged pharmacist so the boys can go unnoticed as they pilfer what they need from the shelves. In most subsequent scenes featuring Bev, focus is placed on her sexuality time and time again to the detriment of her personhood.

While the Bev of the book could gamely help build a dam, outlast most of the guys in a smoke hut, and aim like a pro with a slingshot, the Bev of the film has exactly zero of these qualities. In fact, the central “bonding” sequence in the film focuses on the Loser’s Club ogling her semi-naked body as she basks in the sun. The several activities in the novel that establish the growing connection between the group – ex: the aforementioned dam building in the Barrens – were all passed over for a scene that does nothing more than objectify Bev at her own expense.

This is not to say that there are any issues with the actress who portrays Bev onscreen. Sophia Lillis is a firecracker performer with spirit and charisma, and she certainly makes the best of what she’s given. It’s obvious that Lillis feels some sort of connection to Bev and that she wants to honor her story as a part of the narrative. Even when flirting with Bill, teasing Ben, or squirming away from her rapey father, she does her best to telegraph Bev’s competence and strength through confident body language, inflections in tone, and an accessible presence.

Yet, for all of Lillis’ enthusiasm, she can’t possibly overcome lazy writing and a reliance on old, stale female tropes. When Pennywise kidnaps Bev, kickstarting the boys to band together and save her, all the air whistles right out of the narrative balloon. Beverly Marsh was never meant to be an object to be saved. No way. She’s an integral part of the group itself, and the drastic shift in tone here changes the entire intent of King’s story.

Since any of the boys could have just as easily been taken by Pennywise in a fear-tinged waking nightmare, this twist is wholly unearned and nonsensical. Given what happens to Stan as an adult, he would have been the obvious pick, right, Constant Readers? But since both Ben and Bill have romantic designs on Bev, and the rest of the guys feel some kind of love (lust?) for her, it’s all too simple to make her the catalyst for the inevitable showdown.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ IT/ Acquired from WB Media Pass

Following a brawl with her Daddy, Bev is taken captive by Pennywise and made to look into his deadlights. It’s a pretty creepy scene in which she admirably resists in the face of true horror, but the end result is disappointing. Bev ends up in a state of suspended animation, prone and asleep just like a princess in a Disney movie, waiting for a brave prince to happen along and rescue her. AND IT’S NOT DISNEY. IT’S MOTHERF*CKING STEPHEN KING. SO, WHY?!

Of course, Ben’s kiss is what finally awakes Bev from her vacant slumber. Foreshadowing for this moment included prominent placement of The Frog Prince in Bev’s room, so I guess I should have seen this coming, but I had truly held out hope that filmmakers in 2017 would be better than that. What’s the opposite of woke? That’s basically what this twist is.

What’s so insanely upsetting is that Bev has no control or agency over any part of the final showdown with Pennywise. Yes, the orgy scene from the novel is super disturbing, but it’s arguably better than what happens in the film. (Fight me in the comments.) Instead of consciously offering up her body as a way to unite the group like she does in the novel, Bev is prone and unconscious when she’s saved by a group of males. It’s the exact inverse of what happens in the novel, and to fans of Beverly Marsh – especially female fans – it’s an infuriating change.

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Prior to parting with the studio due to creative differences, True Detective creator Cary Fukunaga wrote an iteration of the film script where Bev saves all the boys after their sewer showdown by gently cradling their faces and reassuring them of their bond. It’s the Bev we know and love without all the salaciousness of teenage sex or the insulting insinuation that women need saving. Clearly there’s a middle ground to bringing Bev’s feminine strength to life on screen, and here’s hoping that Chapter Two will finally get her right.

IT Movie is currently in theaters nationwide.