When word began spreading that Stephen King’s IT was finally getting a theatrical adaption, I was equal parts excited and concerned. The original miniseries from 1990 was tame and bound by time constraints, but it remains a nostalgic and sinister cult classic for horror fans. So when news on the project started leaking, I found myself called to revisit both the miniseries event and the novel itself.
I’d seen the miniseries once or twice in the past few years, but I’d only ever attempted reading the novel once before, when I was in middle school. As you’d expect, my eighth grade mind was almost incapable of understanding much of the prose and subtext King filled his pages with, let alone the story itself. I recall not growing bored of the novel then, but just unable to understand it, and so I don’t even think I finished the book. But a few plot points from IT were strong enough to remain seeded in my memory from that first foray into the story. Chapters like when Ben is hunted down by Henry Bowers and his bully friends, or when Mike’s dad recounts a tale of arson at an African American social club stood out like morbid gems.
But what perhaps remains in my memory the most was the novel’s inclusion and facets of queer characters, and the reactive behaviors toward them by other characters.
The fact that I remember certain passages from a novel I’d attempted to read in my youth is not too surprising. For a young, closeted gay boy, such topics found in books or in film or on TV were almost like taboo learning experiences. Media expressions that spoke to the silenced part of me I barely even realized I was actively hiding away. They were scenes and passages I knew I wasn’t supposed to be learning about, at least not yet, but instinctively knew I needed to anyway.
The sitcom Roseanne, MTV’s The Real World, Christopher Rice’s A Density of Souls,and King’s IT. All these works of entertainment (and more) I was easily able to watch and read without drawing suspicion from family or friends. To them, I was simply watching a show millions of others were watching. I was a child reading an adult novel, which was much more preferable than a child getting into trouble. But in truth, I was learning.
As I said, the news of the coming adaptation, coupled with the fact that I’m an adult now whose social media presence revolves around horror experienced from the queer angle, easily set me on a path to finally reading King’s behemoth of a novel in full. And despite it honestly being a chore to get through (It took me from August until the following January to finish), I was glad I returned to the novel and am now able to relate to those remembered parts of it as an out and proud gay man.
QUEER FEAR IN DERRY
After finishing King’s novel, I browsed the internet for other reactions and reviews by queer readers, interested in seeing what thoughts others had towards the work and its characterizations. There were few, mostly brief mentions on forums or in the comments section of articles about King’s bibliography in a broad sense. But I quickly noticed one reaction more prominent than any other, and was surprised to hear that others found IT to be a homophobic novel.
The notion of this ran a short spectrum, from those claiming that King’s queer characters were simply unrealistic, cliché, or villainous, to those vehemently accusing the horror author of blatant homophobia. I, who had gotten none of these feelings from reading the novel, was curious as to what I had missed.
To understand what others had been offended by, you would have to have read the novel yourself and then chose to either agree or disagree, but allow me to relate to you the shorthand version of the queer aspects of Stephen King’s IT.
The novel, about several youths banding together to defeat a sinister force killing in their hometown, and then regrouping as adults to end it once and for all, has more gay characters and passages than many modern novels. This is the first thing I’ll relate. Whether they are side characters making questionable judgments or outright villains, that’s a separate issue. But when a popular author’s novels even bother to include queer characters, especially in older works, I feel it’s something to recognize. Now we may move on.
Probably the biggest inclusion of queerness into King’s novel is the story’s inciting incident, for lack of a more apt term. In 1984, Don and Adrian, a gay couple living in Derry, Maine, are accosted and then attacked by three other young men and the incident ends in Adrian’s death. The two men are described as being effeminate and outlandish, and the attack is identifiable as a hate crime (as we lawfully know the term today). The Derry police are indifferent, at best, about the victims’ lifestyles, but committed to solving the crime and pinning charges on the suspects. When our group of protagonists reunite in Derry to discuss the latest murders, they discuss this hateful attack, but the gay men are never made fun of or talked about negatively.
The second-most prominent instance comes in the character of Patrick Hocksetter, one of the bullies led by Henry Bowers, who terrorizes the protagonists throughout their childhood in the late 1950’s. Patrick is described as mentally unstable, physically unappealing, and all-around disturbing, but as his character is further developed, we learn he has much darker aspects. Patrick, suffering from the delusion that only he is truly a “real” being, is responsible for not only the death of several small animals, but also of his baby brother. And amid this delusion, he lives life simply as he desires, acting on every whim and attraction. This comes across boldly when Patrick and Henry are left alone in a dumping ground and Patrick begins to sexually entice his leader with a handjob. Henry rebuffs the advance when Patrick attempts to elevate the encounter to include oral sex, but Patrick is not ashamed or even particularly dissuaded by this reaction. Rather, he provokes Henry, reminding him of his arousal. Henry’s reaction to all of this includes threats to out Patrick as not only gay, but as a psychopath as well.
Much of the novel’s other instances of queerness come in the form of thoughts and dialogue by main and side characters, usually while describing other unseen characters. Derry townsfolk talk about which lifestyle choices are good indicators of one’s potential homosexuality. Beverly’s husband mentions a professional acquaintance probably being a lesbian with an appetite for models. Eddie, the small and “sickly” runt of the friends, is often called a fag by the bullies while also being tormented by It, which takes the form of a frightening leper who offers to perform oral sex on him.
I suppose it’s easy to posit that a novel with no queer characters is better than a novel, like IT, which delivers queer characters to us that are either represented negatively or are the victims of violence. Personally, I argue the opposite, long holding the belief of equality among villains, heroes, and victims. I also don’t believe King himself to be homophobic at all, knowing through his other works that he has presented a variety of queer men and women, and through his personal statements and actions in response to politics and popular news.
On the whole, I found King’s inclusion of queerness in IT neither distasteful or pleasant, needless or necessary. It simply was, just as real life often has it be. Certainly a queer hero would have been welcome, but sometimes gay men are victims instead. Sometimes psychopaths will use sex as a tool, regardless the gender of their victim. Sometimes small town people have small minds and say ignorant things. And all of this will be true until the end of time.
THE RETURN OF IT
Naturally, the question now as I’ve reached this point, is what will the novel’s new film adaption include of its original queerness, if anything?
The project has already taken other steps to improve upon the 1990 miniseries (which included none of the novel’s queerness). The new adaptation has cast Owen Teague as Patrick, fueling speculation by many that the movie will actually include the tense sexual encounter Patrick and Henry share in the novel. However, there has been no statement confirming these rumors. A quick tweet to the actor, hoping to confirm anything about this, sadly garnered no real answer.
Personally, this response seems to hint that the film will not include the controversial scene. The mention of how long the novel is and reassuring us that the movie will stand strong by itself almost reads as ‘The film can’t include everything from the book. Sorry.‘
One thing I do know for sure is that I, and certainly others, will be disappointed (and probably a little irritated too) if the adaptation leaves out any of the content I’ve mentioned. The novel may be considerably large, but to ignore such a powerful inciting incident or deep characterizations will undoubtedly come across as disingenuous. Until then, we can only hope that director Andres Muschietti and the producers will see this project through with a dedication to inclusion and faithfulness.
UPDATE: Like most horror fans this past weekend, I went and saw IT on the big screen, helping it shatter box office records for a horror genre film. And while I did enjoy the film, I did feel a small bit of disappointment that the only “queerness” kept within the story was a slightly effeminate Eddie being called derogatory names by the bullies. No Henry and Patrick scene, no townsfolk mentioning full grown men who live alone. So with that, one of the two major queer scenes of the novel has been passed over, leaving only the opening incident of the “modern day” storyline remaining. Will it make it into Chapter 2??? Well, I’m not holding my breath.