By now, millions of people have gone to see the big screen version of Stephen King’s amazing novel IT. I went opening weekend and enjoyed (almost) everything about the movie. I loved the characters and the actors playing these kids were great. Skarsgard’s version of Pennywise was brilliant and ridiculously scary. Unfortunately, there is one aspect of the film that I didn’t enjoy and if the rumors about the character’s arc in the sequel are true, I will have a huge issue with it as well.
Of all the members of the Loser’s Club in the novel, the one character with the richest back story is Mike Hanlon. Considering most of the story in the book is told through his notes and journals, it makes sense that so much of his story is told along with the individual stories of the other kids woven throughout the overall narrative.
What Makes Mike Hanlon Unique
Unlike the other kids in the book and frankly, unlike the people of the town of Derry, Maine, Mike Hanlon’s parents were always present in his life. Being the only black family in the town helped to secure the narrative that they were “outsiders” which allowed them to be more present with Mike and less apt to fall under the spell of forgetfulness that everyone else in the town experiences. Constantly being reminded of how different they are because they are black helps Mike’s father instill in his son a curiosity about the town of Derry. That curiosity helps him and his friends learn more about the evil that they face and how wide IT’s influence reaches.
In the film version, that curiosity is taken away, along with his parents. With his parents dead in a fire, Mike is relegated to being raised by his grandfather who wants him to be strong rather than smart, to essentially live the life of a sheep farmer rather than aspire to anything else. This strips away his compassion and curiosity and gives him a perpetual scowl in all of his scenes, where he’s been relegated to the background.
Historian and Librarian
In the novel IT, all of the Loser’s eventually leave Derry. They spread out and start lives of their own and achieve success in their chosen fields. The only person who stays behind in the town is Mike. After Mike goes to college and gets his degree, he becomes the town librarian. He spent his childhood researching the history of Derry and as an adult, he became the keeper of that history. It was Mike who knew about the tragedies that made up the history of Derry. It was Mike who learned the history of the Ironworks and the burning down of The Black Spot. In the movie, they gave all of those revelations and information to Ben Hanscomb.
They took away Mike’s defining character trait and gave it to Ben, leaving Mike with no personality or purpose other than to be another victim who needs saving. To add insult to injury, it looks like the producers of the sequel are still going to have the rest of the kids leave Derry in order for Mike to contact them to come back to stop IT for good, but Mike is going to be a junkie when he becomes an adult.
Pennywise gets strength from the fear IT brings out in its victims. Apparently, the producers of the movie version have a fear of their own; confronting the elements of racism in the book that helped to shape Mike as a character. The only scene that comes close to addressing the real reason Henry Bowers hates Mike is the one in the alley near the beginning of the film, but they producers and director shy away from actually addressing it. In the novel, Henry and his father Butch are unrepentant racists and hate Mike and his family for their success and proximity. They blame everything bad that happens to them on Mike and his family and are openly hostile.
The story of The Black Spot is a prime example. Even though it’s glossed over by Ben in the film, the Black Spot was the only black club in Derry. When Mike’s father was in the army, black soldiers couldn’t drink with white soldiers, they sure as hell couldn’t get a drink in town, so they were allowed to build their own club. As is usually the case, they whites from the town started coming around and spending time there and enjoying themselves and, in an act of violence that is directly linked to Pennywise, the white citizens decided to burn down The Black Spot with everyone in it. Mike’s father and a few others escaped, but everyone else burned alive. It’s another act of violence swept under the rug and forgotten about in Derry, but Mike’s father remembers and that is powerful in the book.
In the film, none of it is addressed or even mentioned. There’s one throwaway line about Mike being homeschooled. Why? Why is he homeschooled? The film takes place in the late 80’s, school segregation was over long before then. What was the purpose of isolating Mike if they makers of the film were too afraid to address the racism that isolated Mike and frankly, inoculated him and his family against many of the behaviors exhibited by the people of Derry. What are they afraid of?
Ultimately, the Mike Hanlon portrayed in the movie is the only problem I had with it. It isn’t the fault of the actor Chosen Jacobs. He is performing with what he’s given, which isn’t much.
You’ve taken away Mike Hanlon’s personality, purpose and parents. You’ve stripped him of the curiosity and character traits that made him endearing and then you turn him into a junkie all the while never being brave enough to address the rampant racism that drove so many of Mike’s interactions with people and shaped his perspective on the town itself. Each of the kids in the book IT brought something unique and necessary to the group and that gift was what helped them overcome the threat. If you go and see IT again in the theater ask yourself this question: What does Mike bring to the group other than another warm body and potential victim?
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