By Dorian Grayson
For those of you that haven’t seen It (2017), I would suggest you stop reading and do so. It is a great movie with surprisingly good child performances and amazing filmmaking from a director for whom this is only his second movie. That being said, it isn’t a movie for everybody, and both the film and this article contain mentions of sexual assault.
Likely stemming from the novel, the film It (2017) contains some of the best use of symbolism and visual metaphor that I have seen in awhile. To give a small example, one of the main characters, Bill Denbrough, is traumatized by the loss of his younger brother Georgie. It is this loss, however, that propels him forward to face Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
In one scene, Bill is in the Denbrough household at night when the light in Georgie’s room turns on. Bill enters the room to figure out what is going on, and finds no one in the room. He picks up a Lego turtle before continuing into the kitchen. There, he sees a scampering figure that is obviously Georgie in his raincoat, at which point Bill drops the turtle and it shatters into little Lego pieces. So what happened here?
You can’t film a character’s thoughts, and having a character monologue their inner thoughts is a crutch for when you cannot find a decent way to film what that character is feeling. Typically this is the burden of the actor, having to display the complicated emotional state of the character in their performance, but occasionally other symbols are added to the film to further communicate the information to the audience.
So what happened to Bill in this scene? What is established? The strength Bill finds in Georgie is, at this point in the film, shattered by Pennywise’s use of Georgie’s form. Strength being exemplified by the turtle. This is visual metaphor, one of the major tenets of film language.
But the best use of symbolism and visual metaphor in It (2017) is Beverly Marsh’s bathroom. The first scene to take place in the bathroom is Bev cutting her hair because her father tainted it by touching it and smelling it. She has locked the door because that is how she is able to get away from him. She feels free to speak against her father, saying, “This is what you made me do,” over and over while cutting the hair. There isn’t a place in the house where she feels this safe, because this is the only place where she can, with the lock, avoid her abusive father. In another scene, in her room, she finds a postcard from a secret admirer in her backpack. She scurries into the bathroom, locks the door, then reads the note in the bathtub. The bathroom isn’t just her safe space, but also where she feels free to experience things as Bev rather than the bundle of defense mechanisms she has to be around her father.
Given that this is a horror movie, though, bad things happen in the bathroom. Bev hears a voice coming from the sink, which is Pennywise calling to her with the voices of the dead children. Pennywise then uses strands of her cut hair to grab her and pull her towards the sink before gallons of blood shoot out of it, coating the whole room and all of Bev’s face in dark, red blood. This immediately changes the tone of the scene, as the entire shot is tinted red. Bev screams, her father comes in, and then expresses resentment that she cut her hair. He cannot see the blood that coats the whole room. “The adults, knowing better, knew nothing,” says the marketing copy on the back of the novel of It. The blood here represents problems that Bev has to deal with in her personal life, something her father can’t see and can’t help her with, She is forced to face these things without him, but that doesn’t mean alone.
In order to affirm she isn’t crazy, Bev has the rest of the Loser’s Club come over and she finds out that they can see the blood too. But then they clean it up. Out of all the things you might expect to find in a horror movie about a monster clown terrorizing children, a cleaning montage likely isn’t one. But they help Bev cope with her problems. All of this is done visually, in a language the novel cannot engage in the same way in —though I don’t doubt this same symbolic meaning is contained there as well. That’s how you read a film.