Monday, October 21, 2019

Book VS Movie: Beverly Marsh

Stephen King has created quite a few memorable female roles – an author's obsessive admirer in Misery, the telekinetic outcast in Carrie, and of course, Beverly Marsh in IT. With Andy Muschietti’s reboot of King’s novel and the reemergence of The Losers Club, I thought it’d be fun to talk about how close the character of Beverly Marsh manages to be different and similar between the book and duo-logy.

This post talks about topics related to Beverly's arc in the book and movie including abuse, sexual violence, and puberty. Read at your own risk.

The Book

Stephen King is one of the richest mystery writers in literature. Not just by raking in cash from his enduring career of thrilling novels, but his immersive use of words and language to create his terrifying worlds. His books, including IT, are typically thousands of pages long, where King gives his readers a sense of the story, locations and characters in every way. Even though IT is told through a third person lens, reading about Derry from the perspective of the Losers Club makes you feel like you’re living through their horrors alongside them – the claustrophobic way Eddie’s mother coddles him into being a germaphobe, how Mike investigates the crimes committed in the town after Pennywise is defeated, Henry Bowers relentlessly abusing his victims. King's prose is packed with blatant homophobia, racism, abuse, torture, and merciless killing sprees that influences you to understand the character's personal hell and Pennywise's attacks.

As vivid as King’s description makes IT absolutely horrifying, the picture he paints also makes it obvious how poorly Beverly is written in comparison to the rest of the characters.

The Losers Club, both as children and adults, is put through the ringer, to say the least. They each face their own share of trauma through abuse and bullying, and for some like Mike, an extra dose of racism. For Beverly, she’s singled out as the only main female character (of three total female characters) within the group through her gender, slut-shaming and abuse.

As a preteen, Beverly earns the reputation of being ‘a dirty slut’. The timeless way culture believes its wrong for girls to hang out with boys unless she's given them sexual favors is relevant for both the story set in the 1950s, and even our world today. The judgement of her sexuality, similar to real society oversexualizing teens every day either in the media or behind closed doors, is a realistic projection placed on her by adult characters and the author himself. However, through Beverly's bond between the boys, there's no indication that Beverly is sexualized by the boys or of her own choice; and if it is, it's treated awkwardly or as some form of abuse.

Outside of The Losers Club, Beverly’s sense of what a true family is becomes obscured. Her mother – who is absent from the 2017 movie – works hard to provide for her family like Bev’s father does, but she suspects and expects Bev to do everything she can to prevent her father's anger from being unleashed. In a sense, Bev's mom can't protect her when she's gone, or even when she's at home, but she tries nonetheless through subtle warnings. Bev’s father isn’t the pedophile he’s made out to be  Muschietti's version, but he’s creepily overprotective about his “little girl”. While the book doesn’t divulge explicit scenes where Beverly is physically abused by her father, she does grow up to marry an abuser. King’s choice for Beverly as an adult is realistic in the sense that those who grow up in abusive families often carry the shame placed upon them to believe that they are destined to be in unhealthy relationships forever. However, the chapters dissecting her marriage are severely violent as Beverly isn’t just psychologically and emotionally manipulated by her husband, but also beaten and forced through sexual violence as well.

Despite the abuse she endures, she does manage to escape of her own accord. When Mike calls The Losers Club home to Derry to face off against Pennywise twenty-seven years after they defeated him as kids, Beverly claws her way out of her marriage. To her old friends, she puts on a facade of her life as picture perfect, but there is vulnerability and fear bubbling underneath the surface. As harshly descriptive as it is to read Beverly’s husband almost being turned on by the way he abuses her, she escapes him by using as much violence as he inflicts, and there's a sense of victory in that she does manage to leave him behind. Much to the readers' chagrin, Tom ends up following Beverly to Derry, and captures Bill's wife for Pennywise to torture, but he ends up dying on the spot when meeting The Spider. In one way or another, Beverly is free by the end of the book.

But Beverly, as a character of her own agency, viewed as anything outside of a male perspective is hard to come by or reason with. If her father or husband isn't apart of her specific chapters, she’s caught in a love triangle between the quiet stuttering leader Bill and the overweight-new-kid-turned-hottie Ben. When she’s not an object of affection, she’s an object of abuse. The streak of Beverly being the ‘dirty girl’ is culminated in a weird orgy between her and the Losers Club after Pennywise had been defeated the first time. Of all of the wild twists that IT goes through – and there’s a clown that makes kids fears come to life so he can devour them, a floating turtle and a spider representing the start of the universe, animals being tortured, and kids getting high to learn about Pennywise’s origins – the orgy between Beverly and the Losers Club ranks highest on the list of traumatizing moments to survive reading. Since King only suggests flirtation between the three B’s, there’s no indication that Beverly is sleeping with them until this mind-boggling scene arrives. It more or less comes across as a random insertion more than anything needed to deal with Pennywise or to find a way to cement the Loser Club's bond even further.

The only other female characters include Beverly’s friend Kay and Bill’s wife Audra. Beverly escapes to Kay’s house after leaving her husband, and when he comes to find Bev, he almost beats her to death. Audra, despite his wishes to stay away from Derry, follows Bill from London to the United States to make sure he is safe. After being kidnapped by Tom and forced into Pennywise's lair, she's forced in a catatonic state. She eventually wakes up, and the reunion between her and Bill is moving chapter between husband and wife having survived a shared trauma together. But the three women hardly interact with each other, and the latter two hardly stand out on their own.

The Movie

In a weird twist of adapting King’s novel, the 2017 remake and its sequel sticks close to the source material but still manages to only be slightly better.

Beverly’s redemption on-screen is obvious in the first remake. Breaking the book into two "chapters", IT covers the Losers' childhoods in dealing with Pennywise as kids. Portrayed by Sophia Lillis, Beverly has a dynamic personality out of the gate. Instead of her go-to reaction to hysterically cry or laugh like it is in the book, Beverly’s emotions are fleshed out. Much like Ben’s poem “Your hair is winter fire. January embers. My heart burns there, too,” Bev provides a spark and warmth in the darkness of not only Ben’s life but also Pennywise’s attacks. When the boys are too scared to face off against Henry Bowers or enter the Well House to defeat Pennywise, she is willing to go in and fight. Even if she’s slightly insulted by the boys, like Richie calling her Molly Ringwald because of her gorgeous ginger locks, she’s not afraid to flip the bird or tell them off. The group wouldn’t be complete without Sophia portraying Bev's charm, tenderness, and grit.

Unfortunately, sometimes the book holds back the movie version of Beverly. Plenty of characters such as Ed’s mom not only regard Bev as dirty, and but she also is looked at by the boys flirtatiously in either a sweet innocent way or as something to be ogled. (Thankfully, it avoids the orgy scene from the book at all costs). Throughout much of IT: Chapter 2, Beverly doesn’t necessarily have an arc of her own; she’s a part of the group but there’s no real fear that she is grappling with throughout. Portrayed by Jessica Chastain in the sequel, it’s great that Sophia's wish for Jessica to play the adult version was fulfilled, but it's a shame that Chastain isn’t given that much to do.

Whereas the boys are more or less coming into their own by Richie talking about how much he has sex with Ed’s mom or any girl in town (to deflect the shame of being gay), puberty is a subtle defining factor for Beverly, especially in the first film. Before she is distracting the leery pharmacist so the boys can steal first aid supplies and help Ben, Beverly is scanning the aisle of tampons. She is coming into her own as a young woman with absolutely no guidance from a supportive female role model, and that's something to admire as well as question - where are all the women in Stephen King's work beyond the one token character? why was Bev's mom erased from the narrative only to suggest that her father is a pedophile? 

Additionally, Bev's sexuality defines her in the first and last encounter against Pennywise. After she reads the sweet poem Ben slips into her backpack, Beverly’s attacked by voices and strands of hair bursting through the faucet and tying her to the sink. A wave of blood explodes from the drain that covers the entire bathroom. As Beverly sits back in horror, her father walks in and cannot see the blood. Though the parents and adults are completely unaware of Pennywise’s power, it’s also in this scene that her father realizes that she cut her hair short. This makes her look like a boy, and was initially a way she lashed out against his advances towards her. Later, as the boys help Beverly clean the bathroom because they can see the blood too, the scene isn't treated as a source of comedy or disgust. It's almost a bonding experience for them as strong as attacking Henry Bowers in an epic rock fight. In a story that's aimed at boys becoming men, lost childhood or innocence, and children facing their fears, Bev also finds a way to accept coming of age. Furthermore, when the group is trying to defeat Pennywise in the sewer system and he shifts into her father, before he can say for the milliont time that she is his little girl, Bev stakes Pennywise as her dad in the throat - it's one of the defining moments that helps kick Pennywise into the tunnel to disappear for another twenty seven years. She's able to temporarily qualm the taunting voices and his acts of violence against her until she meets her husband.

Even though Bev is fiercely outspoken and strong, one of the most confusing departures from the book for the first film is treating Beverly like a princess in distress in the eleventh hour. After the club has an argument over Bill's zeal for finding his brother despite putting his friends in danger, Bev is captured by Pennywise and goes into a catatonic state after seeing the deadlights (aka nexus of the universe). Her disappearance is the driving force for the boys to reunite and save her. For a hot second, Bev's experience with seeing the deadlights was meant to signal that she knows about their futures for the sequel, but the script doesn't do anything formidable with that knowledge or giving her more agency. For no inexplicable reason, Ben is able to revive Bev by kissing her, something the boys around him are outraged and grossed out by. Ben and Bev's 'true love's kiss' provides a moment of reprieve to acknowledge that Ben wrote the poem, but it's not substantially addressed again except for the love triangle she's stuck with between Ben and Bill, and until the end of Chapter 2 where she gets to ride off into the sunset with the former.

As much as Bev is treated as an object, she does face-off against her fears in the form of abusive men several times by killing her father (he dies of natural causes in the book) in self-defense and leaving her husband. Her most important act of defiance might be in IT: Chapter Two's climatic showdown. Each of the characters face some of their bigger fears as Pennywise has grown to its most powerful form yet. Beverly’s fear takes her back to the school bathroom where the girls used to bully her. Pennywise shows his face at the stall door and then shifts its appearance into her father and former classmates. As the stall fills with blood, similar to the first movie, she is able to stay afloat and eventually help Ben escape his own fear of being buried alive like a mummy. Ben and Beverly end up saving each other, and he's able to whisk her away into his successful lifestyle as an architect (Bev is a fashion designer, but that part of her life isn't explored in the books or movies). While she doesn’t have as deep as an arc as she could’ve, what doesn't kill Bev definitely makes her stronger and she's finally able to live happily with a man who respects and admires her.

Ultimately, Bev's womanhood is both a reflection of the problematic male gaze found in pop culture, but also an examination of the genuine fears young girls and women have about their bodies, self-esteem, and "its place" in a man's world. However, given the book’s length, and how intricate the character’s histories are, it’s hard to not be disappointed by the lack of attention the sequel doesn’t take advantage of. If the first film didn’t lay out the solid foundation for Beverly, and Sophia hadn’t been cast, it’s difficult to imagine what form she would’ve taken in the movies. Though she never escapes the way King initially wrote her, that doesn’t stop us from admiring her as one of horror’s most popular and bad-ass characters.

Book Vs Movie
Who Wins: Movie

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