TW: Suicide

Stephen King’s It opens with three extended, seemingly disconnected suspense sequences each of which ends in shocking bloodshed. First and most iconic is young Georgie Denborough going outside on a rainy day to play with a paper sailboat only to encounter the titular shapeshifting demon in the form of Pennywise the Clown, climaxing with poor Georgie bleeding out after his arm is bitten off. Second is the death of Adrian Mellon, a young gay man who survives an assault by homophobic creeps only to also fall victim to Pennywise, newly awakened after It’s 27-year slumber and ready to feast.

And then there’s Stan. In short order we are introduced to Stanley Uris, an unassuming, pushing-middle-aged man enjoying a quiet night in with his wife when suddenly he receives a phone call that seems to trouble him greatly. Stanley excuses himself to take a bath, where his wife discovers him minutes later, his wrists slit and the word “IT” scrawled on the bathroom wall in his own blood.

Each of these sequences, each of these deaths, serves an important role as King draws you into his tome. Georgie’s death is the starting pistol, the trauma that sets the whole tale in motion and that signals to the audience just what sort of ride they’ve purchased a ticket for. And the death of Adrian Mellon explicitly ties the supernatural nature of Pennywise and the other incarnations of It into real-world evils like bigotry, a link that King will explore in numerous forms for the remainder of the book.

And then there’s Stan.

The suicide of Stan Uris is perhaps less immediately gruesome than the deaths of Georgie and Adrian. No one gets chewed on by a fucking clown, at least. But Stan’s death is the check that King will spend the next thousand-ish pages attempting to cash. We learn shortly after Stan’s death that he and the other members of the adolescent outcast collective dubbed “The Losers’ Club” battled the demonic It and somehow emerged victorious, but we don’t know how, and it will be a long time (actually, this being coke-era King, make that a loooooooooong time) before we find out exactly what went down. But by showing us the brutal ending of Stan’s story, King is promising that whatever happened on the journey there, whatever monsters Stan and the others faced as children, however bad it got, this was so awful that a man would rather slash his wrists open then face it down again.

Stan’s death also serves as a narrative obstacle for the adult Losers in that section of the story: Whatever mystical bond allowed them to overcome It as children, it was contingent on them forming a complete group. With one of their number missing, it’s an open question whether or not they’ll be strong enough to survive a second encounter with It.

But beyond this, Stan is never much of a character within the text of It. The other Losers are sorry he’s gone, but they have other, more immediate concerns and move on relatively quickly. He’s mentioned often, of course, and he’s present throughout all the childhood escapades. But for obvious reasons, the flashbacks are never presented through his perspective and the young Stan is of minimal importance throughout that section of the story. The lone exception is a story-within-the-story during which Stan describes an encounter with a different incarnation of It (zombie kids in a standpipe). It’s one of the single scariest moments in It, which puts it on a shortlist for the scariest scenes in any Stephen King book, which puts it on a shortlist for the scariest scenes in modern fiction, but it is an anecdote that can be plucked out of the book without much of an impact because, again, outside of his death, Stan is not much of a character.

Even his suicide is ultimately presented as someone else’s trauma, this long (looooooooong) stretch of the book is described to us from the point-of-view of his Stan’s wife, King tortuously describing every fathomable in and out of this woman (never seen again) and her life and mindset leading up to the moment when she discovers Stan’s body and the bloody word.

There’s nothing structurally/narratively wrong with any of this, of course. Horror stories need cannon fodder like cannons need fodder, and King never has much use for Stan outside his Jewish background being another motive for social ostracization among the Losers (along with race, gender, body-type, general nerd-ery) and for the Hitchcockian theory of suspense that you show the bomb under the table and then make people wait (waaaaaaaaaait) for it to go off.

So that’s all well and good. But it caused the movie(s) problems.

When it came time to adapt It into a feature film, director Andy Muschietti and his collaborators opted to split the book into two halves. The first movie, Chapter 1, was solely focused on the Losers as children during their first encounter with It. The second movie, this year’s Chapter 2, was primarily focused on the Losers returning to town 27 years later to battle Pennywise once again. Good, clean solution to a massive book that defies easy adaptation.

By changing the structure in this way, and transplanting the story into a new medium, this meant that many of King’s choices no longer totally worked as intended. Primarily: Stan. Because whereas the book can denote to you with relative ease that Stan is a relatively minor character, placing him firmly at a distance outside of the core of the surviving Losers, the movie, with its omniscient perspective and lacking the framing device of the book, makes no distinction in importance between Stan Uris and the rest of the Losers.

Certainly Bill and Beverly are presented as Chapter 1’s leads, but there’s nothing in the first film to suggest that Stan is any less important than, say, Mike, or Richie. He’s part of the group from the start, he gets an early, terrifying encounter with It just like the others, and he’s right there pitching in for the entire movie.

This worked, but it tied Muschietti’s hands a bit going into Chapter 2. Stan was too important a character to just dismiss in the opening minutes the way King shuffles him quickly to the side in the book. In fact, when early photos began dropping online showing the reunited Losers, “Where’s Stan?” was a common refrain among non-book readers confused as to why the Losers were down a (Stan the) man.

So Muschietti made a choice, one that even a month out from seeing the film I’m still trying to decide whether I like or not: Stan Uris is no longer the victim. Stan Uris, suicide and all, is the story’s hero.

Part of how Muschietti and co-writer Gary Dauberman have accommodated Stan’s increased presence was making his death, and the resultant grief among the rest of the Losers, a driving force throughout Chapter 2. Rather than expressing momentary sorrow over Stan’s lonely end and then moving on, the shock of this loss is all-consuming, particularly for Bill Hader’s adult Richie. The loss of Stan torments the Losers, all the way through to Chapter 2’s extended, breathless finale, during which some of the members are attacked by an undead incarnation of Stan.

Indeed, at the film’s narrative low point, when Hader’s Richie has decided he cannot possibly join in the battle against It and is preparing to flee town and never look back, it is a memory of Stan that slows him down and a flashback to Stan delivering a stirring speech at his bah mitzvah that convinces Ritchie to stay and see the job through. Rather than stopping short the moment the razors touched skin, Chapter 2 shows that Stan’s influence continues to help shape the story even after he was gone.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Chapter 2’s concluding moments, in which the triumphant, surviving Losers all receive a letter sent from Stan’s wife after his death, letters he had written and sent as an act of faith that the Losers would prevail and live long enough to read. In this letter, Stan confesses that he is killing himself not out of fear over the prospect of returning to fight It, but because he knows that he is too scared to go back and that him being alive but separate from the group will create a vulnerability that It will use to destroy the Losers. Killing himself is a means to “take [him]self off the board” and ensure the others’ success. Stan’s closing remarks, read aloud by each Loser (young and old) in sequence, serves to turn this band of outcasts and weirdos into something akin to superheroes, promising that the Losers will always be there to beat back the forces of darkness.

So. Well. A lot to unpack there. Because on the one hand, I see what Muschietti and his team are trying to do here. They felt as though they couldn’t just drop Stan from the story completely and instead had to give him some kind of role in the endgame. But more to the point, Stan’s death is so ugly and so bitter, these filmmakers felt like they couldn’t leave it be and still end up with the jaunty rollercoaster ride that these adaptations have aimed for.

That’s the key difference between It, the book and It, these movies. King’s book sought to tie the fantastical fears of childhood with the crushing anxieties of adulthood with the all-consuming nightmare that is the systems of bigotry and corruption that fuel America. The It book is laden down with racism, misogyny, mass-murders, molestations, every hideous sin you can imagine, all united as aspects of the creature known as It.

Muschietti has never seemed especially interested in that material within these movies, preferring instead to fling monsters and mayhem at the screen. As a filmmaker, Muschietti is very, very good at this sort of fare, and all the jumps and screams he builds throughout each film are expertly crafted and executed. But the trade-off to this sort of surface-level rendering of the story is that when things stray towards the harsh, ugly reality that King interwove with his supernatural material, it stands out like a sore thumb, the elements no longer jibing together. Material like the brutal gay-bashing Adrian Mello receives before his death, the emotional/physical/sexual abuse Beverly endures as both a girl and a woman, and, yes, Stan’s suicide, none of this darkness feels earned by a film/by films that are otherwise delighting in dumping gallons of slime and gore onto the camera.

Also, and I’m sure their hearts were in the right place, but it’s just really fucked up to present a guy killing himself as being a ‘heroic’ act. It just is.

The transformation of Stan Uris from doomed patsy to heroic martyr speaks to the vast gulf that continues to exist between books and movies as mediums. In the sprawling, labyrinthine plotting of Stephen King’s It, Stan is a plot device that can be readily disregarded amongst the dozens of subplots and cul-de-sacs that make up the epic. In the linear, God’s-eye-view perspective of film, Stan and Stan’s death require a greater purpose than a sacrificial lamb.

Whether the decision to remake Stan’s suicide in this way was right or wrong will be left for time to decide. Muschietti is also apparently working on a version of the film that cuts Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 together, and perhaps this will result in another version of how Stan is perceived and how his journey from boy to man, from life to death, is viewed.

Part of what makes horror such a fascinating genre is how messy it can be. The morality within a given piece can be as Puritanical, black-and-white as any writer or filmmaker sees fit, but it’s in the nature of humans to change narratives to suit our own perspectives and needs. That’s why some fiction speaks to us on near-subliminal levels and become parts of our own identities, and why some fiction glances off like a stone skipping over water.

Whether Stan Uris is a level-headed fall guy, a cowardly chump, or a rational man doing his best within an irrational world, ultimately that answer doesn’t belong to King or Muschietti. In truth, there are as many answers as there are readers, as many points of view as there eyes in a movie theater.