It, the long-awaited cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel of childhood, horror, friendship and loss, is a hit. Director Andy Muschietti’s film has raked in the big bucks and drawn critical acclaim from almost every corner, including us. It’s one of the few smash hits in a pretty tough year at the box office, and one of the best reviewed horror films in recent memory.
One of the key elements to draw praise is the cast of children, the self-proclaimed Losers’ Club who band together in order to destroy the supernatural evil stalking the town of Derry, Maine. Our own Anthony O’Connor said, “The Losers are also fantastic for the most part, with superb takes on the characters of Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer).”
However, there’s one member of the team who gets seriously short-changed: African-American boy Mike Hanlon, played by Hawaii Five-O‘s Chosen Jacobs. A central character in King’s novel, Hanlon is largely sidelined in Muschietti’s film; not only does he get less dialogue and screen time than the other Losers (with the arguable exception of Wyatt Oleff’s Stan Uris), but the bulk of his narrative work is given over to Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor, who is great, but that’s beside the point).
In the book, Hanlon is a studious boy who has a close relationship with his Army veteran father, Will. It’s Mike who is the amateur historian in the group (a trait transferred to Ben in the film), a hobby he inherited from his old man. This becomes important in the “adult” sections of the book (which we’ll be seeing in the upcoming sequel), as Mike stays in the town of Derry after the Losers first defeat It, while everyone else leaves. He becomes the local librarian and the “keeper of the flame”, if you will; he’s the Losers’ watchman, who is there to notice when children start disappearing again. It’s he who calls the others back to Derry for their final confrontation with It, almost 30 years after they first defeat the creature.
Looking at how Hanlon is handled in the film, we must wonder if he’ll be given that role in the now-inevitable It: Chapter Two. After all, he’s been given no set up or characterisation to indicate that his path leads that way.
Movie Mike is an outsider among outsiders: he’s home schooled and works on his grandfather’s sheep farm. When we first meet him he’s being reluctantly pressed into slaughtering sheep with a captive bolt gun by his grandfather (played by the wonderful character actor Steven Williams, familiar from 21 Jump Street, Jason Goes to Hell, and more). There’s some thematic parallels drawn between the treatment of the sheep and the way children are tacitly offered up to It by the town of Derry in return for prosperity, but they don’t land as well as they might. He is bullied by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, and is terrorised by It/Pennywise at one point when the creature gives him visions that we later learn are related to his parents’ deaths. His relationship with his father, a central characteristic in the novel, is completely unexplored.
Tellingly, both the attack by the Bowers gang and the attack by It happen when Mike is delivering meat orders on his bike – he’s a physical labourer, and not shown to have any scholastic leanings (given how his relationship with his grandfather is depicted, it’s easy to assume that his home schooling doesn’t consist of much academic work, although that is conjecture). He’s inducted into the Losers’ Club after they save him from Bowers and co. during the Apocalyptic Rock Fight. From there, Mike’s story function is to procure his grandfather’s bolt gun to use as a weapon against the monster* and to just kind of… be there?
It’s weird, and it extends to even how Jacobs is shot and framed in relation to the rest of group – generally standing back, or to the side. He’s the biggest kid out of the seven, so when we get a group hug scene, he’s embracing the others from the outside, hugging but not really being hugged. When he speaks, he addresses the group – he doesn’t get individual relationships with the other members, such as that between Richie and Eddie, or Bev and Ben (or indeed, Bill).
He does get a moment of heroism when fighting Bowers, to be fair, but it’s undercut by him immediately losing all the spare gas cylinders for the bolt gun afterwards. Poor Mike is just ill-served by the script.
It’s a shame, because Mike Hanlon as written in the novel is one of Stephen King’s better early career black characters. While King has frequently featured African-American characters, such as The Shining‘s Dick Halloran (who gets a cameo in It, which we’ll get to in a moment), The Stand‘s Mother Abigail, and The Green Mile‘s John Coffey, they often fall into the Magical Negro stereotype: a saintly black person whose story function is to help the white protagonist(s) overcome their fears, reach their goals, and basically come out a winner – sometimes at the cost of their own life (Coffey is easily the worst example in the King canon). There’s a very good essay on the tendency by Neddi Okorafor right here.
The literary Mike Hanlon isn’t like that. He’s a layered, multidimensional character, the son of a farmer who recognises the value of study and works to improve his own intellectual gifts (Magical Negroes tend to have – shudder – “native cunning”, not book smarts). He is still subject to racism, and his experiences and that of his father lend shading and complexity to the evil that haunts and powers Derry. Indeed, one story, told to Mike by his father, deftly illustrates the town’s ability to turn a blind eye to horror.
Hanlon Senior tells Mike about The Black Spot, an unofficial social club for black soldiers that he frequented when he was posted to Derry during his Army hitch (Dick Halloran was one of his Army buddies, crossover fans). Located in an old shack that the soldiers did up themselves and frequented by white customers as well as black soldiers, the joint was eventually burned down by local KKK-alikes, the Legion of White Decency, resulting in a large number of deaths (an event, like the Kitchener Ironworks Explosion, that marked the end of It’s feeding cycle). It’s a horrific story, one that marries the fantastical horror of It with the more mundane – and more disturbing – true horror of racial violence.
In the film, a throwaway reference to the event is given to another character, and Mike is given a backstory in which his parent burned to death in a house fire, an event that mirrors but doesn’t replicate the Black Spot incident. It’s as though Muschietti and his writers (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) did not credit the Black Spot story with being terrifying enough to Mike to act as a “trigger” for Its attack on him, which is an odd and oddly limited notion. Mike is explicitly the only African American kid in Derry in the novel, and one of very few black characters in the film; the idea that he could be killed by people he sees every day for the perceived crime of his colour is not just frightening, it’s grounded in the everyday experience of African Americans even today. Perhaps especially today. Given the material is already present in the novel, and referenced in the film, how could one not connect it with the one major character who would be most affected by it? What logic drives that frankly jarring omission?
This is certainly not to say that the creators of It 2017 are in any way actively racist, but there have been choices made here that almost certainly come from a place of unthinking privilege – decisions born out of perceived narrative and adaptational necessity that nonetheless read poorly when the onscreen result is seen and measured against how other characters are treated in the film. While we can argue about the root causes, it’s beyond doubt that Mike Hanlon has lost more than any other major protagonist in It‘s journey from page to screen.
Let’s hope that can be remedied in Chapter Two.
*Replacing the silver slugs and slingshot that, in the book, were wielded by Beverley, the best shot of the group, who also gets something of a reduced role, but not as much as Mike.