The Unlikely Connection Between 'IT' and 'A Wrinkle in Time'
Imagine a brightly garbed harlequin who preys on children using persuasive trickery. Picturing Pennywise the Dancing Clown? Now head to the nearest multiplex and watch Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, her take on the 1962 Madeleine L’Engle novel, and try imagining that figure again -- you'll probably be seeing red-eyed Michael Peña instead.
L’Engle released A Wrinkle in Time back in 1962, when King was but a lad with two decades and some change ahead of its publication, so similarities between their antagonists are probably unintentional. Besides, IT and "It" are connoted too differently on the page to clarify family resemblance. Even the stylization of their names is off. The Losers Club, King’s gang of outcast kid heroes, dub their supernatural nemesis "It" only because the creature defies classification: It attacks them in turn by donning the guise of whatever frightens them most, from werewolves to lepers to mummies. Wrinkle's IT, on the other hand, alludes to information technology, which makes sense given the entity’s association with intelligence and its draconian regulation of data.
On screen, though, the unexpected relationship between Red (Peña) and Pennywise (whether it's Tim Curry in the 1990 miniseries or Bill Skarsgård in the hit 2017 adaptation) is thrown into sharp relief. It helps that unlike the written word, spoken dialogue doesn’t differentiate "IT" from "It"; seven months after the Stephen King film ran amuck in theaters, that simple pronoun takes on new meaning, even in a separate narrative with no connection to King’s work and no pronounced desire to scare its audience. It turned into a pop culture event, enjoying its moment before being dramatically over-memed: Saturday Night Live and James Corden both turned the story’s premise into sketch comedy, some wisenheimer realized that Pennywise can dance to anything, and just like that, the picture became a punchline before partially fading from the zeitgeist’s recollection.
That A Wrinkle in Time invokes the monster-victim dynamic that’s so central to what makes It tick, though, only helps the latter stay relevant. Red and Pennywise diverge from one another in a few key ways: Notably, Red doesn’t eat children, because L’Engle isn’t that kind of writer, DuVernay isn’t that kind of director, and A Wrinkle in Time isn’t that kind of book, and he’s an extension of the plot’s true antagonist, not the true antagonist himself. That would be the Black Thing, an interstellar cumulonimbus of evil that’s taken over the planet of Camazotz and which communicates through Red like a hand puppet.
Red wants to enslave our plucky young leads -- Meg Murry (Storm Reid), her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) -- as the Black Thing has enslaved everybody caught in its orbit. Arguably that’s preferable to being devoured alive, but if Red’s goals are unique from Pennywise’s, their methods are the same. Pennywise dupes Georgie Denbrough by assailing him with the sounds and smells of the circus, cotton candy, carnival rides and (pop pop pop) popcorn. He deceives Georgie with an inviting illusion and goes in for the kill. That’s his modus operandi for most of the picture, though Georgie is the only child gulled by enticement. The rest, Pennywise bewilders with terror, the best weapon in his arsenal.
Bewilderment is Red’s tactic of choice, too. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin land on Camazotz, a facsimile of Earth betrayed by its observable peculiarities; suburban homes, each identical to the others, form a ring around them, and in each driveway stands a child bouncing a ball in time with their neighbors. The rhythmic pulse of their recreation nearly drives Charles Wallace to tears. Camazotz is composed of recognizable details, but they’re just a veneer for the planet’s alien consciousness. Before long the neighborhood fades away, and the kids find themselves on an overcrowded beach where they meet Red, who immediately pushes food, drink, and the temptation of endless idyl on them. He’s a beacon for Meg and the gang, lost in the chaos of their surroundings.
Like all else they encounter on Camazotz, that promise is an engineered fantasy, but engineered fantasy works. Red snares Charles Wallace as easily as Pennywise might, and we finally get to see what’s under Camazotz’s hood. First the harshly lit dome-shaped room where Charles Wallace officially takes over Red’s duties as the herald of IT; then the multi-hued corridor where Meg and Charles Wallace's’ father, Alex (Chris Pine), is held prisoner; then, worst of all, the planet’s darkest recesses, IT’s throne room, where Meg faces her greatest fear: submission to the social norms devised for teenage girls. Faced with her haughty doppelganger, you get the feeling Meg would rather take a trip through Pennywise’s digestive tract. There are fates worse than death, but not by much.
Good, of course, triumphs over evil in these films; IT leaves Charles Wallace’s body, Pennywise is chased into the bowels of the sewers, and everyone goes on their merry way. (Merry enough, in the case of the Losers Club. Being alive should suffice in the absence of elation.) But happy endings aside, the fictional horrors presented in A Wrinkle in Time and IT render unsettling implications about the genuine horrors weighing on us in the real world. Our country is governed by authoritarians. White nationalism has been making gradual gains in popularity. Mass shootings are a normalized part of American life. Worrying about your kids’ safety is a normal part of parenthood, but worrying that they could be gunned down during recess or confronted with the language of hate groups shouldn’t be.
Neither It director Andy Muschietti nor DuVernay engage current events directly, but It and A Wrinkle in Time manage to echo them through their villains regardless. Like Pennywise, mortal danger can take many forms: A classic movie monster, perhaps, or a deranged gunman intent on taking as many lives as possible. IT, meanwhile, lulls us into compliance with hollow promises of perfection at the cost of humanity. These bugbears are seen in the aftermath of gun violence and heard in dog-whistling campaign speeches, and we know America’s kids will inevitably suffer exposure to both. A Wrinkle in Time’s kinship with It may be accidental, but their reflections of 2018’s ideological dread feel damn near inevitable. It’s a small consolation, but at least someone is thinking of the children.