There are many spoilers ahead. Not interested? Then read our non-spoiler-y review of It Chapter Two instead.
It’s been years since we got a Stephen King cameo in a movie adaptation of one of his novels, which makes his appearance in It Chapter Two a pleasant surprise. But the real joy of King’s brief role — he’s the shopkeeper who sells Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) back his childhood bike, Silver — is that it plays into one of the film’s cheekiest jokes: the repeated criticism of how Bill opted to conclude his last book. Even in their brief exchange, King’s character finds a way to bring it up. No one can resist telling Bill, a very successful novelist, how disappointed they are with his very bad ending. Sound familiar?
Bill is one of King’s many, many writerly characters, but he stands out as a fairly obvious avatar for the author for one reason in particular: Both men have let certain readers down with the ways they’ve chosen to wrap up their stories. King has heard enough complaints about his “bad endings” over the years, so much so that at the conclusion of Game of Thrones he tweeted without provocation: “people don’t want ANY ending.” But few of King’s novels have endings more maligned than the original It: the way Mike gets sidelined, the flashback to an underage orgy, and, of course, the revelation that It is a giant space spider who’s laid a bunch of eggs. “There’s a lot of eww here,” one critic wrote in an open letter in 2017, pleading with King to rewrite the ending over 30 years after it was first published. In It Chapter Two, King is finally confronting the lambast — with a winking cameo, rather than a tweet.
A sequel to Andy Muschietti’s 2017 film, It, Chapter Two is appropriately based on the other half of King’s epic 1986 novel. The first movie installment had already deviated significantly from its source material, but ahead of the sequel, fans wondered how the filmmaking team would adapt or change King’s final pages. Gary Dauberman’s screenplay prods at these expectations immediately, in an early scene that has Peter Bogdanovich — making his own cameo as the director of a movie version of one of Bill’s books — telling Bill that he hates his story’s ending. Not to worry, adaptation can make it better, he suggests. Chapter Two is littered with references to Bill’s knack for botching the landing thereafter, inspiring a blend of dread and cautious optimism that hangs over the audience throughout the first two-and-a-half hours of the movie’s nearly three-hour runtime. So it’s a relief when the movie finally arrives at its redux, regardless of how gratifying you find the turn.
And what is that turn? Before looking at what the new ending does, it’s worth noting what it doesn’t do. It was always unlikely that the movie would make any attempt to include the novel’s severely misguided group-sex scene, in which all the boys in the Losers’ Club have sex with Beverly, and indeed, that moment is mercifully not one of the childhood memories the adults recover before their final battle. It Chapter Two also wisely reincorporates Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) into the showdown. In the book, Mike is attacked by Henry Bowers and spends the conclusion recuperating in a hospital instead of venturing back into the sewers with his friends. In the movie, Henry (Teach Grant) is dispatched before he can take Mike out of the running, which allows Mike — the one who has spent his life studying how to stop It, and the sole black member of the Losers’ Club — to join the fight.
As for the reveal of It’s true form as a giant spider, rendered with embarrassing 1990 TV-quality effects for the original miniseries: That’s squashed. (As is the novel’s toothless detail that the ancient evil is — gasp! — female.) By Chapter Two’s end, It does transform into something resembling a spider, an oversized Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) with arachnid legs, and that creature does mortally wound Eddie (James Ransone). But we’re not meant to believe that the spider is It’s final state. In the film, the Losers’ Club members come to the realization that their ever-changing foe is constrained by the physical limitations of whatever form he takes in a moment. In a leap of logic, they decide to surround Pennywise and taunt him with insults about how small and weak he is, somehow bullying It into shrinking down to “tiny clown” size. When Pennywise is a deflated, quivering version of his former self, they’re able to tear out his heart, easily killing It for good.
This is, admittedly, a bit of a cop-out: Why didn’t they just talk the scary clown into a more manageable size earlier, when he was murdering people left and right? Good question. But this ending does follow a kind of reasoning woven throughout the book and other adaptations — which emphasizes the staggering, transformative power of the Losers’ Club imagination and community. From a knowledgeable audience member’s perspective, Chapter Two’s finale feels satisfying, simply because it allows the gang to face off against the clown that’s terrorized them since they were kids, rather than an overgrown bug they’ve never seen before.
Few authors have been adapted as many times as King has, and It Chapter Two is far from the first King movie to deviate from his original ending: The Shining ditches the novel version of Jack Torrance’s last-minute moment of clarity and trades the big explosion for a more memorable image of Jack Nicholson’s frozen face. Cujo lets Tad survive, making the preceding 90 minutes of terror worthwhile. And The Mist eschews King’s nonending — in his own words, his story “peters off into nothing” — in favor of a shockingly bleak conclusion that King himself called “terrific.” It Chapter Two is, however, the first to subtly acknowledge just how essential these changes can be.
At this point in his career, King is relatively gracious about the rebirth of his work; he even called the disastrous 2017 adaptation of The Dark Tower “pretty good.” It could be, as he told Rolling Stone, that “the movies have never been a big deal to me. The movies are the movies.” Still, for any writer whose work gets adapted — and particularly for a writer adapted as often as King — there is a necessary relinquishing of control, an acceptance that once the rights are signed over, filmmakers will take his stories in whichever direction they see fit. Chances are King wouldn’t call his own ending to It bad, but his cameo in Chapter Two feels like a tacit approval of the film’s big finish, not to mention a wink at both his fans and detractors. That he’s able to joke about the criticism now suggests that, like Bill, he has bigger things on his mind.