By Travis Trombley
Okay, now we can talk about irony and the role it plays in the 2017 adaptation of, well, It. A general definition of irony might be incongruity - the state of not matching. There exist three primary types of irony in the realms of linguistics and storytelling:
- Verbal Irony: (aka sarcasm) can be simplified to designate any instance in which someone says something contrary to their intended meaning. The incongruity here is between the literal message and the intended message. For example, saying “Yeah, I’d just love to go on a double date with you and your parents” would be verbally ironic.
- Dramatic Irony: This is a narrative device by which the audience is exposed to some truth to which the characters in the story remain ignorant of, thereby increasing the dramatic tension. The incongruity here is in awareness: we know more than the characters (or they more than us). Take a horror film, for example. During which we know a killer is hiding in wait for a victim in the bathroom as our hapless redshirt goes to take a shower; this dramatic irony helps produce the “scream at the TV” effect.
- Situational Irony: Perhaps the most potent form of irony, the defining factor of situational irony is reversal of expectations. The incongruity here is between what’s expected and what really is. For example, it’s refusing to go on a boat due to a fear of deep water only to drown in a bathtub. It’s calling 911 and getting run over by the ambulance.
It’s this last form of irony - situational irony - that concerns us here.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown, by his very nature, perverts the very purpose of a clown. He turns something meant to bring entertainment, laughter, and all around happiness into something gruesome and fearful.
And it’s not just the idea of clowns he warps. Pennywise twists the childish wonderment of a red balloon into an omen as foreboding as the Jaws theme. He hijacks the local children’s show of the ilk that champions nonviolence and community to promote killing.
But the film’s use of irony extends far beyond the namesake contradiction.
Almost without exception, the adults of Derry - the very folks who should be doing what they can to protect the kids - are pretty vile. Most are flat characters who illustrate not only some of the worst qualities people can muster, but utter inversions of their roles.
Let’s start with a simple example: the librarian. During the film’s first act, Ben spends his early summer afternoons studying the town’s history in the local library. When the librarian brings him more books, she criticizes him for remaining indoors when young men like him should be outside. One would think a librarian would encourage a child’s curiosity, not reprimand him for it, thus, she is an example of situational irony: a librarian discouraging someone from reading.
The examples continue: a cop who terrorizes rather than protect, a rabbi who accuses and dismisses his son instead of teaching and accepting him, a slovenly mother whose overprotectiveness actually hurts her child. The coup de grȃce, however, is Bev’s dad - a father who - it’s heavily hinted at - sexually abuses his daughter rather than protecting her from abuse (yes, that plays into some gender politics, I understand, but we have to read the situation from the context of its 1980s setting and literary origin). When he refers to his daughter as his little girl, it’s potently creepy rather than endearing, loaded with vile licentiousness.
And then there’s the general irony of reversal in that the story is about kids having to fight the monster and save the day rather than the adults - many of them parents - protecting the kids. Remember, reversals aren’t about impossibilities (surely children have saved adults before), but improbabilities - about expectations.
So here’s an attempt at explanation.
First, one could say that the film is a case study in the subtlety of evil. The harm these adults do by abusing their power contrasts against the supernatural threat that is Pennywise. By setting side-by-side a dimension-hopping demon and a pervy pharmacist, we become more keenly aware of the more mundane forms of social evil (abuse and neglect) that plague our daily lives.
We could even go one step further and claim another ironic twist in that the monster isn’t necessarily the most troubling element of this monster film. To me, the almost-rape scene with Bev and her father is more unsettling than anything Pennywise does, the horror multiplied by the simple fact that it is real and it happens. Thus the film’s irony boasts a message: not all that seems good actually is good, because scary monsters are real, even if they aren’t soul-sucking demon clowns.
For more on this topic, check out our other essay this film: “The Real Evil of ‘It’ and How to Beat...It.”
Another - more cynical reading - might be that King’s choice to distill evil incarnate in a clown reflects on us as readers. In a sense, Pennywise is providing entertainment, as a clowns are meant to do, it’s just that our entertainment entails kids getting murdered instead of the expected balloon animals and slapstick humor… The irony here is that what’s entertaining should not be entertaining, and that’s a potential indictment of us and our culture. Such an argument is far from unfounded given King’s penchant for meta-narratives.
Sure, there are moments of dramatic irony (we know why Billy shouldn’t follow what appears to be Georgie into the cellar, thus amping up the scene’s tension), and many of Richie’s lines drip with sarcasm, but they serve only as elements of craft that increase the quality of storytelling - the film’s situational irony relates directly to its meaning. We can take something away from this film because of how it plays with expectations.
If you’ve got more to add about It (perhaps you’ve succeeded in the grand undertaking that is reading that massive novel to which the film owes its existence and can elaborate on these points), let us know in the comments below. If you want more analyses of pop culture, check out the rest of the site. And if you have suggestions for articles, shoot me an email.