September 7, 2019 12:02 AM EDT

Warning: This post contains spoilers for IT Chapter Two.

Like its hugely popular 2017 predecessor, IT Chapter Two opens with an early scene from Stephen King’s 1986 novel in which the evil It — in the form of Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown — preys on and kills a resident of Derry, ME. But unlike young Georgie Denbrough in the first movie, Adrian Mellon is near death before Pennywise ever lays a hand on him. That’s because Adrian, a gay man, is the victim of a brutal hate crime. It’s a harrowing scene, made all the more so by the fact that such crimes are on the rise in the U.S. The tragedy not only sets the darker tone of director Andy Muschietti’s follow-up to his adaptation of the first half of King’s novel, but also lays a foundation for the LGBTQ themes that are central to the movie, which hit theaters Sept. 6.

The scene in question plays out onscreen much like it does on the page: Adrian (Xavier Dolan) and his boyfriend, Don Hagarty (Taylor Frey), are leaving Derry’s Canal Days Festival when they’re accosted by three teenagers. Adrian gets in a verbal altercation with the boys but leaves with Don before it gets physical. The teens follow the couple to Derry’s canal bridge and mercilessly beat both Don and Adrian — who starts having an asthma attack — before throwing Adrian off the bridge. Pennywise then pulls Adrian out of the water and takes a gruesome bite out of his side while Don watches in horror from the opposite shore and thousands of Pennywise’s signature balloons float past.

The scene didn’t make it into the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation of IT — an omission for which its creators received criticism — but Muschietti tells TIME that including it in the movie was never a question for him. “Even though IT looks like it’s a movie about a clown from outer space, it’s a movie about how f-cked up humans are. It would be naive to omit [Adrian’s death],” he says. “It’s part of IT‘s DNA.”

King has said that Adrian’s death in the book is closely based on the real-life killing of Charlie Howard, a gay man who was murdered by three local teenagers in Bangor, ME, in 1984. King was living in Bangor when he wrote IT and used the city as inspiration for Derry.

“At the time I started writing IT, the Howard murder had just happened. It was fresh in my mind, and fitted my idea of Derry as a place where terrible things happened,” King told the Bangor Daily News. “And, maybe needless to say, I was outraged. It was a hate crime.”

Muschietti says that even though the second half of King’s novel is set in the mid-1980s, while IT Chapter Two takes place in present day, the circumstances surrounding Adrian’s death still ring with urgency. “I think [King] was doing a social commentary on how f-cked up America was at that time. And when it came to adapting IT, that theme is still very present and important for me, the dark side of the human equation,” he says. “Leaving bigotry and homophobia and that kind of violence out would not only not be accurate to the times that we’re living in, it would be omitting something that is still happening to this day and is horrible.”

Whether and how to depict certain types of violence onscreen is a much debated question. The issue has come up recently with portrayals of violence against women—as in Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and the recent movie The Nightingale. In the case of IT Chapter 2, some have already taken issue with Muschietti’s decision to include the scene. Slate‘s Jeffrey Bloomer writes that Adrian’s death is a “gay-bashing scene” that “exploits a ghastly real-life killing for a cheap shock, delivered without context or any clear thematic underpinning.”

He goes on to say that the fact that King included the scene in the book doesn’t necessitate the treatment it receives in the movie. “That a type of crime still happens in real life does not mean extremely graphic depictions of it are always justified,” Bloomer writes.

Although it is barely mentioned again in the movie, the violent incident is treated as a precursor to the character arc of Richie Tozier, played by Bill Hader as an adult and Stranger ThingsFinn Wolfhard as a child. “It sets up a canvas. It sets up the world in which Richie lives, and all the other characters live, but especially Richie, who is hiding his sexual identity.” Given the reality of the potential life-or-death dangers of living his truth, says Muschietti, “he actually has a reason to [hide] it.”

When Richie is reintroduced as an adult, we learn that he has grown up to be a stand-up comedian. But it’s not until Richie is back in Derry retrieving a specific, personal token that each Loser needs in order to perform the ritual that will allow them to defeat It, that we glimpse his inner truth. While collecting the token — for him, a literal token from the Derry arcade — Richie flashes back to a memory from the summer of ’89 when he was playing a game with another boy.

The two boys are getting along until the bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) walks in and it’s revealed that the boy is Henry’s cousin. Henry accuses Richie of hitting on his cousin, and the cousin immediately steps away and joins in hurling homophobic slurs at Richie. Richie then runs away from the arcade crying, only to be attacked in the town square by It, which has taken on the form of Derry’s massive Paul Bunyan statue.

“When we see the traumatic event that started the whole suppression, we see [Richie] being himself and beginning to realize who he is, and immediately he’s pointed out and he’s humiliated,” Muschietti explains.

After leaving the arcade as an adult, Richie again has an encounter with It in the town square during which It, as Pennywise, threatens to reveal Richie’s “dirty little secret,” implying that he will out him as gay. Muschietti says that this scene was intended to convey just how deeply Richie fears people learning the truth about his sexual orientation. “We reintroduce [Richie] as someone who has built a persona around himself. For him, it’s very important that people think that he has a girlfriend,” Muschietti says. “And in time, we understand what his fear is: He’s afraid of being exposed because he had a traumatic event in the past that he never worked through.”

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Richie has long been harboring romantic feelings for Eddie (played by James Ransone as an adult and Jack Dylan Grazer as a child). In King’s novel, the relationship between Richie and Eddie is an ambiguous one that has long inspired debate over whether the two shared either a mutual or a one-sided attraction.

(L-r) Bill Hader as Richie Tozier and James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak in 'It Chapter Two' (Brooke Palmer—Warner Bros. Pictures)
(L-r) Bill Hader as Richie Tozier and James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak in 'It Chapter Two'
Brooke Palmer—Warner Bros. Pictures

In Muschietti’s interpretation, “Richie is gay and he’s always had a thing for Eddie. But it never flourished because probably Eddie wasn’t gay and especially because Richie was never able to come out” he says. “Because of that traumatic event in the past, at the time when puberty hit him and he normally would’ve started acting upon his leanings or sexual identity, he didn’t. So whatever would’ve happened between him and Eddie, never happened.”

Richie’s sexuality is never explicitly stated in the movie, a decision Muschietti says was an homage to King’s writing. “Stephen King developed [Richie and Eddie’s] relationship so subtly, he’s almost cryptic about it,” Muschietti says. “I think that’s what’s so great about it, because it generates a question mark instead of elaborating on it.”

However, there are some who take issue with the ambiguity of IT Chapter Two‘s LGBTQ narrative. Louis Petizman of Conde Nast’s LGBTQ publication Them writes that while the movie improves upon the book in terms of LGBTQ representation, it still misses the mark.

“While the film’s slightly more overt queerness is a step in the right direction, particularly in the context of King’s LGBTQ+ track record, it’s not exactly a milestone for queer inclusion,” Peitzman writes. “In fact, there’s something retrograde about Richie and Eddie’s storyline. Because the revelation of Richie’s feelings for Eddie only comes at the film’s very end, without clarity as to whether either of them ever explored their queerness.”

The movie, which may be headed for a $100-million opening weekend box office, is sure to continue to inspire debate as to its treatment of Adrian’s violent death, Richie and Eddie’s relationship and the ways in which it both adheres to and diverges from King’s version. For Muschietti, Richie’s final scene represents something he hopes will inspire optimism in viewers.

When Eddie meets a tragic end, Richie is driven nearly insane with grief. But in the wake of that loss, Muschietti says that Richie’s final scene — tracing back over the “R+E” he carved into Derry’s kissing bridge as a child — is meant to symbolize a new chapter in his life. “Something changed there,” Muschietti explains. “And by re-carving it, he’s somehow accepting [himself]. I think he’s at peace now with being who he is.”

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