Note: this writing predates the 2013 remake of Carrie. It will be updated at some point.
Stephen King's debut novel Carrie has been adapted to film thrice: four times if you count Carrie II: The Rage a low-budget 1999 flick based on Richard Bachman’s The Rage, King's pseudonymous rip-off of his own work. The second, a 2002 made-for-tv production sits in the shadow of the 1976 film, considered a classic by horror movie aficionados. The 2002 film follows King's novel more closely, but is not nearly as good. This review considers both films and, while some secrets will be kept, spoilers for both adaptations and for the novel itself can be expected. (Consideration for the 2013 adaptation may be added in time).
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Lawrence D. Cohen, Stephen King.
Sissy Spacek...Carrie White
Piper Laurie...Margaret White
Amy Irving...Sue Snell
William Katt...Tommy Ross
Betty Buckley...Miss Collins
Nancy Allen...Chris Hargensen
John Travolta...Billy Nolan
P.J. Soles...Norma Watson
Director: David Carson
Writers: Bryan Fuller, Stephen King.
Angela Bettis...Carrie White
Patricia Clarkson...Margaret White
Kandyse McClure...Sue Snell
Tobias Mehler...Tommy Ross
Rena Sofer...Miss Desjarden
Emilie de Ravin...Chris Hargensen
Jesse Cadotte...Billy Nolan
Meghan Black...Norma Watson
Chelan Simmons...Helen Shyres
Katharine Isabelle...Tina Blake
David Keith...Detective John Mulcahey
Laurie Murdoch...Principal Morton
Carrie, first published in 1974, rewrites Cinderella into a modern horror story. Carrietta White, daughter of a troubled, small town religious fanatic, becomes a constant target of her classmates’ cruel jokes. She has, however, inherited a recessive genetic condition that gives her telekinetic powers. When her Cinderella moment at the prom turns ugly, she uses her abilities to unleash horrific revenge.
The novel takes an SF approach to its horror, atypical of King. Many respectable researchers considered tk to be a definite possibility in the early 1970s, and the Cold War saw both American and Soviet blocks pouring money into the study of possible psychic phenomena, each side fearing a potential "psychic gap." The novel clearly identifies Carrie White’s powers as based in some scientific principal, and the fact that other girls like her exist in the novel’s world forms an important part of the conclusion. King also set the novel in the then near-future year of 1979, and he includes fake documents from the even more distant 1980s, when the case of Carietta White has become a landmark in the study of telekinesis.
Both films wisely leave the explanation for Carrie’s abilities vague. We only know that she’s always had them, but they manifest themselves fully after her first menstrual period.
If you know anything about Carrie, it’s likely to be the role blood plays in the tale.
Both films open, like the book, with "the subterranean sound of showers splashing on tile"(4), after a senior girls’ phys ed class in Chamberlain, Maine. Carrie finally gets her belated first period and, unprepared for the event, believes she is bleeding to death. She receives a less than sympathetic response from her peers.
The De Palma film features a male director's wet dream of a locker room: open showers, frolicking teenaged girls, and full frontal nudity. Carson's version, made for television, features a far more subdued sequence, with less exhibitionistic students. It’s more realistic, but builds to a drawn-out and less dramatically effective climax. 1
Both Carries put in their respective films’ best performances. Sissy Spacek garnered an academy award nomination for her sensitive portrayal in ’76. Angela Bettis also makes an impressive Carrie. She’s less glamorous, which is truer to the novel-- though neither film gives us an unattractive Carrie. Spacek creates a more complex character; Bettis presents a very familiar type of the insecure, victimized teen.
Sue Snell, a classmate who feels remorse for her involvement in the girl’s mistreatment, takes the role of Carrie’s fairy godmother and gets her to the Prom on the arm of a popular boy, Tommy Ross. Carrie suspects that this may be yet another prank, as does her Phys Ed teacher. Carrie's mother, Margaret, also warns her of danger at the prom, but she bases her concern on her belief that dating and dancing are both inherently evil.
Piper Laurie, Margaret White in 1976, comes closer to the over-the-top character King created in his novel. It requires significant skill to portray someone falling so far out of touch with reality, without falling into scenery chewing. Patricia Clarkson (2002) gives us a more subdued Margaret. It’s a good performance, but perhaps too understated. Laurie better suggests the inner turmoil and disturbed thinking which King can directly narrate in his novel, and which is necessary for us to believe that Carrie would be so completely separated from her peers and so entirely unaware of so many things.
The small community usually plays a key role in King's novels, and Chamberlain's high school is critical to this story. Each movie version brings a different conception of school to the screen. The first film more closely resembles the novel, and more accurately reflects the social complexity of such places. The second film gives us a less nuanced high school, something akin to the school typically featured on tv, with monolithic social hierarchy and rigid cliques. We even get a police interview with the president of students council. Although the actress does a fine job as the enthusiastically dippy character, her interview baldy restates the simplified and inaccurate mass-media version of adolescent social hierarchies.
This matters. Carrie tells the story of a teen outsider, her persecution, and her aborted social redemption. High school provides the context for these events, and works best where it feels most familiar.
Carrie’s transformation seems believable. People do reinvent themselves in high school: though usually, this happens over a period of years, not weeks. It is most believable, however, in the more fluid social environment of the first film.
The boy whom Sue convinces to invite Carrie to the prom, the story's Prince Charming, is Tommy Ross.
The ’76 Tommy, blond perm and smiles, has a goofy charm. We also see his sensitive side, which make his willingness to take Carrie to the prom believable. The pair connect; Carrie is the only student willing to express admiration for his poetry. The ’02 model is pleasant, but he has chemistry with neither Carrie nor Sue, and he’s far too old to be a convincing teenager.
Carrie faces opposition from Chris Hargensen, an attractive, spoiled narcissist who is barred from the prom as punishment for bullying the girl. One suspects, however, that she would have been outraged that Carrie was going in any case. Chris is a type recognizable to anyone who has been around a high school. Privileged and popular, but also insecure, she has never outgrown her ninth grade perception of high school as a place where cliques must be rigidly enforced. As a senior, she retains her connection to the school's elites, but her lack of maturity increasingly annoys many of her classmates. She continues the victimization of Carrie past the point where anyone else cares, as though Carrie's lack of status somehow secures hers. In the novel and in the first film, Chris and a small group of like-minded friends, aided by a malevolent outsider, orchestrate the final, cruel prank. The 2002 film follows this pattern, but a larger group assist and cheer on Chris. This keeps with the media portrayal of high school and, while it isn't impossible, it's both less hopeful and less true to life.
Special mention, however, should be made of Katherine Isabelle, of Ginger Snaps fame, who plays Sue's bitchy best friend, Tina in 2002. A minor part in the '76 film, Tina takes on a larger role in the remake, and Isabelle gives a dynamic and credible performance.
The malevolent outsider is Billy Nolan, a thuggish loser with whom Chris has started a dalliance. John Travolta's Billy ('76) displays, in addition to his malevolence, the animal magnetism that makes him appealing to Chris. He's a naughty act of rebellion against her upper-class background. Jesse Cadotte as Billy ('02) shows only sociopathic malevolence. We’re left wondering why Chris would associate with him. That she would sleep with him and trust him with her plan seems almost beyond belief.
The 2002 tv film has more time with which to play. It uses some of this wisely, to include aspects of the book that had to be cut from in '76. The ’02 principal gets his best moment back, an encounter with Chris’s lawyer father. It’s a great bit, though, strictly speaking, not necessary to the plot.
The film, however, also fills time needlessly, with a narrative of the police investigation that followed the story's main events. These suggest the imaginative documents included in King’s original novel, the faux newspaper clippings, police reports, and book excerpts that help create a sense of the novel’s reality. In the ’02 film, the police interviews merely damage the pacing. They also don’t really help create the dramatic tension that surrounds Sue Snell.
In the ’76 film, we see Sue’s actions at the same time as Carrie and, along with Carrie, have questions about Sue’s true motives. This proves dramatically effective. The ’02 police sequences attempt to make Snell appear complicit, but the effort fails. There isn’t time even in this version to really develop this subplot, and in any case the police quickly exonerate Sue.
King’s principal misstep in the original novel concerns the reaction of the prom-goers to the plot against Carrie. Both movie versions recognize the problem, and change that reaction. In the novel, the crowd, while not unsympathetic, are overcome with an hysterical laughter. One student has been assaulted and humiliated, another has been killed, and the staff and students, who had been applauding moments earlier, who believed they "were watching someone rejoin the human race," are overcome with an irrational laughter, because "it was one of those things where you laugh or go crazy" and "who could bring himself to cry for Carrie after all those years?"(168)
In the first film, only a few people, friends of Chris's, laugh. Carrie, however, who has tasted acceptance and peer affection, who now believes that the entire night has been about a prank, hears the laughter and imagines that it comes from everyone. In the second version, a somewhat larger group laugh, most do not-- but that laughter continues long after it should, even after the crowd realizes the severity of the situation.
The 1976 film adds a grim irony. Miss Collins, Carrie's other benefactor, suspects Sue, and hustles her out of the Prom when, in fact, the girl has detected the plot and is trying to stop it. Miss Collins' well-intentioned but misguided actions ensure that the shattering of Carrie's prom dreams will occur.
In Carrie 2002, the teacher, Miss Desjardin (her name in the original novel) organizes a Columbinesque rescue effort as pandemonium breaks loose at the prom. It's an interesting touch that adds to the story's themes of social rejection and revenge.
Carrie '76 plays down the novel's near total destruction of the town. Carrie 2002 wanders into Jurassic Park territory. The desire to create effects trumps the desire to affect an audience. Both films have good conventional special effects; the second version adds digital ones that do not enhance events.
King's original conclusion plays with the implications of his story; what would happen, in the real world, if we became aware that many girls and women like Carrie White were at large? Both films end shortly after prom night, and downplay any sense that this could happen again. The second film, however, changes the ending and adds an original epilogue which seems to be setting up for a sequel or television series that never happened: Carrie crossed with Buffy and Angel via Route 66.
The first film proves more accomplished, and more polished. The second, despite some serious flaws, still works in places. And while Stephen King himself has been critical of the roughness of his first novel, it's a page-turning horror read with some interesting thoughts on adolesence. Neither film is as good as what I imagined, reading the final chapters of that novel in a cheap motel room in a small town, as night fell outside.
1. The 2002 film features what may be a nod to the more explicit 1976 version. Sue Snell has an otherwise irrelevant discussion with another girl about the various ways that pubic hair can be shaved. It serves no real purpose, but it may be a commentary on the unshaven 70s girls in De Palma’s opening sequence. The 2002 version features a few of these meta-moments, including Tommy’s commentary on how much the remaking of Carrie resembles the premise of a "Freddy Prinze, Jr. movie."
And no, I haven't been in a girls' locker room, but I ran the scenes by some friends, including a long-time girls' phys ed teacher, who immediately identified the 2002 scene as more typical.
DejaMorgana notes that "King went back to the kids-with-psi-powers theme a few books later, with Firestarter, although happily he did not just repeat himself."
All quotations from the novel are from the Signet paperback.