Book vs. Film(s): "Carrie"
Okay, I’ve written a couple of these Book vs. Film columns now, one ending with the film victorious, the other ending in a tie. With the latter example—my BvsF of World War Z—I couldn’t really come down on either side, since I enjoyed both the book and the film, and found them to be far too different to adequately compare.
Generally speaking, I approach all film adaptations this way: I have to set aside my love for a particular text and judge the cinematic interpretations based on their own merits. So even when a film drastically departs from its source material, I often find myself liking both adaptation and original novel equally. They’re just two separate entities sharing much of the same DNA. I mean, I don’t prefer apes to humans or vice versa (well, sometimes I prefer apes), so why would I make such a distinction with films adapted from novels? Yeah, sometimes it’s obvious—filmmakers, producers and studio executives can royally screw a book up (or make it vastly better, which was the case with Jurassic Park), but I do think those instances are more the exception, not the rule.
But what do you do when a book has multiple adaptations? In the case of The Shining, for instance, you do what Karina Wilson did and pit the two film adaptations (one theatrical, one made-for-TV) and the book against one another and see which one emerges victorious.
So I’m cranking it up a notch with another Stephen King novel, Carrie. We now have three different film versions of his very first novel (and one Broadway musical adaptation, but we won’t discuss that here). I've been a fan of both the book and the 1976 film version for a long, long time now, despite the little changes made from book to film. I recently viewed both the 2002 TV movie remake and the just-released re-imagining starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, in the quest to know which versions truly “get” King’s novel, and which ones don’t.
Think of the three adaptations as King Lear's daughters, all out to please their papa novel. Which one will come out on top?
The Plot According To King (Warning: Spoilers!)
To really have a discussion about this narrative and its adaptations, you need to have an understanding of the entire plot, from beginning to end. So be warned: after this paragraph, we’re traveling into major spoiler territory. If you haven’t read the book or seen Carrie in any of its incarnations, and you don’t want the story ruined, get over to Netflix Instant Streaming and watch De Palma’s adaptation. Then get your ass back over to LitReactor, and we’ll talk.
Okay, for those of you who may not know, Carrie is the story of a girl named Carrie White (shocker!), described by King in On Writing as "the ultimate loser"—unpopular, unattractive, poor and socially awkward. Let’s turn now to Grady Hendrix, author of The Great Stephen King Reread series at Tor.com, for the most succinct plot summary known to man:
Carrie White is a frugly teenager with a domineering, Bible-thumping, sex-hating mother and latent psychic powers. Her first period hits in the locker room showers and she doesn’t know what it is. Her classmates surround her, pelt her with tampons, and chant, “Plug it up! Plug it up!” As an act of atonement for participating in Carrie’s bullying, nice girl Sue Snell asks her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the Spring Dance. As an act of revenge after being punished for bullying Carrie, mean girl Chris Hargensen plans to douse Carrie with pig’s blood at the Spring Dance. She’s assisted by her greaser boyfriend, Billy Nolan.
Everything in the book pretty much springs from Carrie’s first period: Sue’s guilt, Chris’s revenge plot, and the awakening of Carrie’s telekinetic powers. The night of the Spring Dance arrives, Carrie masters her telekinesis, stands up to her crazy mom, gets crowned homecoming queen, and has pig’s blood dumped on her in front of everyone. She freaks out and kills the entire town with her brain, finally bleeding to death from a knife wound inflicted by her Bible-thumping momma.
Overall, I view Carrie as both a proto-anti-bullying tome and a warning against the pitfalls of organized religion, the extremes such beliefs make people go to. It’s a great story because, in many ways, it’s a simple one: tormented, outcast girl wants to be popular; she gets what she wants, but there’s a price to pay, and she’s humiliated in the process; so, girl gets revenge. But of course, this is Stephen King we’re talking about, so blended with the simple is the complex—girl has telekinetic powers and is brimming-full with Christian guilt and feelings of inadequacy, both of which manifest themselves as rage. Thus when the ultimate humiliation occurs, Carrie doesn’t just get back, and she definitely goes beyond getting even; she becomes wrath incarnate.
The Plot According To The Films
All three movies more or less follow King’s basic narrative, with some tweaks here and there. Writer Lawrence D. Cohen and director Brian De Palma’s presentation of events takes up a lean, well-paced 98 minutes of time and focuses primarily on the mother/daughter relationship. Significant chunks of secondary character backstory and sub plot are cut/reworked, but for the sake of a feature length film, they aren’t missed. Whereas King’s novel is epistolary and somewhat non-linear—cobbled together from news articles, eyewitness accounts, medical records and police reports—De Palma’s film tells the story in a straightforward, happening-in-real-time manner. Again, eschewing the flashback approach works to the movie’s favor (and gives audiences a reason to pick up the book, so as to see the same story told in a different way). The ending is slightly different (in the book, Carrie destroys her home with a hail of rocks, where as in the movie it simply burns and caves in on itself). Some musical cues, costume choices and photography tricks plant Carrie firmly in 1976 and make for some cringe-worthy moments, but by and large this is considered a classic for a reason.
This brings me to the TV movie, written by Bryan Fuller and directed by David Carson, which is technically more “faithful” to the book, in that much of the backstory and subplots cut from De Palma’s film are fleshed out, tacking on another 34 minutes of footage. This isn’t a good thing, as the proceedings plod along and cover unnecessary narrative territory (for a film, anyway), making TV Carrie feel hours longer than its predecessor, rather than minutes. Stilted performances, terrible lines (“This isn’t over! This is far from over! This isn’t even in the same area code as over!”) don’t help. But while this version tries to stay true to the book—even going so far as to frame the main narrative around police interviews after-the-fact, a nod to the novel’s epistolary nature—the filmmakers drastically and egregiously change the ending. In this version, Carrie (Spoiler!) survives her mother’s attempt to drown her, fakes her own death, and heads down to Florida with Sue Snell. Apparently, this stupid, stupid remake was nothing more than a pilot for a TV series, involving Scary Carrie and Sue solving mysteries or something. I’m not joking. Carrie’s survival in the 2002 remake is important on another, even more stupid level, but I’ll get to that in a second.
So far, we have one adaptation that is good, and one that is really, really bad. I had faith the latest, Kimberly Peirce-directed entry could not be any worse than the TV movie, and I was correct. In many ways, this new Carrie tops De Palma, both in its depiction of the titular character (I’ll discuss that in a minute), as well as its faithfulness to the source material. Writers Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Peirce reuse a lot of Lawrence D. Cohen’s lines and reset them in a modern context. New technology and the concept of cyber-bullying is introduced into the narrative (Chris Hargensen, played by Portia Doubleday, records the “plug-it-up” incident on her smartphone and uploads it to YouTube). Thankfully, these modern elements don’t feel forced or contrived. Furthermore, this new adaptation infuses some of that backstory and secondary character development exhaustingly reinserted into the TV remake, but with much better results. The finished film is only two minutes longer than it’s 1976 predecessor, but those two minutes help us better understand Sue Snell’s motivations, and give us a more down-to-earth depiction of Carrie’s mom, Margaret (more on that later). Despite a rather cheesy “sting” ending that doesn’t sting at all, the newest installment in the Carrie adaptation game is as solid as the rocks that pummel the White home to smithereens.
Carrie ‘13. It’s as lean as ’76, but features enough of King’s little details to please the novel devotees out there, thus sparing them from ever having to endure the TV movie.
Depiction of Carrie, According to King
Carrie herself is a crucial element to getting an adaptation right—I mean, the narrative is called Carrie, after all, and though we do explore several perspectives throughout the course of said narrative, as Grady Hendrix points out, every subplot, every secondary character’s motivations and actions, literally everything hinges on the titular character.
Physically, King describes Carrie as a “frog among swans”—not an ugly duckling, with the potential to transform, but a different animal altogether; she’s chunky and pimply, with colorless hair that, when wet, rests “against her face with dispirited sogginess.” She mumbles, she slouches, she keeps her eyes glued to the floor. Carrie displays every negative trait an outcast could have, and she is mercilessly bullied by her classmates from grammar school onward:
She could still remember that day, the stares, and the sudden, awful silence when she had gotten down on her knees before lunch in the school cafeteria [to pray]—the laugher had begun on that day and had echoed up through the years.
These years of laughter and teasing have left Carrie with a mighty chip on her shoulder. She dreams of the second-coming of “a terrible Jesus of blood and righteousness,” who will bludgeon the heads of her tormentors with a boulder—and that’s just the tip of the twitching, ragey iceberg Carrie occupies.
Mind you, this is before Chris Hargensen humiliates Carrie at prom. Take for instance this scene, in which Carrie uses her as yet undeveloped telekinetic abilities on a snide little bike-riding twerp:
Carrie glared at him with sudden smoking rage. The bike wobbled on its training wheels and suddenly fell over. Tommy screamed. The bike was on top of him. Carrie smiled and walked on. The sound of Tommy’s wails was sweet, jangling music in her ears…
She had been thinking:
(fall off that bike kid push you off that bike and split your rotten head)
Our protagonist is certainly abused and pitiful, thus capable of generating pathos from the audience. We are rooting for her. But at the same time, we recognize that Carrie is a bit of an anti-hero. She doesn’t throw back an insult at this child or just lower her head in mortification. No, she physically injures this young, albeit nasty, kid, and she laughs about it, all because he called her “fart-face.”
So imagine the utter carnage that emerges once she’s drenched in pig’s blood. After all her dreams had come true, after she transformed from a croaking frog to a beautiful person the in-crowd could accept, after she danced with a gorgeous boy and kissed him to boot and was elected queen of the whole damn shindig—someone dumps blood all over her parade, killing the gorgeous boy in the process—ruining her dress, ruining her evening, and destroying her self-esteem, turning her right back into scary, nasty, messy ol’ fart-face Carrie. When Grady Hendrix says Carrie “freaks out,” he’s making a grand understatement: Carrie completely loses her shit. She’s convinced everyone in the gymnasium laughs at her misfortune, even when they clearly aren’t:
Vic Mooney was laughing. She could see him. His face was utterly frozen, shocked, but that laughter issued forth just the same.
She imagines derision when there is none; the laughter echoes endlessly throughout the room, even if it’s only echoing in her head. Carrie’s rage matches the intensity of the laughter, and she responds accordingly. First, she turns on the sprinklers:
She hadn’t gotten all of them, only some…She began to turn on more of the nozzles, and more. Yet it wasn’t enough. They weren’t crying yet, so it wasn’t enough…[A boy] caught hold of one of the microphone stands and was transfixed. Carrie watched, amazed, as his body went through a nearly motionless dance of electricity…He looked funny. She began to laugh.
…A live 220-volt electricity cable was crackling on the floor and beside it Rhonda Simard was doing a crazed puppet dance in her green tulle formal. Its full skirt suddenly blazed into flame and she fell forward, still jerking…
Some obscure sense told her that a few were getting out the fire doors, but let them. She would get them later. She would get all of them. Every last one.
Here’s where the moral lesson on bullying comes into play. You might say, “But this is fiction, and the outcasts don’t get revenge on their tormentors, not really. They just go on being outcasts, and then one day, high school is over.” While Carrie’s revenge is rooted in her supernatural abilities, her pressure-stressed rage that finally snaps is one hundred percent real, and I don’t think we have to look much further than the events of Columbine for proof that sometimes the outcasts get revenge.
Long before Columbine, King warned us. Carrie is weird, Carrie isn’t normal, Carrie comes from an abusive, overbearing home. We have every reason to feel sorry for her. She’s a chained dog with rabies. Left alone, the chains hold and the beast remains controlled; but keep poking at that dog, keep berating it and kicking it, and eventually it will summon the strength to break its chains and lunge for your jugular. Carrie eventually slaughters her tormentors and innocent bystanders indiscriminately, making her a monster, but at least we understand where that monster came from: us.
Depiction of Carrie, According to the Films
According to Hendrix, King was rather impressed with Brian De Palma’s take on his “clumsy and artless” book (King’s words):
[King] praises De Palma’s film, claiming that the book is “too sobersided” and impeded by “a certain heaviness” whereas De Palma’s movie made it “frothy".
Indeed, the director stays true to King’s story while at the same time making it his own. As mentioned before, much of King’s sprawling omniscience is absent here, only giving us non-Carrie scenes if they’ll eventually come back around to our protagonist. More than this, however, De Palma tones down Carrie’s pre-prom rage and focuses more on her awkward sweetness and sheltered innocence. Played by a brilliantly wide-eyed Sissy Spacek, this Carrie is just as apprehensive about her burgeoning psychic abilities as we are.
Sure, she carries some anger about the way she’s treated, screaming at the principal and flipping over his ashtray with her mind (as she does in the book), but the boy on the bicycle scene plays out much differently this time around. Instead of pointedly knocking him over and then grinning down at the screaming, injured child, Spacek’s Carrie is startled by the kid, and because she’s still shaken up from the “plug-it-up” incident, accidentally slaps him mentally. When she sees what she’s done, she hurries away, embarrassed and afraid.
Throughout the movie, as Carrie researches her abilities, she becomes more confident and willing to fight back against her mother. She slams cupboards and shutters, mentally forces her mother to sit down and talk to her, pushes her mother back against her bed, all the while yelling at her in defiance. At the same time, she begins brushing her hair back, standing up straight, and wearing makeup; as she physically blossoms, her rage becomes more and more defined, though it still remains mostly subdued until the prom scene.
Her utter embarrassment over being slathered in pig’s blood causes Carrie to hallucinate laughter emanating from all parts of the gymnasium (though we have to infer this, since De Palma doesn’t make it clear whether Carrie only imagines the derision, or if everyone indeed laughs at her). However, her snapping point—the moment she transcends mortification into vengefulness—is the realization that Tommy is dead. Knowing this innocent boy who treated her like an equal at the detriment to his own popularity, this boy who invited her to the prom and was largely responsible for this enchanted evening, was senselessly taken from her—it sets Carrie over the edge, and because in her mind everyone is laughing about the situation, she decides to punish them.
What follows is an awesome display of surreal colors, effective split-screen action, and brutality. Hoses slither off the walls like demonic serpents and blast Carrie’s peers to death; a woman gets bisected by a falling rafter; kids are stomped to death by their classmates. It’s pretty nasty all-around.
Carrie appears vaguely conscious of her actions, casting her unblinking gaze on the objects she wishes to move, the people she wishes to electrocute, but overall her appearance is trance-like (differing from the novel, where Carrie is all-too conscious of the havoc she’s wreaking).
Despite Carrie’s semi-awareness, the basic core message is the same: this is what happens when you torment a fragile creature; this is what happens when you build someone up, and then tear them down.
Ugghhh…It’s so exhausting writing about the TV movie. It is sooooooooo bad, and the depiction of Carrie here is most definitely a part of its awfulness. This isn’t really the fault of Angela Bettis, an accomplished actress with a proven ability to do better than this, but her turn as Carrie White probably stays off the highlight reel (Bettis even disowned the movie in a 2003 interview with Ain’t It Cool).
When she’s not flexing (the term Carrie uses in the novel when demonstrating her power), Bettis handles the necessary withdrawn awkwardness of the role quite well (her atrocious wig also helps to sufficiently uglify her appearance); but it’s the flexing that just kills it. Reportedly, the filmmakers digitally removed Bettis’s eye blinks while moving objects with her mind, giving her this categorically unnatural, almost alien expression. Moreover, Bettis twitches a lot—I mean, A LOT—while in the throes of telekinesis. The overall effect is…just stupid-looking. I’m sorry, I can’t express the idea in more professional language. It just looks stupid.
Adding insult to injury, Fuller and company pretty much ignore Carrie’s pre-existing rage altogether, and present all her telepathic attacks as something more akin to demonic possession than the actions of an abused and broken girl with a potentially dangerous power. The trance-like qualities of her stupid-looking, unblinking twitching is intentional, a suggestion that Carrie goes away when the flexing starts. The bicycle scene is here, and not only is it ridiculously over-the-top—the kid flies ten feet in the air and smacks into a tree, with a silly whooshing sound effect and chintzy DUN-DUN-DUNNNNNNN musical cue to accentuate the dumbness—but Carrie is absolutely mortified, way more so than Spacek, at her actions. I was laughing too hard to notice, but I think she even screamed.
In this version, Carrie only blossoms and becomes more confident. The rage does not build (and there are more underlying reasons for this, which I’ll get to), resulting in a prom scene that predicts the equally stupid X-Men: Last Stand, where "Dark Phoenix" Jean Gray, who should be a BAMF killing machine, just kinda stands there or floats there and doesn’t really do anything. The trance state is taken to it’s full effect here, with Carrie standing like a statue onstage while bad CGI tables spin around the room, with kids slipping and sliding around the wet floor like ice skaters without skates. Some die, but nothing particularly brutal happens here. Later, Carrie doesn’t even remember what took place inside the gymnasium, thus casting her as a victim of psychic circumstances beyond her control, “justifying” her survival at the end.
By making Carrie completely unconscious during the prom massacre, Fuller and company dodge the too-important “this is what happens” message, and thus miss the point of the narrative entirely.
You get an F, TV movie Carrie. You get a big, fat, red F.
When I heard Chloë Grace Moretz would be taking on the role of Carrie, I was a bit worried. With her big doe eyes and pouty lips, I felt physically she was just too pretty for the part. I’m not saying Spacek and Bettis are unattractive women, but they certainly display a knack for transforming themselves into ugly ducklings. I thought maybe with the right hair and makeup, Moretz could transform herself as well, but early production stills showed nothing of the sort.
When you see the movie, you understand pretty quickly that Moretz’s good looks do not matter in the slightest. It’s clear the actress gets the awkwardness, the clumsiness, the fear and the sadness and, most importantly, the bubbling rage. When Moretz’s Carrie knocks the boy off his bicycle, she does it with a sneer and a grin. When her mother berates and abuses her, she’s afraid, but she’s also sick and tired of it, repeating her mother’s insistent bible verses with exasperation and dwindling niceness.
This Carrie doesn’t need to blossom physically, and her developing power comes with both increased confidence and fattening deviousness. Flexing makes her drunk, and she makes quasi-orgasmic facial expressions while exhibiting her power. She deals with her mother with intensifying cruelty—suspending her mid air, psychically clamping her lips shut, and even locking her in the prayer closet, Margaret’s favorite means of punishment for her daughter.
When we get to the prom massacre, we’re already primed for Carrie to go bat-shit insane, and this she does. Just like in ’76, the rage fully explodes when she realizes Tommy is dead; but unlike ’76 (and definitely unlike ’02), Carrie is one hundred percent conscious here, moving her hands like a maestro or a puppeteer, controlling physical objects with gleeful, ecstatic bloodlust. The brutality gauge is maxed out here, but not egregiously so: the aforementioned video tape of the “plug-it-up” incident plays on the big screens on either side of the stage, an integral part of the pig-blood prank. The visual dichotomy of fragile, helpless Carrie and the vicious, blood-soaked vengeance demon that emerged from this shell of a girl says it all—THIS. IS. WHAT. HAPPENS.
Additionally, without giving away too much, Chris’s death at the hands of Carrie is NOT to be missed.
While Moretz does a fantastic job with the role, and overall the 2013 depiction of the character is closer to King’s vision, I think the award here still goes to Spacek/’76. I cannot say enough good things about Moretz, but Spacek absolutely embodied the character, even if she was more of a beaten-down dog than a girl teetering on the brink of sanity and murderous rage. Her performance is iconic for many reasons, and thus very tough to beat, though Moretz does come quite close.
As for Bettis, well…Let’s just say she wasn’t even in the same area code as close.
We’ve been plucking away for some time now, and we’re on the home stretch. Though I’ll keep it brief, this three-way movie smack down will not be complete until we talk about Carrie’s mom, AKA, Margaret White. I won’t dip back into the book here: all that we really need to know about this woman is that she’s a few screws loose to begin with, and made only crazier with overbearing religious notions. She’s a nut bag, she’s the reason Carrie is such a weirdo, and she’s ultimately the protagonist’s primary antagonist.
Piper Laurie plays the part in ’76, and she does so with manic gusto. She moans and caterwauls, pulls her hair, spins around, flails her arms, and speaks with a perpetual preacher’s intonation—very Pentecostal, when you get right down to it. Laurie goes completely over-the-top, and yet she’s still believable and, more importantly, terrifying. She (alongside Spacek) received an Oscar nomination for her performance, and with good reason.
The TV movie goes in the exact opposite direction, muting Margaret’s crazy so significantly she appears almost sympathetic, a victim of her daughter’s demonic possession. This move was intentional, as reportedly co-star David Keith, a devout Christian, was offended at the anti-religious nature of the narrative, compelling Bryan Fuller to tone it down. I’m sure NBC had a hand in this decision as well, seeing as to how attacks on organized religion are still controversial on network television. The result is a boooooring Margaret White, tepidly played by an otherwise engaging actress, Patricia Clarkson, who doesn’t even phone her performance in—she texts it in absentmindedly. A watered-down, no-guts portrayal of an awesome character who, alongside the depiction of Carrie as a victim of a power she cannot control, actively subverts the whole point of the narrative. ENOUGH said on the TV remake.
And with that dreck out of the way, I can finally talk about Julianne Moore. Holy crap, am I happy to finally talk about Julianne Moore. She goes with a more understated approach to Margaret White as well, but with infinitely more impressive results. Gone are the wails and histrionics Laurie so gleefully deployed, replaced with not-all-there eyes and a kind of swaying caginess that, at any moment, can erupt in calculated cruelty and violence. Moore’s Margaret mindlessly bangs her head against the wall and intentionally cuts herself, punishments for bringing this “demon” into the world. But Moore brings another crucial element to the role: pathos. Without pandering to religious-sensitive audiences (she’s every bit the zealot she should be), Moore colors her portrayal of Margaret White with a distinct sadness. In this woman’s tragically scrambled head, she really does see herself as a failure, a sinner in God’s eyes, and likely someone who won’t make it to heaven, even if she does “the right thing” and kills the “cancer” she brought to life. And Moore’s Margaret will do the unthinkable “right thing,” but she doesn’t have to be happy about it. A pitch-perfect depiction of a complicated character, Moore deserves the Academy Award Laurie didn’t win.
Hands down, Julianne Moore/’13.
Though it would seem that since 2013 won two out of the three rounds above, I still have to call a tie between 1976 and 2013, for the simple reason that there is still much to love about the first Carrie adaptation. Of course, Sissy Spacek’s career-making performance as our troubled, telekinetic teen is a stand out, and there are breathtaking scenes between her and Laurie; the cinematography by Mario Tosi is gorgeous; and Nancy Allen as spoiled sociopath Chris Hargensen, alongside John Travolta as her lunk-headed, psychopathic boyfriend Billy, are a joy to watch. There’s great chemistry between Spacek and William Katt as Tommy Ross, and the famous sting-ending, while ostensibly a bit corny, is still satisfying in many, many ways (and definitely better than the one we get in 2013).
But as classic a film as ’76 is, ’13 proves itself to be its equal. Moretz doesn’t quite beat Spacek, but she’s nonetheless outstanding, displaying her talent to its fullest effect here, and she handles the faithful depiction of the “ragey” character with nuance and care. Of course, Julianne Moore steals the show and deserves every bit of praise she gets; if you see this movie for no other reason, see it for her performance. Judy Greer is also impressive as Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher, and Portia Doubleday handles Chris’s sociopathy pretty well. The sound design is quite nice, particularly in scenes involving the White home, which is constantly groaning and shifting like some restless, gargantuan animal, providing a sense of foreboding for the brutality to come. And finally, the prom massacre is perfect. It’s nasty, it’s unnerving, but it’s exactly as it should be.
So yeah: '76 and '13, the reigning queens of Carrie adaptations. Put 'em up onstage, hand them a bouquet, place tiaras on their heads, and douse 'em in pig blood.
Of course, this is just my opinion, so let’s hear yours. Which Carrie adaptation is the best of the bunch. I can’t imagine anyone liking the 2002 TV movie, but hey, make a case for it. Don’t think ‘13 came anywhere close to ’76? Or, conversely, do you feel Peirce’s version is the definitive adaptation? Don’t think any versions get it right? Tell us why.
To leave a comment