On April 5th, 1974, Steven King became a published author for the first time. Written as though on a dare, King wanted to prove to a woman that he wasn’t afraid to write female centered stories, and began to pen a short story about a girl who gets her period in the girls locker room, which triggers telekinetic powers and allows her to rain destruction down on her tormentors. However, he thought it was a ridiculous story and tossed it in the trash. King’s wife, on the other hand, fished it out and urged him to continue writing. Thus, Carrie came to be.
Carrie is the story of a 16 year old girl named Carrietta White. She is a social pariah both at school and in her community because of her family’s extreme and isolating religious beliefs but yearns for acceptance from her classmates and freedom from her mothers restrictive lifestyle. While in the communal showers of the girl’s locker room, Carrie is humiliated when she menstruates for the first time and has no idea what is happening to her. Believing she is dying, she reaches out for help but is met with jeers, laughter, and abuse, but she also begins to notice that she has a strange power. The girls involved in the locker room incident are punished with detention but the ring leader, Chris Hargensen refuses to accept any discipline and is punished by having her prom privileges revoked. Sue Snell on the other hand, battles with feelings of guilt and makes her boyfriend Tommy ask Carrie to prom in recompense. As the story unfolds is becomes clear that prom night will be shaping up to be a very rough night for Carrie White, who eventually accepts Tommy’s invitation to the prom and dares to dream of a happy night where she can feel like a normal girl. Tragically though, when Chris exacts her revenge at prom night, it is the whole town that pays the price.
The story of Carrie White has been told and retold many times since it was first published in 1974. Two years after it’s publication, a feature film of the same name, directed by Brian De Palma and starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, achieved both box office and critical success. The dedicated following from that film gained enough interest in the story of the tormented telekinetic girl, that a sequel movie and Broadway musical were also created. In 2002, NBC aired a “made for t.v” film starring Angela Bettis as Carrie, Patricia Clarkson as Margaret White and Kandyse McClure as Sue Snell, which was meant to serve as a pilot for a potential Carrie television series. The series never took off, however, and so the movie stands alone as it’s own story. Most recently, in 2013, a new feature film starring Chloë Grace Moretz as Carrie, Julianne Moore as Margaret, and Judy Greer and Miss Desjardin was released, which samples heavily from the original 1976 film but also adds a few aspects from the novel as well.
Unlike my last book to screen review for Z for Zacharia, the film and television adaptations of Carrie all more or less stay close to the original novel and hit most of the same key points. Still, what each version of the Carrie story is trying to say, what they want the viewer of reader to get from it, and how they get their story across are all very distinct.
Let’s start from the beginning:
Carrie (Novel) 1974
Carrie is a unique story in that it switches back in forth from an epistolary novel (A novel that is written as a series of documents) complete with citations – to a third person narrative from Carrie’s point of view. Often sentences are interrupted by strings of thought, giving the reader a glimpse into the deep inner thoughts the character may or may not know they have. As a result, we get a complete picture of what transpires, what the characters are willing to say to other people, and what they really feel.
As an example, let’s take the character Sue Snell into consideration. Sue is a popular, beautiful student at Ewen high school whose guilt ridden act of generosity unintentionally seals Carrie White’s fate. Having gone along with the crowd in tormenting Carrie, Sue appears to have a change of heart and forgoes prom. Instead she asks her boyfriend, the equally beautiful and popular Tommy, to take Carrie to prom instead. In many of the film and television iterations of the book, Sue’s act of kindness seems to be mainly about assuaging her guilty conscious for her part in the locker room incident. The novel goes one step further, however, by expressing deeper inner thoughts, even as she convinces herself of what to do. We begin to paint a picture of Sue as a girl struggling to break free and go down a different path. She sees herself being another future domestic housewife just doing what everyone else is doing and it makes her sick. Sue wants to change the trajectory of her life and is using Carrie and Tommy to do it. In this way, she serves as a foil to Carrie, who is an outsider who desperately wants to be a part of the group but doesn’t use anyone else to achieve her goal. Carrie uses her own awesome and terrible power to achieve her goals.
Carrie herself is a conflicted character in the book. Throughout the story Carrie seems to go back and forth within her own mind between her desire to be among the popular kids, her love for her mother, and her faith, and her hatred for it all. Shortly after leaving school after the locker room incident, Carrie tests her growing powers in the driveway in front of her house. All the while she is thinking about how the people mock her mother and how she resents them for it, yet she herself also expresses similar feelings about her mother. As her powers grow, she becomes more aggressive often using her power to intimidate her mother and threatening to destroy everything if the prom invitation turns out to be a joke.
By being able to read her deeper suppressed thoughts, we can get an image of Carrie White as, not only a victim of her powers, her mother, and of society; but as a young woman who is conflicted and vengeful, slowly waiting for the one thing that will bring her over the edge.
Carrie (Film) 1976
The 1976 film took on the tragic, brutal prom night massacre and used it to tell a different story. Although the characters and story beats were the same, the story they told on film had a very different life than it’s literary counterpart which resonated soundly with audiences.
Unlike the novel from which it is based, the 1976 film is told in a very linear fashion and is seen largely from the point of view of Carrie White. Opening on the other iconic scene of this film, the locker room incident is portrayed in stark contrast against itself. There is a soft glow and calm music as we watch beautiful girls in various states of undress washing themselves. In the middle of this romanticized, sexually charged high school fantasy is Carrie – who disrupts the mood when she looks down at her fingers and sees blood. All romanticism is gone, there is no more glow, the music dies. This is reality and it is harsh, and brutal. This is a dichotomy that is played often in the film as the romantic, idealistic images Carrie has about growing up and coming in to her own adulthood is stomped on by the harsh reality of her life. This version of Carrie is quiet, mousy, and fragile. She speaks softly, is quick to tears, and very rarely speaks out against her mother’s wrath. As for her powers, they appear only after her menses with no indication that they existed beforehand, and is almost exclusively powered by her emotions. Although she researches it, you never see her practice it or intend to use it to inflict harm. By portraying her in this way, Carrie becomes a very clear victim of circumstance and we as viewers are far less likely to see the characters that surround her with sympathy.
The terror that Carrie inflicts is largely unintentional, fueled by emotions and possibly divine in nature. This is further shown in the way in which she kills her mother (a death that I realized was re imagined for the purpose of furthering themes specific to the film). After years of being forced into a closet to pray to a very frightening crucified Jesus figure, Carrie returns home from prom, scared and looking to her mother for comfort. Her mother believes that Carrie is evil and stabs her in the back. In self defense, Carrie uses her powers to stab her mother repeatedly. The result is her mother pinned to the doorway, looking very much like the crucified Jesus. In this way, Margaret White – the fanatic – get’s a fitting punishment for her role in Carrie’s torturous life.
However, the true tragedy of the story is in it’s ending. Not because Carrie dies but how she does. Central themes created specifically for the film show Carrie as a young naive girl who becomes anointed by blood into adulthood. Even after she is anointed the first time in the locker room, she is still innocent and naive, but as her powers grow she begins to rebel. She desires acceptance from other girls and the boy she likes. As she gets a taste of it, she is in bliss, but harsh realities of adulthood come crashing down in the form of a bucket of pigs blood on her head and she is anointed in blood again. This time, she is more destructive, frightening, and powerful. By the end, her dreams of being accepted are crushed. She has destroyed everything and she simply wants to go back to the security of her mother and her childhood – but it is too late. As her powers grow beyond her control, she pulls her mothers body from the doorway and retreats to the safety of her oppressive prayer closet. It is all she knows to do. That is the tragedy of Carrie.
Carrie (film) 2002
The 2002 made for t.v movie is intriguing in that it is both closest to the original novel (as far as specific story beats are concerned) and yet tells a story much different than any of the other versions being discussed. This is mainly because, while the other films and the novel are cautionary horror stories, this version of Carrie is a tale of pain and redemption.
Like the novel, Carrie 2002 is told from the perspective of multiple people after the prom night massacre has already taken place. Police are investigating the events of the horrific prom night massacre and trying to get a better understanding of why it occurred and who is to blame. This perspective also brings to light a theory that is touched upon in the 1976 and 2013 versions but is pressed heavily in the novel; was Sue Snell involved? Police interrogate Sue and question her motives for having Tommy take her to prom in the first place. After all, she was laughing right along with everyone else in the locker room and she and Carrie weren’t friends. Although we know that Sue’s intentions were, at least, in the right place, it makes sense that outsiders might think that she was in cahoots with Chris Hargensen. Classmates and staff alike are each questioned by officers and give their own accounts of what happened and why. By having Sue and others interrogated by police, we are able to build more sympathy for all the other students and staff as well; not just Carrie.
From a visual standpoint, this Carrie makes a bit more sense as a victim of bullying. Rather than being simply mousy and shy, this version of Carrie White displays an array of visual ticks such as pulling her hair, twitching her fingers, and crouching into a ball. These “ticks”, however slight, tell a lot about the fragile mental state this young woman is in. Often the camera will hold on her face, forcing the viewer to focus all their attention on her, reading her expression. The result is a general feeling of uneasiness which can serve to let the audience experience the same discomfort that the rest of her classmates might feel in her presence.
Another notable difference between this version and the 1976 version is the inclusion of telekinetic events in Carrie’s life that precede the locker room incident. The visuals of rocks falling from the space and crashing down on a young Carrie’s house years before prom makes the story feel more like science fiction than horror. It also gives context to the character, Margaret White; whose treatment of her daughter is shown to not only be a product of her fundamentalist Christian values but also of her fear. Carrie has shown telekinetic abilities during moments of extreme emotional distress all throughout her childhood. It is further insinuated that Margaret White’s own mother may have had similar abilities. These revelations are also brought up in the book and paint a picture of Margaret White as a woman who escaped into extreme Christianity as a young woman to escape a childhood rife with sex, debauchery and unexplained powers. Now, the powers have found their way back into her life and Margaret will stop at nothing to suppress the “witchcraft” that Carrie is committing.
Still, this version differs sharply from both it’s source material and the other two adaptations in a fundamental way. At the end of the prom night massacre; Carrie White goes home and washes in the tub having blacked out everything that happened at prom, she kills her mother by stopping her heart when her mother attempts to drown her in the tub, and is saved by Sue Snell. Sue and Carrie escape the house together as rocks fall from the sky, destroying it, and Carrie is believed to be dead. Carrie survives prom night and flees to Florida. Carrie, driven by uncontrollable powers was not truly conscious of her actions, making the the prom night massacre a subconscious act and the guilt of it all is lessened but still there. By having her survive her ordeal and flee to Florida, Carrie begins a new story where she can seek out others like herself and begin the process of redemption.
Carrie (film) 2013
The most recent iteration of Carrie feels very much like a modern re imagining of the 1976 film rather than an adaptation of the novel but does take a few creative ques from it. Like the 1976 De Palma film, the story is linear in nature and seen mainly from the point of view of Carrie White. However, this version of Carrie appears to be far more well adjusted than her film and book counterparts. She is shy and soft spoken, but with moments of rebellion and outspokenness that is rare in any version of Carrie. One scene of note is at her home, as her mother accuses her of sin, Carrie argues – not about whether she has sinned or about wanting to be normal (as she does in other versions) – but on her faith. Carrie tells her mother that her belief is wrong because God is love, not just wrath. Carrie even goes as far as to argue that the verse her mother is famous for: “the first sin was intercourse and the punishment was the punishment of blood” – is not a verse in the bible, simply the extreme interpretation of her mother’s church. She is arguing the nature of God with an extremely religious woman, displaying both an understanding of the faith she is being raised in and a strong individuality by having and expressing a very different interpretation of it. This is a modern and very bold argument for Carrie to make especially when previous versions paid such special attention to her mother’s fanaticism.
Speaking of Margaret White, another thing this version does quite differently is portray a softer more tormented Margaret. Although Carrie has little more than a lip chewing problem, Margaret shows far more of those visual ticks showcased so prominently in the 2002 version; often harming herself, banging her head into walls, digging her nails into the palms of her hands, etc which show the audience that there is more wrong with this woman than just her beliefs. This film tells a story of two conflicted and wounded women and gives more life and depth to the character of Margaret than any other version of the story. Rather than be a background villain, an explanation for the oppressive, fundamentalist home that helped to create the terror that Carrie became – Margaret White becomes someone that Carrie fights to have understand her and accept her just as much as the kids in her school. In previous iterations, Margaret often calls Carrie a sin. This is usually do to the fact that she was conceived in the first place and she believes that sex, even after marriage is a sinful act. In the book, it is implied that Carrie may have even been conceived before Margaret and her husband were technically married. Thus Carrie is her shame and her sin. It is only because of her husband’s intervention that she doesn’t kill Carrie as a child and she repeatedly states that she regrets not doing it. In this 2013 version, Margaret’s “sin” was not killing Carrie as an infant even though she knew she had strange “demonic” powers; a momentary lack of judgement due to motherly affection. She also shows regret in not killing her as a child but blames it on the fact that she loved her too much. It is the only version of Carrie where Margaret ever tells Carrie that she loved her at any point in her life.
One aspect that this version of the story takes directly from the novel (and is left out of the previous two movies) is the fact that Carrie’s telekinesis is fueled by rage and is intentional. During the haunting prom night scene, Carrie does not zone out and let the powers take control (as is seen in the first two movies). She is not a mindless puppet letting her subconscious reek havoc on the community. Carrie directs every action, target’s each victim and seems to relish in the destruction.
The intentional nature of Carrie’s destructive power, the conflicted relationship with her mother, the sympathetic eye which we see the side characters with, as well as the more mentally well adjusted Carrie leads to a new theme for the Carrie series: True Remorse. Whereas the other Carrie’s displayed regret from going to the prom in the first place, or despair, or even anger, this Carrie seems to show remorse for her actions that night. It is a reaction which, due to the character choices made in this film, make sense.
So which is the better version?
Well I’m not here to say who’s story is better. Each version of the story is memorable in it’s own way whether it be because it has made a stylistic choice that is very original or whether the technology utilized makes it a memorable experience. For the vast majority of people familiar with the story of Carrie, there is no version other than the original film. For others, no version holds a candle to the original novel. Still there are others who prefer the promise of hope and redemption that the 2002 version gives and a small few who prefer the modern effects of the 2013 film.
Inevitably, the decision of which story is told best comes down to the person receiving the story. The two most popular versions of Carrie are the novel and the 1976 feature film. Although the original idea was a premise so different that even Steven King had no idea what the appeal was, Carrie became his first published work. He had already written two novels but Carrie put him in the minds and homes of people across the globe. Brian De Palma used this novel to create a platform for his own brand of storytelling and was rewarded for it with critical and box office success. Carrie terrified audiences but also made them think. In Carrie White, both readers and audiences were able to see a kid they knew. Maybe they even saw themselves.
Or maybe they felt conflicted, pitying Carrie White but feeling more sympathy for the innocent Tommy Ross, whose only crime was being a popular boy who agreed to take Carrie to prom. Maybe they saw themselves in Miss Desjardin, who lived wondering if she could have done more in the novel, and who died by Carrie’s hands in the film. Or perhaps they left feeling sorry for the conflicted Sue Snell, whose road to hell was paved with good intentions. Who you feel for, and how strongly, is affected heavily by which medium you absorb the story in.
They may not all be box office gold, but take a look at all the versions and see for yourself.