Wrapping Up The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Carrie By Stephen King

(Click here for information on the 2016 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the September selection, Stephen King’s Carrie.)


So, to wrap up the season (only a few weeks past Halloween!), we end with a book so well-known, I hardly feel like it needs a plot summary, having been the subject of innumerable adaptations, homages, parodies and general cultural references in the 40+ years since its publication. Briefly: the late onset of puberty for 16 year old outcast Carrie White coincides with the latest, and most vicious, instance of locker-room bullying, as well as a sudden uptick in her latent telekinetic powers. In the wake of this incident, more malicious teenaged pathology (and a few misplaced good intentions) result in Carrie using her newly discovered powers to burn the place to the ground.

The debut novel of Stephen King (…whom I feel also needs no introduction…), the filmed adaptation was also the first big hit for director Brian DePalma:

DePalma’s film holds up well, although it conventionalizes the story and characters, relying on (and creating a few) 1970s horror-movie tropes.  Despite the standard casting of 20-somethings as high school students, the largely-female, cast has a great “look”; with the exception of Nancy Allen (looking like Sweet Valley High’s version of a disco queen, all candy-floss hair and lacquered lipstick), the supporting characters range from attainably pretty to realistically awkward, including Amy Irving, PJ Soles, and (my personal favorite) 25 year old Edie McClurg as an unlikely Mean Girl:


I think the various adaptations have overshadowed source material, so readers picking up the book for the first time (or for the first time in a while) might be surprised by both its brevity for a King tome (only 240 pages in paperback) as well as its format as an epistolary novel, in which the multiple points of view add a surprising amount of depth to the story, as well as an almost unbearable amount of tension to the climax.

As I mentioned, DePalma makes most of the characters in the film much more conventional types, starting with Carrie White. Embodied by Sissy Spacek (pushing 30 at the time), Carrie is weird and ethereal, but never unattractive; while in the book Carrie White is a mess, hamstrung equally by her inability to fit in and her stubborn insistence on trying to:

Carrie on the church picnic and kneeling down clumsily to pray and the seam of her old madras skirt splitting along he zipper like a sound of a huge wind-breakage; Carrie always missing the ball, even in kickball, falling on her face in Modern Dance during their sophomore year and chipping a tooth, running into the net during volleyball; wearing stockings that were always run, running or about to run, always showing sweat stains under the arms of her blouses… Suddenly all this and the critical mass was reached. The ultimate shit-on, gross-out, put-down, long-searched for was found.

The multiple points of view in the novel serve the supporting characters particularly well. While the motives of the movie’s Sue Snell (Amy Irving) still seem strangely opaque when she asks her boyfriend, Tommy Ross, to take Carrie to the prom to make up for the locker room incident, in the reader is privy to the fact that while well-intentioned, it is still self-serving, an act of atonement to make Sue feel better.

William Katt is cast as Tommy in the film, and is probably its biggest weakness. In the book Tommy emerges as the character closest to a tragic hero, a teenager with an unusual (but not unbelievable) level of maturity and self-awareness, who doesn’t know Carrie but agrees to the plan because he loves Sue, and by the end of the evening comes around to some level of empathy and appreciation (and yes, a small crush) on Carrie. By contrast, Katt’s Tommy is introduced sneering “you suck” at Carrie in a creative writing class, which just adds to the confusion as to who is actually in on the plot to “get” Carrie at the prom.

In contrast, the talents of 22 year old John Travolta is wasted as the main male villain, Billy Nolan; in the book Billy is a terrifying psychopath, who doesn’t really care if it is Carrie White that they’re out to get or anyone else- he’s just gleefully looking forward to violence and mayhem. For Travolta, the part is re-written to be much more of a dumb meathead, although for a viewer who had maybe only seen him as Vinnie Barbarino or Danny Zukko in Grease, it’s sort of a wonderful shock to see him playing the same kind of role as a villain.

The biggest change, and the point where I think the novel has it all over the DePalma film is the third act, in which Carrie wreaks havoc all over not just her school, her home and her religious-fanatic mother, but the entire town, in a documentary style, minute-by-minute report, stitching together multiple points of view from her neighbors, news articles from after the fact, Associated Press wires, and Carrie and Sue’s own inner monologues. The chaos, confusion, misunderstandings and bad information adds up to a spectacular climax, unequalled in any subsequent adaptations.

And those adaptations have been numerous, including a sequel/remake of DePalma’s film 23 years later. It was followed by a second reboot in 2002, a proposed pilot for a TV series that never came to fruition. Another remake, this time with an A-list cast, was released theatrically in 2013.

Even stranger was the material’s life as Broadway musical. Originally staged in 1988 as an overblown, Andrew Lloyd Webber-style spectacular, it became the era’s most notorious flop, adding the phrase “Not since Carrie…” to the theater critic’s lexicon when describing a flop for the next couple of decades (the phrase in turn became the title of an endlessly fascinating book about Broadway’s musical failures). The Broadway run closed after five performances, becoming a lost legend…

…Until 2012 when a substantially reworked, scaled-down version appeared off-Broadway to generally good reviews- I saw it during its limited run and absolutely loved it.

Stephen King is on record as saying that he thinks DePalma improved upon the source material, and there are aspects of the novel that are slightly awkward: published in 1974, it is stubbornly set five years into the then-future of 1979, for reasons that never quite make sense. And while the multiple-POV format works overall some of the writing of the “official sources”, such as the reports from a state commission investigating the incident, doesn’t quite ring true, as does all of the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo about how telekinesis has, in the intervening years, been discovered to be passed on genetically. The coda, in the form of a letter from a semi-literate hillbilly to her sister discussing her young daughter’s apparent “abilities” lacks any punch- it’s one climax too many in a book that has already delivered the goods.

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23 Responses to Wrapping Up The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Carrie By Stephen King

  1. Susan says:

    I never read the book but saw the movie when it first ran in theaters. The unexpected last scene totally freaked me out! Recently while channel-surfing I ran across it on tv (when all the Halloween movies were being shown), just as she was being crowned at the prom. What struck me is that this was considered very intense and graphic at the time, but it seems relatively mild compared to more recent horror movies — I don’t watch them, but I see trailers and hear about them.

    The part of the book you describe that wasn’t included in the movie sounds really interesting and dramatic! If I see the book anywhere I’ll skim through that part.

    • mondomolly says:

      It’s really worth a read- while fairly short, a LOT more gets packed into it, there are more subplots that I don’t even go into here, and I think it does a really good job with its teenaged characters!

    • Sheesh says:

      Re that last scene, I will never forget how my mom and I were watching it on late night tv (first time either of us had seen it) and both half dozing as the movie came to a close. Then “that” happened and we both screamed our heads off and woke my dad. LOL. I still scream my head off every time I see it even though I know it’s coming.

      • mondomolly says:

        Ok, another personal anecdote that didn’t make it into the blog post: I saw the movie for the first time on my 13th birthday, which was a sleepover party. I was was’t really allowed to watch “horror” movies growing up, but for some reason my mom let me pick this one, I guess because it was considered a classic by that point. So, at the ending, me and and a bunch of other 12 and 13 year olds were totally not expecting that and screamed so loudly that we woke up everyone. It kept me awake at night for MONTHS afterward thinking about it!

        To this day (25 years later) I still squirm and cover my eyes when I know it’s coming 😉

  2. Cee says:

    One of the best Stephen King novels and a terrific first (published) effort. Very ambitious with the epistolary technique. If you’ve ever read King’s excellent critique of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, he anticipated much of your commentary re: the character changes in Tommy and Billy from the novel to the movie. Where the movie excels (besides its effective use of humor, so necessary in horror cinema) is its camera techniques. De Palma is one of those filmmakers whose movies are utterly compelling, even when they don’t work. His camera work has such bravado, the angles and setups are so crazy and exciting. My absolute favorite shot is when the camera circles around Carrie and Billy as they dance, first slowly, and gradually faster and faster. It literally makes you dizzy to watch–and puts you in Carrie’s shoes who is the happiest she’s ever been in her life, at that moment. And that scene gives way to the slow, relentless leadup to Billy and Chris under the stage, and the bucket overhead waiting. Waiting. All accompanied by a cello soundtrack. Brilliant stuff.

    But the book! I loved the espistolary stuff–loved the testimony, the selections from “The Shadow Explodes” (or whatever the book was called), the letters, all of it. Loved the descriptions of Chamberlain afterward, a literal ghost town with most of the senior class dead and people moving out. There’s also a great scene between Carrie and Susan at the very end, where Carrie reads her mind and sees that Sue wasn’t behind the pig’s blood stunt. And Susan with that blood coursing down her legs as Carrie dies–was it her period? Or a miscarriage?

    *BTW in the movie Katt is saying “you suck” to the teacher, who is sneering at Carrie. IOW Tommy is sticking up for her. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074285/quotes?item=qt0260986

    • mondomolly says:

      And also the split screen! I thought that it was at least trying to give a visual tip of the hat to the multiple POV of the book at the end- in some ways it looks really dated, which just adds to how off-kilter the end feels.

      I just pulled up the scene with Tommy, Carrie and the English teacher, and I could see how it could go either way- now I’m not sure who the “You suck” is addressed to- the teacher (who really does suck) or Carrie for having the audacity to compliment him.

      I touch on it, but I think there is a lot of muddying of motivations in the movie, even though I’ve seen it probably 7 or 8 times, I think Amy Irving never really lets on what Sue’s motivation is.

      And then there is Miss Desjardin/Gardiner, who I think makes a serious miscalculation in advising Carrie to accept Tommy’s invitation BEFORE looking into what they are up to. (Love Betty Buckley in that role, though)

      And it is (I know, necessarily) one of the things that had to be trimmed from the book, all of the heartbreaking near-misses where the adults *almost* intervene (like the principal threatening to sue the Hargensens on Carrie’s behalf) .

      Thanks for your comments!

    • mondomolly says:

      Also, I’ll have to go dig out my copy of Danse Macabre, I remember reading his thoughts on Carrie years ago. On Writing also has some good stuff about the genesis of the novel!

  3. Cee says:

    FYI a friend of mine was a Tommy standby (kind of like an emergency understudy, only used if the regular can’t do it) for the original Carrie Broadway production. He still had a VHS of the first act which I got to watch–I quite liked some of the score. “That’s not my name!…Carrie, why can’t they call me Carrie?” He wouldn’t list it on his resume and I told him “Are you kidding?! Just seeing that on your resume might get you a callback! It’s a legendary production, even if it was a flop!”

  4. Laina says:

    Not gonna lie, I like the remake better *shrugs* I am alone in that, I’m pretty sure, but it speaks to me more.

    • mondomolly says:

      The one with Julianne Moore? I had a friend recommend it to me as well, definitely going to check it out (I’ve seen the other versions, the TV pilot was a weird idea).

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Laina says:

        Yup, the 2013 movie one! I like the actress who plays Carrie, and things seem a touch more realistic to me in it than in the original. Also, King apparently hates it, and I enjoy that pettiness 😛

        The made for TV one, I like the idea of that, but the execution didn’t really work out.

        • Cee says:

          The remake is excellent. I prefer the original but Chloe Grace Moretz gives a terrific performance, even if she is too conventionally pretty. (They just could not ugly her up!) I LOVED that last scene between her and Susan–Moretz plays so many beats there, from pathos (“I’ve been hurt my whole life”) to grief (“I want her back”) to joy (“It’s a girl”). Just terrific work, a very mature performance. The idea of using social media is kind of obvious but still works, especially when they play the video as she’s covered with blood.

          Does King really hate it? I wonder why. Well, SK, the rest of us hate YOUR remake of The Shining! (Oh God, that kid who played Danny…)

          • Laina says:

            I totally get how Chloe’s too pretty, but I also think it’s an interesting take on it, that it’s not solely based on her looking weird but everything else, and I think it almost gives you more hope that she could have had a normal life, yanno? I like that they include a scene where a random unnamed character is nice to her for a moment. I just feel like it shows how hopeful she could be before it’s all ripped away.

            For me a big difference is the shower scene. In the orignal, it feels really… male-gaze heavy. There are moments where I go, “Nobody showers like that in real life.” In the remake, I think the combination of the young actress and a female director makes it way more realistic to that kind of experience, and more about what she’s feeling than what the audience wants to see. The whole movie feels way more… like, focused on the women, I guess, and that experience.

            Yeah, he basically said “why, when the original was so good”, yada yada. But, you’re totally right, he hates The Shining movie too and his version totally sucks XD

            You wanna see a REALLY BAD Carrie movie, though, watch “The Rage: Carrie 2”. Not, uh. Not good.

            • mondomolly says:

              So, I did watch the 2013 version! I thought both Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore (who is TERRIFYING) were excellent. I also like the restoration of Tommy to sort-of heroic status, and taking Billy back to his greaser roots. I think Carrie and Sue’s relationship also made more sense, which I liked. I also liked that quick scene where it’s mentioned Tommy’s friend’s date is from a different school, and since she has no idea who Carrie is treats her like a normal person.

              I didn’t like the CGI effects, which just seemed distracting, and I know the social media stuff was a obvious way to update the story, but it seemed tacked on. Overall the remake seems kind of inessential, but I didn’t hate it.

              Thanks for your comments, I love this discussion! 🙂

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