(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.