From Book to Screen: “Carrie”
Welcome to the beginning of a brand new blog series on Flickchart: The Blog. This series will be conducted under our Book to Screen category and will trace the adaptions of one of America’s most prolific authors. A master of horror, his work has received over 100 different adaptations over the past five decades, scaring and tantalizing us with works both excellent and mediocre. The series will cover every adaptation and highlight the wonderful work of — you guessed it — Stephen King.
It is my great pleasure to begin this series, as King is my favorite author of all time. Horror is my favorite genre of both film and literature. The supernatural has always fascinated me, as it has many others. It has an ability to stimulate our imaginations and fears unlike anything else, making supernatural horror among the most visceral genres of fiction.
Stephen King is a master of the craft, having told tales that are uniquely horrific yet infinitely relatable due to his magnificently-created human characters. This mixture of humanity and inhumanity is part of what keeps his fans engrossed. Though not all adaptations of King stories are of high artistic quality, each features a particular vision of King’s work. Let’s start our journey into the darkness with the first ever adaption of King’s work: Carrie.
The first edition cover
Carrie was first released in April of 1974. It was King’s first published novel, yet it was the fourth one that he wrote. He wrote it after receiving criticisms from women about his earlier short stories, who claimed that he couldn’t write about women. Taking the challenge personally, King soon developed an idea about a girl who got her period in a women’s locker room and would be tormented by her classmates pelting her with sanitary napkins. The catch? The bullied girl would have telekinesis. This scene would become the opening part of the novel.
King originally hated the idea, though, and threw the pages away. It was at only his wife’s urging — she grabbed the discarded papers from the trash — that he continued to work on it and develop it into a full-length novel. Throughout the writing, he struggled to relate to the central character of Carrie, which led him to write the novel from the perspective of multiple outside parties. The novel was ultimately written in the epistolary format; in other words, it is written as a series of reports, diary entries, and other “documents” that revolve around a commission investigating the Carrie White incident.
This format placed Carrie in the world of grim reality. It felt realistic to readers, myself included, and that made the horror all the more powerful. The story of a adolescent girl bullied by peers and dealing with a religious zealot of a mother is supplemented by the supernatural dimension of the telekinetic power. A dreadful tension builds throughout the piece as a cataclysmic event approaches: prom.
Carrie has been adapted three times into film, as well as into a Broadway musical. We will compare the 1976 adaption, the 2002 made for TV adaption, and the most recent 2013 adaption. Excluded will be the 1999 sequel to the original Carrie, as it is not based on a direct written work of King. Which adaption is most faithful, and which is the best?
This adaption of Carrie was directed by Kimberly Peirce, notable for her striking and controversial debut feature Boys Don’t Cry. The themes raised in that film are not entirely dissimilar to the themes raised throughout Carrie, which made her a natural fit to direct a new adaption. Unfortunately, it seems like little of the director’s voice made it through to the final product.
Don’t be mistaken, this version of Carrie is not a bad film. The acting throughout the cast is very solid. Chloë Grace Moretz is quite capable in the titular role. She is a fine actress and seems willing to take on a variety of roles. Her take on the character captures the full range of the character’s up and downs well enough. However, she is much too beautiful to pull off the comely character in a truly convincing manner. Carrie is the metaphorical ugly duckling throughout the story, constantly picked on by the more popular and beautiful girls. This helps make her glowing moment at prom stand out all the brighter. Moretz, however, never really looks the part, and instead looks more like one of the girls who ought to be picking on Carrie.
Here, Julianne Moore plays the crazed mother, Margaret White. Moore’s take on the character is a much more overt insanity that makes her look like Crazy Horror Lady. While this does allow Moore to do some good character work, including a scene where she sinks her nails deep into her legs, it seems to overdramatize the events of the novel.
That is a common problem of the movie. The film ultimately falls short of the source material by turning it into blander horror fare. The director and producers seem intent on making everything as “shocking” and “horrifying” as possible. Moretz and Moore deliver their lines with this highly dramatic fervor that turns it into bland cheese. Moretz’s deliver of the line “If I concentrate hard enough, I can make objects move” is delivered with enough dramatics that one would expect a hilarious hand-over-the-mouth-in-shock move to follow.
The blandness permeates the film. Shots are boring and typical. The scene of Carrie sending a small, taunting boy flying away on his bike is conducted in a slow-motion that overdramatizes the event and robs it of its human elements. Later, Carrie’s explosion of anger at the prom is turned into superhero theatrics. This scene should be a horrifying and sad moment when the culmination of all of Carrie’s heartbreak and anger is let loose. Instead, Moretz points her hands around like Magneto and contorts her face in an exaggerated scowl.
The strength of the story still shines through despite the bland and lifeless take on the material. A small cyber-bullying element is introduced when one of Carrie’s tormentors uploads a video of the locker scene to the internet. The character of Billy Nolan is probably the closest to the novel, as he was given an appropriate level of sadism. John Travolta‘s goofier take in the 1976 movie seems tame in comparison to King’s conception.
The effects in this film are given an appropriate update, making it the strongest of the three films in this department. Still, the subtler language of film is more important when it comes to creating an atmosphere of dread and tension. The bland studio take on the material robs it of any horror. It’s telling when the creepiest visual in the entire film is delivered subliminally and you can’t even see it.
- Global ranking: 10,829
- Wins 40% of its match-ups
- 690 users have ranked it 9,054 times
- 4 users have it in their top 20
This adaption is barely worth mentioning aside from saying that it’s a curiosity. Not unlike the 2013 version, it is not bad per se. The strength of the story elevates each of these adaptions into something beyond its cinematic construction. Still, this adaption is the epitome of cheap, made-for-TV production. Visual effects are shoddy, the acting of every supporting player is mediocre, and the film lacks in the visual language of cinema.
Angela Bettis makes a more appropriate-looking Carrie than the 2013 version’s. Bettis’s acting is capable, too; I was completely unfamiliar with her prior to watching this film. In this adaption, the mother is portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, who is likely the biggest name in the production. Clarkson’s take on Margaret never strays into the overdramatic theatrics of Moore’s version, but it also lacks in any level of creepiness. Indeed, her character is a non-factor in this version compared to the other two adaptions.
There’s not much to be said here outside of the trivial. It was intended to be the pilot for a full length TV series, but failed to take off. This does result in it being the adaptation that is most different from the source material, as the ending is changed to show Carrie heading to Florida to avoid persecution for the murders of her classmates. Interestingly enough, though, this adaption is closest to the novel’s structure since it is framed as an investigation into the Carrie White incident. A better film that adapts the novel in this way could make for an interesting product.
- Global ranking: 4,881
- Wins 46% of its match-ups
- 1,453 users have ranked it 9,829 times
- 1 user has it as their #1
- 20 users have it in their top 20
Brian de Palma’s seminal work still stands strong today. It’s commonalities with the latter adaptations largely lie in the plot: all three films mostly stick to the events of the novel. In that sense, all three are pretty faithful adaptions of the work. But unlike the two later versions, de Palma’s film captures the spirit and horror of King’s story. Using his own mastery of his craft, de Palma made a film often considered a watershed moment for horror being taken seriously as a genre.
Comparing this version to the 2013 adaption could almost be used as a film school 101 lesson in the importance of visuals. Where the most modern adaptation is bland and mostly uninteresting to look at with its static shots and ergonomic framing, this film is a visual feast. Here we are treated to a variety of tracking shots, confined framing, and other techniques that help build an atmosphere of confinement and tension. Instead of the themes being communicated merely through the story, de Palma is able to make the audience feel the isolation and loneliness of Carrie through images and sound. Carrie is often framed as a small figure amongst a background of space to generate the idea of her separation from her peers. In scenes with her mother, she is framed as bowed in the shadows and made to appear smaller than the towering stature of her mother. Later, she is framed oppositely as she moves to stand against her mother’s draconian religious lifestyle.
All of this framing and other technique would be naught without the two powerhouse Academy Award-nominated performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Spacek’s take on Carrie is nothing short of pure excellence. She looks the part of a comely and isolated girl early in the film. Her use of her eyes and mouth is so subtle and yet so powerful in communicating the mood and nature of the character. In sharp contrast to the 2013 version, Spacek’s delivery of the telekinesis line to her mother is a simple and direct statement. But through its simplicity, it carries the weight of defiance in a manner much more relatable than the modern version.
Likewise with Piper Laurie’s Margaret. She is convincing as a religious zealot without becoming a heavy-handed lunatic. Here, insanity is demonstrated through small details such as a spark of madness in the eye and the religious fervor of her prayers. This Margaret is not unlike a lady you may have met once in your life. She is more realistic and thus more horrific.
The only negative points of this film are minor details. The film’s insistence on a Psycho-like screech upon every use of Carrie’s power becomes annoying and cheesy, as it is slightly overused. The film’s telekinesis effects look slightly dated now. Yet these minor points are not cracks in the near-flawless armor of de Palma’s seminal horror masterpiece.
- Global ranking: 762
- Wins 42% of its match-ups
- 14,984 users have ranked it 139,363 times
- 14 user has it as their #1
- 312 users have it in their top 20
The Best & The Most Faithful
As should be fairly obvious by now, de Palma’s original 1976 is easily the best version by a long shot. The film is a stunning and shocking take on struggles that many adolescents face and indeed many people face throughout their lives. This version understands that the horror of the story comes not from a bucket of blood or magical telekinesis powers. These are merely symbols and factors that help unveil the true horror. One could write an entire blog article devoted to the rich and layered symbolism and elements of the original Carrie. But its quality is made clear in the key scenes of the story.
Compare the opening shower scene of each. Here, de Palma utilizes the medium of film for slow moving shots of Carrie feeling her body underneath the warm and gentle pelt of the water. Spacek’s face is formed into a subtle pleasure as she moves her hands across her breasts. This is a scene of girl developing into a woman which makes the trickle of blood down her leg all the more effective. This version is vastly more interesting to watch than the boring flat shot we are given the 2002 or 2013 version.
Watch the titular prom scene. The 2013 version relies on theatrics with Moretz waving her arms around and giving an evil snickering glare to her classmates. The scene of the bucket of blood falling is repeated over and over again to the point where it loses all of its shock value. It was as if the editor received seven shots from the filming and decided that they should use each one. In the 1976 version, Spacek is largely rooted in place with only her large, expressive eyes moving to shoulder the weight of the scene. Instead of silly overplayed horror, we are simultaneously horrified and saddened by this young girl lashing out in anger and pain.
It is these moments that help define the sharp difference in quality between the adaptions. Brian de Palma’s film is still remembered today as a fantastic addition to the horror genre whilst the 2013 version is likely already largely forgotten (ditto the 2002 version). It also easily takes the title of the most faithful adaption of the novel as well. Not only does it capture the tone and character of the novel better, but it features no major changes to the plotting or content. The 2002 version easily loses this contest for an altered ending. While the 2013 version may still largely stick to the book, it does make some modern updates, making it less faithful than the 1976 version.
The final verdict for fans of King’s debut novel is to stick with the 1976 version. It is a great film not only for fans of the book but for movie fans in general. The only reason to watch the 2013 version is as a lesson in why the language of cinema matters. As for the 2002 version, it can easily be forgotten and never seen. I’ve already forgotten it myself.