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Carrie Goes to the Movies
Carrie, the first of Stephen King’s novels to find a publisher, hit the shelves in 1974. Forty years later, King has produced over fifty books and numerous short stories, and is probably the world’s bestselling author. It’s strange to think it all began with this slender tale of a put-upon teenage girl who’s a little out of the ordinary.
Amidst what’s sure to be a veritable bloodbath of anniversary tributes to this classic debut novel, I thought I’d approach the subject from a slightly different angle: Brian De Palma’s film adaptation, which appeared just two years after the book. De Palma’s Carrie is a fascinating movie in its own right, not least because it is the first offering in what would become practically a cottage industry.
There have been dozens of Stephen King adaptations of varying quality since 1976. In fact, Wikipedia lists well over a hundred theatrical and television productions adapted or derived from King’s works. Some stories have even been made more than once. Carrie, for example, has had a sequel and not just one but two remakes. It’s the 1976 version, though, which will stand the test of time.
Considering the liberties that would later be taken with King’s work – to the extent that the author actually took legal action to remove his name from the Lawnmower Man movie – De Palma’s film is a pretty faithful adaptation, and the changes it makes are broadly in keeping with the spirit of the source, at least until we get to the end. The big story beats are the same: Carrie is bullied by her classmates, discovers she has strange telekinetic powers on the onset of her first period… you know the rest: crazy fundamentalist mother, more bullying, pig’s blood, prom carnage. What’s interesting is that while retaining most of the original story, De Palma chooses to shift the focus subtly, so that the movie focuses much more on the female characters.
This works very well, probably because the subtext of the book focuses on women and different kinds of female power. De Palma takes this to its logical conclusion: the strongest performances and characters in the movie are the women, including Amy Irving’s good girl, Nancy Allen’s tormentor-in-chief, and Oscar-nominated turns from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie as Carrie White and her batshit-insane mom. Male characters are very much sidelined, even when they played a much bigger part in the book (and even though one of them is played by a young John Travolta).
This is one of the main ways that the film has influenced an entire genre. Before Carrie, there had been a few low-budget teen horror movies, such as Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs, but Carrie really opened the floodgates. In the years that followed we got Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and dozens of lesser teen slasher movies, many of which featured strong-willed female leads eventually escaping the horror.
The other influential feature of Carrie is the ending, which is also the biggest deviation from the source. While King delivers a low-key coda musing on sorrow and forgiveness in the book, De Palma opts for a typically lurid climax: a hazy dream sequence where Irving’s Sue Snell serenely approaches Carrie’s grave carrying flowers… only for a bloodstained hand to thrust out of the earth and grab her. It set a precedent for jump-scare endings that quickly became de rigueur for the horror flicks that followed.
It undermines the redemptive message of King’s book, of course, but it’s the perfect ending to a slightly different take on the story. It certainly helped the notoriety of Carrie, which made it possible for those hundred-and-some films to be made out of King’s extensive bibliography. And while some of those might have been less than great, the list has also included brilliant films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me and (less well-regarded, but one of my favourites), John Carpenter’s Christine. And for those classics we have to thank not just Stephen King’s Carrie, but to a large extent Brian De Palma’s Carrie as well.