FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Though Stephen King doesn’t regard CARRIE as his best novel, it manages to sustain a better-than-average level of mythicity while remaining admirably concise—two things one can’t say about too many of King’s early works, and possibly not about any of the later ones.
As many before me have commented, Carrie White’s story follows the basic pattern of the “outcast from normal society,” with a specific emphasis on the outcast who obtains marvelous powers to strike back against that society. Carrie, unlike her antecedents—the witches who gained power from devils or from pagan gods, depending who you ask—gains her power from a natural mutation that gives her the power of telekinesis. In addition to being alienated from her high school society, by dint of being the butt of jokes from boys and girls alike, she’s just as alienated in her home life. Her father left her mother long ago, and her mother Margaret—a righteous religious proselytizer—subjects Carrie to verbal and physical abuse, tacitly resenting her both as the seed of her father and for being younger and more vital.
Though boys are seen to taunt Carrie as well, King’s narrative—as well as both film-adaptations—emphasizes the greater cruelty of the “gentle sex.” Her mother cruelly keeps Carrie ignorant of feminine biology, so that during her first period she thinks she’s bleeding to death. This takes place in the school locker-room, so that all the girls relentlessly torment her for her ignorance, and possibly as a symbol of their own feminine vulnerabilities. This trauma causes Carrie’s mostly dormant psychic powers to manifest. As most film fans know, Carrie is then subject to a terrible prank that makes possible the fantasy of many high-school nerds: the complete destruction of the society that torments the nerd, as well as the oppressive parent-figure.
Brian de Palma’s 1976 adaptation remains thus far unchallenged as the best cinematic adaptation of the book. His use of intrusive directorial techniques—particularly his famous use of “split screens” during the tumultuous climax—has been criticized, but I find that he shows good judgment as to when to dispense with flat depictions of consensual reality. De Palma dispenses with many fine details of the book, though rarely at the expense of the characters, and he “amps up” some scenes, such as the death-scene of Margaret White, who is literally “crucified” by a host of telekinetically hurled knives. Star Sissy Spacek was just then coming into her own as one of the major female stars of the period, and for most viewers, her performance defines Carrie as the intelligent underdog outmatched from the start by the greater collective evil of society. And of course, the “gotcha” coda—which resembles nothing in the King book—was so widely imitated that it’s arguable that CARRIE put an end to any lingering expectation that a horror-film could ever “return to normalcy” at the end.
The 2002 telemovie version of CARRIE, aside from one huge flaw, is a worthy adaptation in its own right. As is typical of television productions all events are depicted in a straightforward “meat-and-potatoes” visual style, but director David Carson does make good use of close-ups to deliver emotional intensity. Amanda Bettis delivers a Carrie just as well nuanced as Spacek’s version, and one arguably closer to the book, in that Bettis’ Carrie looks more like a downtrodden homebody in attitude and dress. By contrast, at times Sissy Spacek was allowed to be a little too glamorous to be believable as an “ugly duckling.”
With a longer running time, the 2002 version also uses more of King’s book, particularly the framing sequence in which police detectives try to make sense, after the fact, of the events that led to the holocaust. Another good scene from the book, though irrelevant to the main character as such, deals with the attempt of chief nasty-girl Chris Hargensen (Emilie deRavin) to retaliate against her righteous gym-teacher by siccing her daddy the Bigtime Lawyer on the school. For the most part all the principal characters are well-acted, and I’d argue that Jesse Cadotte as the vicious Billy Nolan easily outdoes John Travolta’s performance.
There are small flaws. In this version Margaret White’s extreme Christianity, while still present, seems toned down. Entirely absent is King’s critique—operatic though it may be—of mainstream Christianity’s focus on repressing sexuality. In the book this ethos has the depressing result that even a married woman like Margaret White feels horribly guilty about having enjoyed sex, and so projects the same guilt upon her daughter. But you wouldn’t know it from the 2002 version.
The huge flaw I mentioned earlier is the ending. Though Carrie still trashes the entire school and executes her mother when the demented woman tries to kill her daughter, Carrie doesn’t die as she does in the book and the initial movie. Sue Snell, the character who made it possible for Carrie to go to her prom, intervenes to get Carrie away from town. According to comments on IMDB, Carrie survived because some geniuses thought about spinning her off into her own series. Fortunately, the telefilm didn’t enjoy ratings good enough to greenlight a series. But anyone watching this version should be prepared to be deprived of the expected “death-of-the-monster” scene.