If there is an author who is no stranger to adaptations and remakes, it is Stephen King. Just this year alone, audiences were served two remakes of some beloved classics, Pet Sematary and the second half of the It story.
With the release of In the Tall Grass (a Joe Hill and Stephen King venture) this week on Netflix, it felt appropriate to do a Take Two article of one Stephen King’s seminal works. In this case, let’s start at the beginning with the film that started it all for King (in print and on-screen)
Brian De Palma‘s 1976 adaptation of Carrie and the 2013 Kimberly Peirce‘s update.
Both the 1976 Carrie and the 2013 remake are based on Stephen King’s 1974 debut novel, Carrie. They are both largely faithful to the text — a high school girl named Carrie who grows up an outcast, bullied in school, and raised by her religiously abusive mother.
Suddenly, she is invited to the high school prom with one of the most popular kids in the school. Unfortunately, she isn’t aware that some of her classmates created a trap for her. Then, comes the trigger for her telekinetic powers to unearth themselves at the peril of others.
Both movies stay faithful to the spirit of the novel and keep the major events intact for the screenplays.
The novel is told in epistolary form, which is a novel that unfolds as a series of documents or letters, which is different from both films but still thematically consistent.
Brian De Palma’s feature forgoes this structure and tells the story in a straight forward manner. The noted director of Mission Impossible, The Untouchables, and Scarface makes no secret that he is largely inspired by Alfred Hitchcock.
He interweaves that influence throughout his movie with very direct parallels to Psycho as Carrie’s telekinetic power is propelled through the film by Bernard Herrman-style musical strings. This also gives the film a thriller-like edge to it allowing the movie to build up suspense over the course of the run time.
De Palma doesn’t leave much for surprise, but in doing that, he is able to construct this like a ticking time bomb. You know everything will end in tragedy, which De Palma uses as a strength. He is able to make you care about the character and wrap your hopes and desires around the entire characterization while you dread what’s to come.
It’s also worth noting both the book and the movie is released in a post-‘Roe v. Wade’ world.
Many scholars have noted that the movie and the novel is a tale of feminine horror, directly tied into feminine identity and control of one’s body. Carrie eventually fights this constant control that others have over her: her mother and her classmates. All this takes place while there is an undercurrent of the idea that female sexuality is sinful.
Carrie deals with a considerable amount of shame because of it.
She starts to gain her powers not long after her first period, something tied to the reproductive cycle (although it is worth noting some female film scholars have argued that the theme of blood can be interpreted in a negative way).
To play that angle up is a performance from Sissy Spacek that embodies the blissful innocence of Carrie while also portraying a young woman abused by the people around her. She has the look of the outcast but when she switches over to the vengeful force, she is terrifying.
But for a movie that is steeped in feminism, it does have its shortcomings as a feminist piece.
Brian De Palma has no doubt directed a feature that is full of depth, tragedy, and terrifying horror sequences. The finale ranks as one of the all-time greats. But, his male eye does lead to some scenes that are antithetical to the film’s themes.
In the opening scene, the camera lingers over naked teenage girl’s bodies, it is a bit creepy. The scene has been directly lifted for HBO’s Euphoria, except with a locker room full of males as a gender-switch homage that does in some sense parody this scene. The film was made in 1976, and while it is progressive in its portrayal of strong female characters and feminine themes, it does have a few shortcomings (and no, I’m not saying “Carrie bad”).
When it was announced Carrie was being remade, it was met with much outcry. Even Stephen King expressed his doubts. Carrie had already been remade once, in a mostly forgotten 2002 TV movie, but going back to the theatrical world seemed like it crossing into sacred ground.
The studio tapped Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce and casted Julianne Moore, Chloë Grace Moretz, and featuring Ansel Elgort into his first major role. The film was pitched a modern re-imaging of the story while also being a more faithful adaptation of the novel.
Somewhere, along the way, the film underwent extensive re-shoots and the original screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, from the 1976 version was brought on to help (which only created a closer version to the original).
New scenes were shot and suddenly subplots were dropped. Entire sequences were lifted out of the final edit, like the destruction of the town, which is a scene present in the book but not either version of the movie.
Soon, it became clear somewhere along the way the film got gutted. Deleted scenes on the Blu-ray and screenshots from the trailers seem to tell a different story than what audiences were given. Anyone getting a Justice League feeling? (#ReleaseThePierceCut).
Unlike films like Justice League though, Carrie didn’t have the fanbase to endlessly campaign for the alternative footage (even though there were petitions). I wish I could write about how each movie differs thematically, but this new version of Carrie seems a soulless and safe update of the original movie that doesn’t attempt to re-contextualize for a modern era (this is, after all, taking place in Post-Columbine world) nor does it have De Palma’s gritty Hitchcock inspired nature.
Which Carrie is Better?
It isn’t hard to imagine which version of Carrie is more successful. Despite a loaded cast of talent and modern visual effects, the most interesting part of the new Carrie is what isn’t in the film rather than what is.
It’s clear whatever the movie was intended to be in 2013 was mangled in the post-production process. That isn’t to say there is no redeeming qualities to the most-recent version of Carrie.
Peirce avoids De Palma’s male gaze and improves the story in that regard. But the horror isn’t there, the development of Carrie is rushed and despite having world-class talent, the performances feel off with Moretz feeling like a miscast. I don’t buy her as an outcast like Sissy Spacek
De Palma’s Carrie, however, dated it might feel in parts, still holds up. The final moments where Carrie turns on her classmates is as terrifying and shocking as it was in 1976 and his great attention to character and performance lends the feature to a great deal of tragedy and pathos.
Perhaps there is a better version of Carrie out there, waiting to be made but De Palma’s Carrie still stands head and shoulders above its remakes and still ranks as one of the best Stephen King Adaptations.