Chronicle of Days of High School Past

Happy Halloween, friends. Please enjoy this review of the original Carrie film adaptation. You can read the review of the book here and I’ll have the remake review up just as soon as I’m not a poor college grad who can’t afford to see movies in the theatre.

REPEAT OFFENDER: Carrie (1976)

THE REVIEW: There is a reason this movie has been referenced time and time again. The film remains relevant today, in part because it was well done and in part because its themes have become only more pressing. As its own creature, it’s a solid movie. However, how it differs from the book has more to say about us than the book or movie themselves.

To start, I’m happy with lack of emphasis on telekinesis, its scientific explanation, and its implications for the future, as these all take the story in a different direction than the Willard/Willie Watt revenge story. In this instance I prefer letting the Sci-Fi take a backseat to the psychological drama. Let X-Men contemplate the implications of telekinesis’s presence in the population and the morality of our response to it. What’s more important in this story is that we all know a Carrie and a Sue and a Chris (or maybe we are one). There’s always that one house in the neighborhood everyone wonders about (or tries not to).

Carrie’s telekinesis also is much less powerful and has less disastrous results. True, she still kills the whole school (there are actually more survivors from the prom in the book), but her powers have a far more impressive display in the book. To start, she is much more passive during the movie’s prom incident. Sissy Spacek just sort of stands there and then makes crazy eyes while continuing to stand there. In the book, she runs from the prom and then flips out, making her actions less spur of the moment lashing out and more intentional, vindictive revenge.

Carrie also does not go home with intent to kill her mother in the movie as she does in the book. She is also not aware that her mother intends to kill her. Instead, Sissy plays a very vulnerable Carrie who seeks her mother with the innocence of a hurt child. Carrie does cry out for her mother in the book as well, but it reads much more like Stockholm Syndrome. She knows her mother is evil and wrong at that point in the book. The movie shows a girl betrayed by her classmates who retreats back to the only human connection she’s every really had and finds more betrayal rather than maternal comfort.

I would like to give the movie and its actors full credit here. This girl just locked an entire senior class and accompanying teachers in a high school gym and burned them alive and yet I totally buy her sympathetic victim act in the next scene. I feel bad for her. I want to comfort her. Though she doesn’t do a whole lot in the movie despite being the titular character, Sissy takes Carrie from crazy murderer to broken child in no time.

Credit also goes to Piper Laurie who plays crazy just a little too well for my comfort. Like Kathy Bates, I know it’s a part and it’s all acting, but I’ll always be slightly wary of her. I prefer not knowing much about why Mrs. White is so far in the deep end in the movie to the patchwork glimpses of her past in the book, as it lets the viewer wonder just what happened to her to turn her into this.

Her comforting Carrie and stabbing her in the back instead of facing off against her right away in a mutual murder attempt makes her just that much more evil and damaged, even though we lose much of her abuse and crazier behavior in the film. There is also much less about sexuality and sexual developement (although one need not be Freud to get the phallic symbolism in Mrs. White’s angry carrot-head chopping) in the film and Mrs. White’s fixation on it reaches less extreme levels. On another note, where did the prop guys come up with that Jesus? That thing was by far the most terrifying part of the movie.

Carrie and her mother do look very different from their descriptions in the book, but I like the red-haired Jezebel turned self-hating, raving militant version of Mrs. White and I felt having Carrie be overweight and pimpled and dowdy-garbed and praying publicly and socially inept and ignorant of basic mainstream culture was all just a little too much off the Reasons Popular Kids Don’t Like You checklist.

Whether due to budget constraints, time, lack of special effects capability, or moral discomfort, the movie has far less damage done. Sure, the whole prom dies, but the book makes that look like a child knocking down legos. Carrie’s rampage goes far beyond the school in the book and leaves Chamberlain a smoking, sizzling ruin of broken gas lines, live wires, raging fires, and busted fire hydrants.

Keeping the movie damage confined to the school makes Carrie’s final mental snap much more Mean Girls meets A Child Called It than Chronicle (which, now that I think of it, totally ripped off Carrie). Interestingly, the main character in Chronicle went murderous psychopath must faster and with far less sympathy or moral ambiguity. Maybe someone should write something about the differences between Carrie and Chronicle through the lens of the gender dynamics involved in bullying, school violence, and child abuse. I would read it.

Between the lessened damage and Carrie’s lack of matricidal intent on her return home in the film, Carrie is far more sympathetic and — despite mass murder — her actions are more understandable. She is lashing out on those who hurt her rather than everything in her way.

Similarly, the film is clearer that Sue’s intentions are good, whereas the book remains ambiguous. Sue even goes so far as to try to stop the prank once she discovers it, absolving her of any blame. The movie also makes Carrie’s election as prom queen the work of a few mean girls who rigged the voting instead of a plot that the whole senior class was in on. This change shifts the blame onto a few specific bad kids rather than the collective responsibility of an entire class caught up in the mob mentality. This is far more comforting and does not force the audience to confront their own guilt or complicity or ask themselves what they might have done (or have done).

THE CONTROVERSY: While the book was banned, I am not aware of any controversy surrounding the film. However, as stated above, this may be due to downplaying some of the more overt sexual aspects and simplifying much of the moral ambiguity. These changes could have been made for other reasons as some of them streamline the film or help focus it, but the shift from antagonistic collective to a few bad kids definitely reads as a pulled punch that washes our hands clean and puts the blood on Chris’s. After all, it’s much safer to scapegoat the archetypal mean girl with no characterization than address systemic societal failings or our own actions.

This is hardly new. Many a book’s ending has been softened or neutered in its transition to film. Just look at The Chocolate War, I Am Legend, or even The Time Machine. Despite our hunger for blood, gore, and horror at the movies, it seems we still want it sugar-coated.

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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Queen of the Banned | Bound and Gagged - October 31, 2013
  2. Another Year of Banned Books | Bound and Gagged - August 25, 2014

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