Almost every one of Stephen King’s books has been put to film, with some standout hits (Misery, The Shawshank Redemption) and some embarrassing failures (The Dark Tower, Maximum Overdrive). But it all started with Carrie – King’s first major published novel and first film adaptation. It’s disappointing to see, then, that Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) really hasn’t held up. Due to inexplicable narrative decisions, inconsistent style, and the abandonment of key sections of the novel, the film just doesn’t hold a candle to King’s original.
A Missing Link
The single most important thing missing from De Palma’s film is the use of “future perspectives”. To explain: In the novel, the main narrative – the one resulting in the bloody prom night – is interspersed with fictional interviews, book snippets, and investigational transcripts that were written after the horror that Carrie White unleashes on her classmates, and discuss the events that led to that moment. These retrospective perspectives are crucial. For one, they tease snippets of information that have yet to occur in the main narrative, drawing out tension and making the eventual cataclysm feel far more devastating. They also add a new discussion – we learn how Carrie’s rampage (leading to the discovery of telekinesis) will affect the Western world, and how the U.S. government’s refusal to deal with the phenomenon might lead to these terrible circumstances repeating themselves. These perspectives also match wonderfully with the actual narrative; the reader sees how future scholars will discuss the roles of the students involved in Carrie’s humiliation and how that contrasts with their inner thoughts on the page, creating intricate characterisation that De Palma’s film doesn’t come close to.
That’s the key issue. Without these contrasting perspectives, we have only the main narrative to perceive events through, making Carrie (1976) feel like Grease welded to a horror film. The narrative choices made are sometimes baffling, even for a talented director like Brian De Palma. The film is just over ninety minutes long. Was a tuxedo montage really necessary, when many key scenes of character development were dropped from the book? An extra half hour would’ve done wonders for making the students, and student life, feel believable when they otherwise feel like stereotypes pulled from a teen movie. It’s not all bad, as a lot of the original dialogue is preserved and works well, including some new and compelling scenes. Donaggio’s score is often fantastic, and the shot composition and camera work are sometimes very effective, leading to some great moments. However, this goodwill is sapped by the film’s ending.
My Only Friend, The End
Carrie features one of Stephen King’s best endings to date. As the main narrative ends, the reader is barraged with a series of future perspectives that reveal that the world has learned nothing from the destruction caused by our titular antiheroine, and further telekinetic disasters are likely imminent – the literary equivalent of a punch to the gut. By contrast, De Palma’s film is surprisingly muted in its conclusion, with almost none of the devastation appearing to have affected the town. Whether for budget reasons or due to directorial choices, the ending of Carrie (1976) feels especially disappointing. The last thing Carrie needs is yet another remake, but it’s sad to see that there’ll likely never be an adaptation that preserves the precise things that elevated Stephen King’s book. For now, we’ll have to make do with De Palma’s efforts.
Image: pinguino k via Flickr
Image is a photograph of Stephen King