I was going to get into my Asian horror today but I still have another couple of movies I want to watch tomorrow. I figured I’ll save that for tomorrow and write today about Carrie. Both Carries. There are a lot of Carries.
I was also going to watch more for my adaptations but I just haven’t had time to read anything else! So Carrie is covering my adaptations bit.
If you missed it Sunday, Matthew and I had our fourth hangout. We’ll be doing one more this coming Sunday to recap this week and wrap things up. Join us! We’ll post the time and link on twitter so make sure to follow me @theladysrevenge and Matthew @mrbowers there.
Matthew’s still posting over at Veryaware.com and this week writes about V/H/S and V/H/S/2. I posted about V/H/S/2 the other day and I don’t think either one of us is particularly fond of these movies.
Our original plan was to include a weekend focused on film adaptations of horror novels. I had wanted to include a couple of different films so I could talk about the idea and art of adapting other mediums to film. But, you know, time. Instead I’m going to keep this a little simpler and just focus on this one novel, Stephen King’s Carrie. First adapted by Brian De Palma in 1976, it’s just been given a makeover by Kimberly Pierce and this new version is out in theaters now. Up to you if you want to see it though, not sure I can really recommend it.
How do these two films differ? How are they the same? And how do they treat the source material? Let’s discuss.
Carrie, 1976. Dir Brian De Palma, Written by Lawrence D. Cohen. Starring Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving.
Carrie, 2013. Dir Kimberly Pierce, Written by Lawrence D. Cohen, Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa. Starring Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabrielle Wilde.
When we’re talking about adaptations, there are a few different things we can consider. There’s always the question of fidelity, how closely does the adaptation follow the source material? What is condensed, what is left out, what is expanded? There’s more than just fidelity to plot though, there’s the question of theme, message, aesthetic. Does the film capture the spirit of the source? Does it matter if it does? Or doesn’t?
Different people feel differently of course. Fans can get pretty worked up when they feel a film hasn’t done a beloved work justice. Conversely, changes in the adaption can create a new, sometimes better, work. A classic example in the horror genre is of course The Shining. Kubrick’s version takes great liberties with King’s novel, creating a film that is it’s own thing. King famously hates Kubrick’s vision but critics and cinephiles (myself included) love the film in its own right. An argument could be made that it fails as an adaption but succeeds as a brilliant film.
This gets more complicated if we get into the question of whether or not a filmmaker has an obligation or responsibility of fidelity to the source material. Is fidelity the sole standard an adapted work should be judged by? I don’t think so but again, different people have different opinions.
But let’s talk about Carrie.
I’ve read a lot of Stephen King’s work over the years, A LOT, but somehow Carrie never made it to my Read list. Even though I own more than one copy of it. Oops. So for this month, with the new film being released, it seemed like a great time to finally give it a read. Mostly I enjoyed it, there are a few things I didn’t love but overall I feel like King manages to tell a sad story of a bullied girl, with shades of horror as much related to the cruelty of teenage bullies as it is to the strange powers Carrie possessed.
My biggest disappointed in the written work is that I feel like we’re never really fully immersed in Carrie’s world. I don’t always love King’s work, but I do love how he gets us into the character’s head, how he makes us feel like we’re in this fully realized internal as well as external world. The structure of Carrie is a mix of his normal narrative style and a device of using “news articles” and “interviews” to explain the events of the Black Prom, as it’s called. I don’t hate it but I did feel like this creates an emotional distance between the reader and the characters.
I’m glad then that both films chose to lose that aspect of the novel and focus the narrative on a linear telling of the plot.
I love the original adaptation of Carrie. Brian De Palma and Sissy Spacek give us a Carrie that I find to be the most relatable of the bunch. She’s a little pathetic, shy, sweet, soft spoke, creepy, and her final act of destruction feels like the natural conclusion to the series of events that build to it. As an adaptation I feel like it works rather well. There are quite a few changes but all serve to bring the spirit of the novel to the film.
I’m honestly more interested in writing about this most recent remake of that adaptation though. Yes, I say remake. Kimberly Pierce’s effort is not a separate adaption, it is not its own reinterpretation. The film didn’t work for me and this is mostly the reason why.
When I heard they were going to make another Carrie, I didn’t love the idea but I didn’t hate it either. We all know how I feel about remakes, but I tend to have more of an open mind when it comes to making a new adaptation of an existing work. By the nature of creating an adaptation, changes are necessarily made. Every filmmaker is going to have a different idea of how to adapt a work. In theory, two films from the same source material can be wildly different and both have the potential to be good films. How many different times have stories like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, even Stephen King’s The Shining, been made? There’s no reason a new adaptation of a work that’s been adapted before can’t stand on its own.
Why then does this Carrie choose to not only readapt this novel, but to remake the original film as well? Honestly, I have no idea.
I cannot for the life of me tell you what this movie is trying to do.
In some ways it stays closer to Stephen King’s story, it opens for example with Carrie’s birth and we see in grisly detail how Margaret White brings her daughter into the world. It’s a scene right out of the novel but missing from Brian De Palma’s adaptation. Another detail it follows are Margaret White’s job, instead of a traveling evangelical, she works at a dry cleaner as a seamstress. Not exactly how King describes it, but close enough for a modern telling. Her extremism is taken to a new level, but it fits more with the vision of Margaret White King creates. This Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan are also definitely more King’s than De Palma’s.
In other ways though, it follows the 1976 film incredibly closely. It opens with a volleyball game (inexplicably in a pool but otherwise more or less the same as the first film), Miss Desjardin’s relationship with Carrie follows the same beats (and uses the same dialogue?), Sue Snell’s presence at the prom…
Then it occasionally tries to do its own thing but most of these changes are simply to update it from the 1970’s to 2013. Like the kids have smart phones and post nasty videos to youtube. The bullying isn’t just in the locker room, it’s gone cyber. Likewise, Carrie researches telekinesis on Google rather than in the card catalog.
I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with the approach, people are as familiar with the 1976 film as they are with the novel. Heck, until this month even I hadn’t read the novel and only had the film to go on. I can understand then the impulse to keep familiar elements that audiences will recognize and relate to. The problem is, it doesn’t work.
Instead of being either a remake or an adaptation, this Carrie doesn’t know what it is. Is it a story about the horror of female puberty? Or the horror of femaleness in general? The idea of woman as “other” to a male standard? Or what about the horror of birth? All of these bits and pieces are there but they never coalesce into any sort of coherent point of view. What is this movie saying? Heck if I know.
Honestly I hated the decision to include so much of the original film. It worked for Brian De Palma in 1976 for a film set in the same time period. For a film produced and set in 2013, so much of it feels anachronistic. Watching these modern characters say and do nearly the exact same as their 1970’s counterparts is just bizarre. The token nods to modernity just make the disconnect more apparent. Updating a story from the 70’s to the present day requires more than just throwing in a couple of cell phones.
The result is a series of scenes, especially apparent in the first act, where kids are running through their lines with no emotional impact. It’s not that the acting is bad, when they’re not dealing with stilted dialogue, all of these actors are quite capable in their roles. It’s just that kids don’t speak the same way they did three or four or even two decades ago. Maybe even more so on film than in real life, kids are just different than they were. And as viewers of endless teen comedies and dramas and horror films, we have certain expectations for modern visions of high school.
This Carrie is just lacking the emotional weight and resonance of the first film. Even though so much of it is the same, it doesn’t feel the same. It feels stilted, forced, and empty.
I also did not love the decision to cast Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie. I may be alone in this opinion, I haven’t heard what others are saying but it seems like her performance is being generally praised. She is good, again her acting is not the problem. The problem is she’s too cute. She’s too self possessed. I can just never buy her as an awkward, abused teenager with deep self-esteem issues. An affected slouch and hair in her face never conveys the same vulnerability of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. Or the Carrie of Stephen King’s novel.
The biggest change though in Kimberly Pierce’s film, from both Brian De Palma and Stephen King, is in the ending. Brian De Palma toned down and condensed Stephen King’s ending for the first film. Here, it’s toned down again. It’s oddly more violent and yet has less impact. I don’t want to spoil things but there’s a very odd decision made in how the outcome of the prank at prom plays out. It’s not just the pig’s blood here. There are other, nastier, additions. Yet the consequences are less.
If Stephen King was unhappy with Stanley Kubrick for the changes he made to The Shining, I wonder then how he feels about this newest film. Because if anything can change the meaning and spirit of a story, the changes to the ending of this film certainly did. King has said that his Carrie was for the bullied girls of his youth, the pathetic creatures so misused by their classmates that they didn’t make it through adolescents. The 1976 film moves away from that, moves more towards Margaret White’s religious madness. This film goes even further in that direction. I suppose if I can identify anything that this film is about (and that’s a hard thing to do), it’s about the conflict between this mother and daughter. Between Margaret’s zealotry and Carrie’s desire to be a whole person.
I wanted to like this movie. I was keeping an open mind because there was certainly plenty of room to do something new and different with the source material. And I’m sure there are things to like about this movie, I’m sure there are people who like it more than I do. It’s not even that I hate it, on a technical level it’s fine, the acting is good, sometimes spectacular, it has it’s own visual style.
What it comes down to though is that I just don’t get it. I don’t understand what this movie was trying to do or say. I don’t understand why it chooses to stay faithful to the novel in some places, faithful to the earlier film in others, somehow never choosing its own path. The spirit of Carrie is there, somewhere, I know I saw glimpses. I’m just not sure where she went in the end.