Oh the Prom. A quintessential rite of passage for many a high school teenager. Leave it up to the mind of Stephen King to take this classic high school experience and turn it right on its head. Today marks the 41st anniversary of Brian De Palma’s film adaptation of Carrie first hitting American theaters. A film that has forever embedded itself in the popular mainstream consciousness, today is the perfect day to discuss not just this iconic horror film, but also the source material itself.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Stephen King wasn’t well, Stephen King. The Master of Horror Fiction, an icon of the genre and a giant in popular literary culture. However, everybody has to start somewhere and Carrie was Stephen King’s real starting point. Combining several snippets, observations and people that King had encountered in his past, he combined them all into the story and character we now know as Carrie. Not uncommon for anybody embarking on a new journey, King doubted his initial writings and threw the very beginnings of Carrie in the trash. In his book On Writing King says:
“I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell, so I threw it away. After all, who wanted to read a book about a poor girl with menstrual problems?”
Famously, his wife Tabitha rescued the pages. She convinced King to finish telling Carrie‘s story and offered assistance and help writing from a woman’s perspective. Her belief and insights proved worthwhile and Carrie was published on April 5, 1974. Initially the response to Carrie was mild with the hardback selling a meager 13,000 copies. A year later the paperback was published, and that’s where Carrie really took off. That year the book sold over a million copies.
Due to the book’s popularity and unique voice, it was not a surprise that a film adaptation was soon in the works. A screenplay was written by Lawrence D. Cohen and Brian De Palma (Sisters, Scarface, Raising Cain) was taken on board as director. While this was obviously the first Stephen King work that Cohen adapted to the big screen, it was certainly not his last. He would later go on to write film adaptations for other King works such as the original It, The Tommyknockers and ‘The End of the Whole Mess’ from Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Released on November 3, 1976 in the US, Carrie was a huge success. With a budget of $1,800,000 the film ended up making $33,800,000 by the end of its theatrical run. Not too shabby. Perspective is also important here. This was before Halloween. Before Alien. Before Star Wars! Before teen-centric horror movies dominated movie screens. Carrie was groundbreaking and it was relate-able. Perhaps that what was so terrifying about it, and what still resonates with audiences today.
When it came to casting, Sissy Spacek was cast in the lead as the one and only Carrie. Here is the first real departure from the book, but one that the film does better. Described by King as “a chunky girl with pimples…her wet hair completely without color.” This description doesn’t quite match up to the young Spacek in the film, but Spacek more than fills Carrie‘s shoes in terms of innocence, naivete, and personality. Piper Laurie, an extremely accomplished TV actress at the time, was cast as Carrie‘s mom Margaret. Laurie did a spot on performance as the overpowering and religiously zealous Mrs. White. Her portrayal in the film does an incredible job mirroring King’s description of her.
While these two main characters do King’s characters justice, there are a few that seem to fall short when compared to the original source material. The first one being Amy Irving as the altruistic popular girl Sue Snell. In the film, it’s hard to tell if Sue‘s motives are really pure in having her boyfriend Tommy escort Carrie to the prom. Her need for redemption and guilt for humiliating Carrie in the infamous shower scene are discussed, but it’s honestly hard to decipher if she really means it or not. However, in the book, Sue‘s character is much larger and developed. A popular girl struggling with what that means, Sue contemplates her future and her apparent place in society. King does a remarkably good job at describing the inner struggle that Sue goes through. For example, in one passage Sue is examining her behavior in the locker room. Here is a snippet of that inner dialogue:
The word she was avoiding was expressed ‘To Conform,’ in the infinitive, and it conjured up miserable images of hair in rollers, long afternoons in front of the ironing board in front of the soap operas while hubby was off busting heavies in an anonymous Office; of joining the PTA and then the country club when their income moved to five figures, of pills in circular yellow cases without number to insure against having to move out of misses’ sizes before it became absolutely necessary…
She looks at her locker room behavior in a way that is much larger than simply bad behavior. She examines her life, her relationship with Tommy and herself in a way that is never really addressed in the film. Later on in the novel, she also plays a larger role and it’s a shame that this character wasn’t given more depth in the film. While there is no question in the book about Sue‘s motives, this isn’t quite as clear on film.
Another character that is represented a bit differently (and maybe not for the better) in the film is that of John Travolta’s character Billy Nolan. Described by King in the book as never smiling, tough, rough around the edges and a true bad boy in every sense of the word. This depiction is literally thrown out the window in Travolta’s very first scene as Billy. He enters his first scene smiling at Chris while driving irresponsibly. The softening of Billy‘s character makes it a little harder to believe when it comes time for him to help bad girl Chris in her cruel plan. One thing that is portrayed convincingly though is Chris and Billy‘s dysfunctional relationship. That is plain as day.
Let’s talk about the ending. Now, there will be spoilers here so if you haven’t seen Carrie, or haven’t read the book and want to keep it a surprise, tread lightly here. Ok…you’ve been warned.
So much of the movie builds to that all important prom scene. And honestly, the film does a really remarkable job. The split screen showing Carrie‘s eyes and intense rage after being doused in pigs blood coupled with the devastation she is causing is truly something. The scene plays out almost verbatim to the book, but it’s what happens after the gym is destroyed where the differences lie. In the film version, Carrie wanders home, dealing with Chris and Billy on the way. (Interesting sidenote, Chris is driving in the film. Billy in the book) Carrie arrives home shaken, distraught and bathes attempting to cleanse the awful night from her. Only after does she have the final confrontation with her mother, her power and despair reaching their final climax with both being destroyed in the process.
Ok, so the book. After Carrie leaves the gym her rage and emotions continue to build. She doesn’t simply stop with the prom kids or Billy and Chris. The whole town is to pay for the years of torment and humiliation that they have forced Carrie to suffer. Gas stations are set ablaze, fire hydrants destroyed, gas mains ignited. No one is safe from Carrie and her wrath. There is no sympathy. There is no remorse. Carrie has snapped, she’s fully utilizing her telepathic abilities and there is no going back from here. She heads home intent on killing her mother and it’s no accident or self defense when it finally happens. She is injured in the showdown with her mother, and this ultimately leads to her demise, in a field, alone. The town never really recovers, hundreds are lost on that fateful night. Carrie and her abilities are not forgotten. The exact opposite; they are researched, investigated and documented. Throughout the book King inserts snippets from these “after reports” and by the end they add an interesting layer to the story. While the film offers a satisfactory end to Carrie‘s story, it would be awesome to see the full story played out on screen.
There are other minor differences between the book and the film, as there is likely to be. However, most seem mild or simply make sense why they were changed or omitted. The great part about the two being just different enough, is that both really stand alone as great works. King’s book is a quick, interesting and well written read. His insights (or perhaps his and Tabitha’s) into the minds of teenagers is really quite shocking and come across as genuine and believable. De Palma’s version of Carrie is hands down one of the greatest horror movies ever made. While some would argue the beginning to be a bit drawn out, the end makes it all worthwhile. That prom scene! There’s a reason why this film has stood the test of time and continues to this day to maintain a place in the pop culture mainstream. 41 years later and Carrie‘s story is still relevant, still fascinating and still terrifying.