*This post contains spoilers for the book and film versions of Carrie.
In 1974, Stephen King and his publisher, Doubleday, released what has now become one of his most well-known works: Carrie. King’s first published novel, Carrie is an all-American horror story of teenage taunt and telekinesis.
The story follows Carrietta White – Carrie, for short. She lives in the relatively small town of Chamberlain, Maine where she attends high school and has been frequently bullied by her fellow students since the first grade. Carrie’s also bullied at home, by her ultra-religious mother Margaret, who often forces her into a closet full of Christian relics to pray for her sins.
The novel opens with Carrie experiencing her first period in the locker room of her high school after gym class. Her mother, believing that menstruation is a punishment for sin, has left Carrie completely clueless in terms of what to expect in the situation and how to handle herself. As a result, Carrie believes that she’s bleeding to death. Her classmates taunt her, throwing things and her and chanting “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
One of the classmates involved in this taunting is Sue Snell, who begins to feel guilty about how she has treated Carrie. Sue happens to be dating the school’s hot shot, Tommy Ross. She convinces him to invite Carrie to the prom as his date, in order to make up for how Sue has treated Carrie and to help her come out of her shell.
Carrie accepts, but not without suspicion. In the days leading up to prom, Carrie spends time discovering her own telekinetic powers and learning to control them, sewing her own beautiful prom dress and dealing with her mom, who disapproves of both Carrie’s telekinesis and the prom. Carrie stands up to her mother for the first time and says that she’ll go to the prom no matter what. Are things going to start looking up for her, finally?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Carrie makes it to the prom just fine and actually begins making a few friends there. But unbeknownst to just about everyone, Chris Hargensen, who was also involved in the bullying at the beginning of the novel, has hatched a plan to humiliate Carrie. All she needs is a couple of buckets of pig blood and for Carrie to end up on the stage at prom.
Carrie does end up on stage after winning the honor of prom queen alongside Tommy Ross, who is named king. Chris and her boyfriend Billy carry out the bloody plan, but it comes back to bite the whole town when Carrie reacts violently, using her telekinetic powers to permanently scar the entire Chamberlain community.
By the novel’s end, the entire town is destroyed. After trapping her fellow students in the school where all except the few who were lucky to escape quickly die in a fire, Carrie blows up a gas station, empties the fire hydrants so they can’t be used, and generally wreaks havoc wherever she goes. She kills her mother by using telekinesis to stop her heart. The town is left as a ghost town. Those who live through the chaos no longer want to stay anywhere near Chamberlain.
The extremity of Carrie’s actions gives the reader a choice to make in their own interpretation of the situation: was Carrie deliberately carrying out revenge, or was she simply reacting to the trauma that had been inflicted on her over the course of her entire life?
This book is a fantastic read for fans of the horror genre, and is my favorite book from King. It flips between description of the days leading up to the fateful prom, retrospective testimony from “survivors” of the destruction that Carrie caused and documents from the investigation into the case. Though Carrie is indeed a work of fiction, the use of these devices gives the book a decidedly non-fiction feel, drawing the reader in as though the events actually happened. This also gives the reader multiple perspectives from which to view the events, so they can make up their own mind as to whether Carrie’s violence was justified.
The reader gets a serious idea of just how terrible Carrie’s torment was, both at the hands of her mother and her classmates. King takes multiple pages to describe in detail how Carrie is treated in specific instances and how the actions of others have affected her.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel is also the ending. King decided to end the novel with an unrelated case of budding telekinesis. A woman in Tennessee is writing to a man in Georgia, telling him that his niece appears to be able to move things with her mind. Will she become another Carrie when she gets older?
Carrie was adapted into a film quite quickly, released in theaters in 1976. It was adapted for the screen by Lawrence D. Cohen and directed by Brian De Palma. The cast includes Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley and William Katt. Piper Laurie stars as Carrie’s mother, giving a fantastic performance even though she’s said to have believed that the film was a comedy due to her character being so over-the-top crazy.
And of course, we have Sissy Spacek as Carrie. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role, but Sissy almost didn’t get it. She was originally cast as tormentor Chris, but with encouragement from her husband was able to audition for the title role and eventually got it. It is true that she doesn’t fit King’s description of Carrie: a chubby girl with a lot of acne and very dark eyes. I usually mind a bit when the actor is so radically different from the book’s character description, but Spacek knocks this one out of the park and I’m very glad she ended up with the role.
Of course, being an adaptation, there were inevitable changes made from book to film for Carrie:
- Minor characters such as the principal of the school are given much less personality in the film than in the book.
- Chris’ stuffy lawyer father is eliminated completely, giving her character a bit less of a back story and eliminating the threat of a drawn out courtroom conflict.
- The viewer doesn’t get any of the retrospective accounts or testimonies that were included as mock documents in the novel.
- Ms. Collins, the gym teacher (known as Ms. Desjardin in the book), seems much more sympathetic to Carrie in the film than in the novel.
- The character of Tommy seems much less sincere and giggles entirely too much. (He also is not a published writer/secret smart guy, as he was in the novel).
- Sue shows up at the prom, whereas in the book she stays in her home until noticing the fire blazing at the school out of her window.
- Margaret White’s death is different, though I actually liked this change a lot, because she ends up mirroring one of her many religious relics.
- The town doesn’t end up deserted, and the unrelated case of telekinesis is left out at the end.
Most of these changes worked out just fine, but here were a few that I did take issue with. For one, the viewer doesn’t get as much of an idea of Carrie’s inner conflict over whether to go to the prom or stay at home with her controlling mother, which I found to be an important part of the book. It emphasized just how scarred Carrie was by her mother’s religious fanaticism and how desperately she wanted to avoid angering her mother.
The change that I had the biggest problem with was the exclusion of a flashback in which Carrie made rocks rain down on the house after being scolded by her mother for seeing a neighbor wear a bathing suit. This scene not only emphasized, again, Margaret’s control over Carrie, but also gave a powerful example of how violently Carrie could react with telekinesis when under pressure. Carrie also mentions this scenario later in the book, telling her mother that she’ll make the rocks come again if she doesn’t get to go to prom. The filmmakers decided to exclude this scene after testing it and finding that they couldn’t get the effect they wanted, which is certainly understandable, but I was still disappointed because I would have loved to see that scene play out on screen.
Overall, the 1976 film adaptation of Carrie does capture the general mood and plot of King’s original work. Quite a few changes were made, but there is enough similarity between the two versions that the message of the story is still recognizable and intact. The film isn’t quite as disturbing as the book and does border on the land of silliness a few times, but it’s still a great watch, worth the viewer’s time for the performances of Spacek and Laurie alone.