At the tender age of 11, I picked up the Signet paperback of Stephen King's first novel Carrie and burned through it (pun intended) with captivated dread, possessing only a peripheral idea of teenage cruelty.
Shortly thereafter, I picked up the VHS tape (remember those?) of the 1976 version of Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma. Its uneven tone was distracting. The lilting, bright soundtrack during the scene in which the cast prepares for prom, or the sequence in which Carrie's gym class goofily speeds through push-ups contrasted startlingly with the terrifying scenes in the White's house.
De Palma's penchant for dual focus is disconcerting at first, since it isn't the way our eyes actually work. It took film school for me to realize De Palma is a perpetual Hitchcock mime, and that, as such, his films insist upon the male gaze. Something about a book written by a man about a woman, then made into a film by a man, rubbed me the wrong way.
When I heard Kimberly Peirce, the woman behind Boys Don't Cry (a movie I cannot watch anymore because I will dissolve into a despondent puddle), was remaking Carrie, I tentatively rejoiced. In the hands of a talented female director, with a cast including up-and-coming badass Chloe Grace Moretz and established badass Julianne Moore, what could go wrong?
Unfortunately, a lot went wrong. King published his novel, of which he later said “In retrospect, it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom,” in 1974. This was a decade before I was born, and a full two decades before the internet became widely available to Americans. It was nearly three decades before cyberbullying floated to the surface, baring its bloated, monstrous face as one of the horrid ways teenagers (and adults, let’s not forget the adults) torture each other through adolescence.
In updating the subject matter, Peirce dug a number of gaping holes into which her story tumbled. The new Carrie doesn't rely on the male gaze, certainly. There's no lingering focus on sexy teenagers being sexy, and the relationships between women are more dynamic and nuanced. Though its heart is in the right place, its halfhearted attempts to update the material does it no favors.
Here, let me count the ways.
Peirce cherry-picked her favorite aspects of the book and the De Palma movie, which are miles apart in tone and fine details. The result is a weird mash-up of King's town (Chamberlain, Maine), high school (Ewen), character names (unlike De Palma, Peirce didn't shy away from the pronunciation of Desjardin, the PE teacher played by Judy Greer), and set pieces, all combined with De Palma's strange tone. Peirce redid the goofy prepping-for-prom scene, and it feels false and incorrect next to the rest of her film.
Likewise, for Margaret's demise she chose to use the more dramatic crucifixion method, devised by De Palma (see also #3 below).
De Palma's movie failed to tell the whole tale; in King's novel, Carrie effectively demolished a town. Part of the novel is told through newspaper and magazine articles, firsthand accounts from survivors, and court documents. Carrie didn't stop her destruction at the prom: all of Chamberlain was destroyed.
Peirce could have used King's brilliant narrative method to tell the story of a ghost town with social media, and through internet news outlets like PolicyMic, ONTD, and HuffPo. Jezebel would've been ALL OVER THIS.
We're supposed to feel genuinely sorry for Carrie White, the persecuted main character. In Peirce's version, Carrie is practically a bully herself.
In King's novel and in the De Palma version, Carrie's powers do not reach full volume until prom, and even then she doesn't seem fully aware of what she's doing. In Peirce's version, Carrie exercises her powers thoroughly (mostly on Margaret), understands them, is even proud of them.
And when the blood flies, Moretz and Peirce have Carrie conduct an orchestra of death. Her movements are deliberate, her murders entirely purposeful. It's intensely difficult to pity this version of Carrie.
In 2013, I don't think the filmmakers could have avoided social media issues in a tale about bullying. But, while it was probably necessary, the cyberbullying aspect feels contrived and last-minute. It adds another dimension to Carrie's rage, absolutely, but there's little focus on the whys, hows, and purely banal evil of teenagers on social media. If she'd had the budget and the right screenwriter, Reddit and Anonymous would surely have factored into the cyberbullying storyline. Crowd-sourcing the news is the millennial way, and Peirce could have made better use of it.
Peirce's sensibility toward the bullied and people in abusive relationships is far more nuanced than De Palma's. At the prom, Peirce gives Carrie a heartbreaking moment to mourn the only person who's ever truly been kind to her. And afterward, mirroring the book, she has Carrie bestow forgiveness upon one of her tormentors.
In King's novel, the relationship between Carrie and Margaret is based on more than fear: there's awe, adoration, terror, and simple love between the two women. In De Palma's version of the film, Carrie is a cowed young girl living with a monster, but in Peirce's version, Moore and Moretz sustain a chemistry that shifts the power dynamic between them and depicts a strange, abusive kind of love.
Speaking of which, Moore and Moretz perform beautifully. Piper Laurie is hard to beat as Margaret White, but Moore has given her a run for her money.
Moretz's role choices until now have largely hinged on a bit of overacting, scenery-chewing (think of her as Hit-Girl), and shock value. In Carrie, this gorgeous young woman with bee-stung lips and exuberant features curls into herself, slouches along corridors so as to remain unnoticed. She widens her eyes, surprised anyone should acknowledge her. Moretz transformed herself into a tortured young woman, and she deserves a hand.
Peirce's variation allowed for more gore and more revenge scenes. Carrie's showdown with Chris Hargenson is horrendous and awesome. It hardly felt appropriate for Chris and Billy to die in a generic explosion, partly off-screen, in the De Palma version.
The use of electric bleachers (which are rightly terrifying and were also put to great use in The Faculty) is ingenious. (Yes, while I'm saying that Carrie's final prom scene is too choreographed, too gleeful, and doesn't allow pity for her, I thoroughly enjoyed the creative ways her enemies died.
I am, like King's Carrie, a woman of many facets.