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CARRIE Doesn’t Work in the Age of #MeToo

Because I hate to waste anything whatsoever, to go along with the newly launched Drunk on Writing Stephen King Dissections series (patent pending), every other week I’ll be posting the “script” to each video. Modified, of course, and not really a script, but hey, it’s a thing.

Today’s write-up is for Stephen King’s debut novel, the 1974 Carrie.


Before we get to it, if you want to watch the video instead, you can do so here or the video embedded below. Feel free to subscribe to the YouTube channel so you can follow along as well.

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So, let’s talk Carrie, shall we?

THE PLOT


Carrie is a simple story, especially to Stephen King standards, as he’s become known for his complex character studies, elaborate plotlines and often baffling endings. Even compared to his very next novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, Carrie almost seems like it comes from a completely different writer.

It simply follows the titular Carrie White from an horrific bullying episode to her recovery and the ripple effects of that bullying on the other kids in the school. Sure, there’s the complexities of Carrie’s relationship with her zealot mother, Margaret White, as well as those of the other high schoolers, but the plot is, again, especially compared to King’s later work, fairly A to B to C to D.
  • A. Carrie is bullied when she has her first period in the girl’s locker room and doesn’t even know what it is.
  • B. Carrie tries to recover while the girls who bullied her are punished, which pisses off one particular student, Chris, who vows revenge.
  • C. Chris’ revenge plays out at the prom, where she, with the help of her pseudo boyfriend, drops a bucket of blood over Carrie and her date.
  • D. Carrie then gets her revenge.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, as the story unfolds through three separate viewpoints and a swathe of supporting material, which is why it was this particular book launched King’s career.

Keep in mind, King wrote a few books before Carrie that weren’t initially published, including what would eventually be the Richard Bachman book, Blaze, released in 2007. But we’ll get to that, and Bachman, another day.

THE BEER


Because right now I want to step back to the story’s climax: the prom. Everything builds to that moment Carrie stands on stage, triumphant to accept her place as prom queen only to then get drenched in pig’s blood. And kill everyone around her.

Which is why when considering a beer pairing for today, I went with Dogfish Head’s FLESH & BLOOD, an Indian Pale Ale (aka, an IPA) brewed with, as Dogfish Head puts it, “mouth-puckering lemon flesh, sweet orange peel and blood orange juice.”

Funny thing about this beer, it doesn’t taste like an IPA. Its 7.5 ABV is perfectly hidden. It doesn’t even look like an IPA, pouring a deep amber. It’s fruity, light, almost tart. But the hops are there, if you’re paying attention, especially if you suck up its tangy aroma. What will stay with you though, is the blood orange, its sour bite, its lemon zest.

I like it, and I’ve unfortunately finished the six-pack I picked up. Which makes me a wee sad. Something I could never quite say about Carrie.

THE BOOK


When I started reading the book—and for full disclosure, my copy happened to be from a 1984 hardcover collection—one thing I noticed immediately off the bat was the novel’s formatting.

Carrie is told in one part through the ongoing narrative, but that is broken by alternating news snippets, interviews and book excerpts that provide further detail and background information. All that separates one section from another is a line, which I don’t think it was specific to this edition, though I wish I had an original hardcover to compare to.

Still, I kept thinking the one-line breaks were a little jarring, and not in a good way.

Given how many there were, maybe making each piece of news or faux book excerpt its own chapter would have seemed a bit much, like too much padding, which is likely why the 1976 film adaptation largely ignored them.

But, the film did use some interesting formatting in its climax, when it went split screen for several minutes to highlight the devastation.

Honestly, to use a common King parlance, I didn’t dig any of it.

Speaking of which, almost every single Stephen King stylistic trapping is on display in his first novel. We’ve got not just the “dig it,” but parenthetical asides, the use of Bob Dylan quotes, the use of children and teens as protagonists, and, most especially, some of the best foreshadowing in the business—most, but not all, of which came through those articles and excerpts.

Like,

“And now there’s this other thing. No one can laugh that off, either. Too many people are dead.”

And

“In the case of Carrie White, the only witness to any possible prologue to the final climatic events was Margaret White, and she, of course is dead…”

And, finally, one that really hit me,

“In the wake of two hundred deaths and the destruction of an entire town, it is so easy to forget one thing: We were kids. We were kids. We were kids trying to do our best…”

Though not every piece of foreshadowing captured the perfect nuance of subtlety, such as this from the very first page:

“What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic.”

One King staple was missing from the book though: his signature at the very end, along with the date he completed the book. He’s been doing that for a while now, but apparently he didn’t start the practice with Carrie.

Or, again, maybe it’s just this version of the book. If anyone has a copy of the original edition, I’d love to hear what’s going on in there.

What we do get at the end, though, is something of an aside—something that, to me, seems very much attributable to King himself, despite the fact it’s written as part of the narrative.

“This little book is done now. I hope it sells well so I can go someplace where nobody knows me. I want to think things over, decide what I’m going to do between now and the time when my light is carried down that long tunnel into blackness…”

Obviously, King would go on to write more books—which is pretty good for me, given I’m planning on covering all of them here. And Carrie offers a ton of connections to what would come later, even if they’re not all explicitly inserted as such.

THE FILM


Carrie had an initial hardcover print run of 30,000 copies—only 13,000 or so of which sold. But when the paperback was released a year later, over a million copies sold in its first year. Making King not just a rich man, but an almost immediate star.

To cash-in on the story’s popularity, as I’ve mentioned, a film adaptation—the first, but certainly not the last, adaptation of a Stephen King story—was quickly put into production and released just a year after the paperback hit shelves.

Now, if you haven’t seen the original Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma, I’d recommend you give it a look. One warning, though: 1976 was a very different era of film compared to the present.

Case in point, the film starts in a girl’s high school locker room and features multiple examples of full frontal nudity. And what looks to be an almost orgasmicly steamy shower.

Which was very weird and, if I’m being honest, a little more than uncomfortable in today’s atmosphere. Especially with De Palma’s history of sexual harassment allegations.

Still, the novel opened in the same way, so you could say the film was being truthful to King’s story. Except it deviates quite a bit from then on out.

For instance, Carrie herself. In the novel, King describes her as:

“…a frog among swans. She was a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color.”

That’s not quite what we get in Sissy Spacek, who played Carrie. And the same goes for her mom, described by King as:

“Momma was a very big woman, and she always wore a hat. Lately her legs had begun to well, and her feet always seemed on the point of overflowing her shoes…. Her eyes were blue and magnified behind rimless bifocals.”

And, as played by Piper Laurie, quite different.

Other characters physically correspond to the book, but then get other things changed. Like Carrie’s teacher, Miss Desjardin, there from the very start to the very end, who gets her name changed to Miss Collins for the adaptation—maybe just for simplicity’s sake.

We also get an aside that Carrie’s dad ran away with another woman instead of getting killed in what may have been a guilt-laden suicide. Oh, and there’s even a no-show for Chris’ father, a prominent lawyer that drives a small portion of the novel but is barely even name-dropped in the film.

There’re more important differences as well. For instance, Chris plays a more active role in the prom massacre, as she helps Billy—played by a newly introduced John Travolta of all people—both slaughter the pigs and hang the bucket—just one bucket, notably—above the prom stage.

Billy is also not nearly as horrible as he is in the book, where he comes across as almost demented, almost devilish in his cruelty. Though he still slaps Chris around a bit in the film. In fact, there was a lot of slapping going on in this movie, without seemingly any comeuppance. Was that just a thing people did in the seventies?

Back to the prom night, events unfolded surprisingly differently than in King’s novel.

One, Carrie isn’t wearing a red dress. She’s wearing a pink one. Which may have been a production change to accentuate the eventual massacre, but takes away from the inherent symbolism—the scarlet letter, the whore of Babylon, even the association with blood.

Two, the ballots are tampered with. In the novel, it legitimately seems as though Carrie and her date Tommy win King and Queen, and Billy even says at one point he doesn’t care who he drops the pig blood on.

Three, Sue actually comes to the prom. Not only that, she sees the bucket and tries to stop it. Only for Miss Collins to drag her out, presumably thinking Sue might be trying to sabotage Carrie.

And then there’s the big one. Carrie herself. In the novel, Carrie is so mortified and humiliated by the stunt that she runs out of the gym to echoing, nervous laughter. Then she goes a little nuts and comes back.

But in the movie, she cracks almost immediately. There’s no thought to it. It’s just instinct. Carrie stays right there on stage and bears witness to every act of cruelty and horror that unfolds—all of which is intentional, whereas in the novel she had originally intended just to ruin the girls’ prom dresses.

She didn’t even, at least initially, mean to kill them.

One part those who’ve only seen the adaptation may have missed is that the Carrie of King’s book also decimates the town after leaving the school—something absent from the film. Which I assume largely is due to the budget. I imagine it’d be expensive to blow up a town.

Oh, and can we talk a moment about the film’s ending? In King’s novel, Carrie dies from a grievous wound inflicted by her mother. In the film… does Carrie send herself to hell? Did the devil do it, is that supposed to be the takeaway?

Regardless, it’s far more open-ended than the book, and possibly one of the reasons it’s considered one of, if not the, best Stephen King adaptation. Personally, I thought it was fine, if not a product of its time. My wife hated it and said all the locker room stuff was utter male fantasy. But we didn’t grow up in the seventies. For those of you who did, was that normal?

Of course, the 1976 De Palma film wasn’t Carrie’s last adaptation. There was also a Broadway musical version that debuted in 1988, a 1999 sequel called The Rage, a 2002 made-of-TV movie, and a 2013 remake starring Chloë Grace Moretz. Which earned a modest $85 million and a Rotten Tomato score of 49%.

With that kind of “success,” is the world still open to a story like Carrie?

CLOSING NOTES


Would Carrie be a book that’d publish today? Is it something that’d even be written?

We obviously live in a very different political environment than King did in 1974—what would modern readers, those that devoured Twilight and Harry Potter, what would they think of a brand new author—a brand new male author at that—writing a book that starts off with a teenage girl getting her first period? Which then dovetails into a rather horrid and traumatic scene of some of the worst bullying possible and culminates in the spiteful, revenge-fueled murder of over 400 people, including almost the local high school’s entire senior class?

If you think nothing of that, maybe I should remind you we’re in a post-Columbine era, a post-Newtown era, a post-Mandalay Bay era. So just replace Carrie’s telepathic abilities with a machine gun and you might catch what I’m laying down.

As a reader, as an author, knowing what I know now, would I want to read this if it were a brand new release? Would I want to write it? Hey, maybe I would—maybe it’d help me cope with all the hell we’ve been through, that we continue to put ourselves through.

Next time: ‘Salem’s Lot.


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Have any thoughts on this, or on CARRIE itself? Leave a comment below!

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