King's Highway pt. 71: Carrie

Stephen King gives a pretty detailed account of how Carrie came into existence in On Writing, but I first read the description of  its conception in George Beahm's The Stephen King Companion. I read that for the first time in 1987. King was well on my radar by that point, hence my getting a copy of The SK Companion for Christmas that year. Carrie was one of those films in heavy circulation at sleep-overs or parties or what not, but I somehow avoided seeing it until I was seventeen.

I didn't read the book until just last week.

Anyway, the first time I learned what this one was about was from the aforementioned Companion. Here's its description, as accompanied by some images from the movie:      

“As Holden Caulfied in Catcher in the Rye tries desperately to become part of the world around him and it refuses him, so Carietta White longs to become part of the in crowd, but can't.
“Alienated at home by her mother, Margaret White, a fundamentalist Christian...
“and alienated at school by her peers,
“Carrie is finally befriended by Susan Snell, who takes pity on her.
“Snell asks her boyfriend Tommy, on whom Carrie has a crush, to take Carrie to the prom.

“He agrees, and at the prom, something terrible happens.

Carrie, a wild talent, unleashes her powers as all hell breaks loose.”

Having now read the book, I wouldn't summarize the events quite the same way Beahm does. I don't know if Holden Caulfield is really an apt comparison, and Snell doesn't quite befriend Carrie. She acts behind the scenes in a manner somewhat friendly to the “idea” of Carrie, but in her own way, she's playing with Carrie (albeit benevolently) via proxies the same way Chris is. In a speech familiar to King characters throughout his career (and echoed as recently as Dreamcatcher and Under the Dome) she explains to Tommy:

“'But hardly anybody ever finds out that their actions really actually hurt other people! People don't get better, they just get smarter. When you get smarter you don't stop pulling the wings off flies, you just think of better reasons for doing it. (...) Someone ought to try and be sorry in a way that counts... in a way that means something.” 

King mentions it as “a young book by a young writer. In retrospect, it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.” Fair enough. For me, it suffers mostly in its final act. Sue's psychic bond with Carrie comes out of nowhere and strains credibility (not to mention deprives Sue's “just an all-too-human girl”ness of some of its power), and the supplementary material (from “the White Commission” and books examining Carrie' telekinetic attack and isolating the TK Gene, etc., including a fictional post-event memoir of Sue Snell's,) while cool, dilute some of the suspense. The reader is never in doubt of the tragic outcome of Carrie's story. 

Of course, neither was I, having seen the movie a dozen times and its being one of the more well-known modern points-of-reference for people of all walks of life. “Carrie at the Prom” is cultural currency that is widely accepted, like “Shaka, When the Walls Fell,” or something.

A scene not in the book.

I suspect if this was King's only published novel, (with no film version) it'd be known only as a curiosity of the seventies and not an underground classic. (Of course, who can know such things? Ergo, Ur-Kindle.)

Which is not to say it is isn't eminently readable. Kev (among others) mentions in his review that it's really a twisted update of the classic fairy tale: The Cinderella aspect: “Carrie White is the tragic Cinderella character, a shy, socially awkward teenager at the lowest rungs of the high school caste system. When Carrie experiences her first menstrual period following gym class, the other girls - fulfilling the roles of the wicked stepsisters - torment her, cruelly asserting their superiority.
“King's clever re-imagining of Prince Charming and the ball yields some surprising results:
“when forced to accept Carrie even as a temporary member of their society, her classmates find her surprisingly easy to like.
“The cruelty doesn't end there: in place of a wicked stepmother, we find Carrie's biological mother, driven to the point of madness by an unbalanced personality and religious fanaticism.

“Just as the onset of Carrie's period seems to trigger her own dormant telekinetic abilities, it also heightens Margaret White's instability. The theme of a parent being threatened by a child's encroaching adulthood here is twisted and heightened to horrific extremes.” 

Twisted Fairy Tale or Rite of Passage Gone Wrong; either way, it gets you where you live. I think we all look back upon adolescence - whether with fondness or dread - as a tour of duty we're just fortunate to have survived.

One of the survivors interviewed for the White Commission mentions that Teddy Duchamps, one-time-proprietor of the Amoco station that blows up during Carrie's rampage through town, has been dead since 1968. (His son runs the station now.)

Had to look this up to make sure, but not to be confused with Teddy Duchamp, no-s, of “The Body.”

I wanted to mention: in Beahm's book, there is a match-the-origin-story-with-the-novel-it-became chapter (or quiz), and the one for Carrie always stuck with me. Paraphrased, it's “King meets a woman reading Scripture at the laundromat and wonders what kind of children she might raise.”

This anecdote has been expanded, and altered somewhat, over the years. (Probably, Beahm is mixing together strands of the official inspiration for Carrie King relays in On Writing.) But to a young Bryan McMillan, this was the first time it occurred to me you could look at people and ask such questions and write about it. Like I said, I was thirteen or fourteen. I'd been reading for years and loved stories and fancied myself a writer of them, but this description of King's inspiration for Carrie activated something in me at the time.

Brian De Palma's film adaptation, according to King, made his reputation as an author.

Although he sold the book's paperback rights for a hefty sum, it was the film's popularity that brought King the national attention he's never relinquished. And while both De Palma's reputation and fortunes have ebbed and flowed since Carrie, King's have only improved on both counts.

I often find myself championing unpopular viewpoints, and my affection for De Palma's films might qualify as one. But this one is easier than most, as I genuinely enjoy De Palma's work and am as fascinated by the best of it as I am bemused by the worst of it. Few filmmakers have left such a varied body of work.

But let's stick with Carrie. Easily one of his more accessible pictures. As noted here: “Technically, the film is among De Palma’s most accomplished, with great binary compositions achieved through the use of a split-diopter lens (...)

and the long crane shot that “moves through the crowd at the prom and shows the actions of several significant characters, then moves up into the rafters of the gymnasium to show the suspended bucket of pigs’ blood, and finally zooms back to the point where it began.” Agreed. Nearly every film in his catalog has one unbroken shot sequence that calls attention to itself, and while all are agreed on the difficulty of pulling them off, De Palma fans debate which work for the story and which seem out-of-place. I consider myself a more-than-casual De Palma fan - his films and I have upgraded to “It's Complicated” from “Casual” - so I've got my own nominations for each of those, but this was the first time I really grokked how good this sequence really is. Like Scorsese mentions in his (excellent) Personal Journey Through American Movies, these long crane shots are the hardest to pull off. (How Max Ophuls did it so routinely, with the equipment he had, still blows my mind.) This entrance to the prom definitely belongs in any serious discussion / ranking of them.

And it keeps getting technically more and more impressive after this shot, is the crazy thing. And they fit the story/ subtext perfectly.

Billy and Chris are bathed in red, (right) as Carrie is, albeit with blood instead of via a camera filter, on her side of the frame; she is lit by the purple, blues and glows of the prom-design.
Carrie's frame moves from left to right, and the camera zooms in on her face.
Incidentally, the theme of the prom is changed from Springtime in Venice in the novel to Love Among the Stars for the movie. This gives it a mythological feel, as if she (the wild-talent-demigod) looks up at her fixed tragedy as a constellation.
Boom. Her vengeance replaces said stars, and the lighting/ split-screen changes accordingly.
Everybody Go Dead Now.

Carrie's exit is one of the most beautiful bits of the film and is not adequately conveyed by the below. We see her momentarily against a dark blue background before it is transformed into the yellow and orange by the rising flames, and Carrie's silhouette turns from dark to red.

Masterful stuff. All possible credit, as well, to Jack Fisk, art director extraordinaire. When Terence Malick, Brian De Palma, David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson want to keep working with you, you know you've met a high standard of mise-en-scène. Like or dislike their films, no one can fault their acuity with visuals.

From that Pajimba review, hyperlinked above,  “I think of Carrie as a sort of precursor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Both play out the traumas of adolescence by literalizing and extending them to extremes that are both funny and chilling. The film is full of deadpan jokes about the inherent melodrama of adolescence — note how thunder clatters outside the window and lightning splashes across the face of Mrs. White when she first exclaims, “Prom?!”

Not to mention the tuxedo scene, which is distinguished by a brief burst of sped-up audio amidst the typically-zany “dudes getting tuxes” trope. (De Palma is nothing if not wink-tastic about such things. If the viewer is ever meant to raise an eyebrow at the signs-and-signifiers aspect of anything he films, the soundtrack / audio, for better or for worse, will often strongly suggest which way to 'read' it.)

But I like this tuxedo scene, as it suggests a knowing wtf response to how teenage life is depicted onscreen. I grew up on Growing Pains and Corey Feldman's “Later for you, man - LATER FOR YOU, FOREVER!” after-school specials, all of which were dated (like most depictions of high school life) five seconds after they aired. Carrie, despite the horrendous costumes and some other “dated” aspects, is pretty instantly familiar as a sincere representation of high school Hell. Its metaphors and imagery continue to connect with audiences today.

Speaking of sped-up audio samples, the sound effect given to manifestation of Carrie's powers recalls rather pointedly the four-note violin theme from Hitchcock's Psycho. Which brings us face to face with one of the criticisms that has dogged De Palma throughout his career, his appropriation of Hitchcock. 

As discussed here De Palma does not copy Hitchcock, he follows him, and his films (specifically Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and, to a much lesser extent, Obsession, Body Double, and Raising Cain) are not imitation Hitchcocks, they are rather authentic and ingenious developments of the same themes that once obsessed Hitchcock... De Palma took the threads that Hitchcock laid, and then ran with them.”

Depending on how you feel about that explanation will determine how willing you are to roll with the punches, I think, on De Palma's Hitchcock explorations. I don't suggest any
roll is the right one, here, of course, just such a thing is either impossible to defend or relatively harmless, depending on your point of view. (shrugs) That's-a De Palma.

Regardless, the casting is just about perfect. 

Nancy Allen and P.J. Soles are great as the bad girls.
You really, really hate them.
And is that...?
I was surprised to discover P.J. Soles had a bit part in this Cheers episode in 1984. She had memorable roles in Halloween and Stripes after Carrie, then primarily worked in TV, according to her imdb. Anyway, not that she was this huge star, just her character in this Cheers episode has one or two lines that could have been delivered by practically any actress, then that's it.
Travolta's Billy Nolan makes a less successful transition from the novel. But Billy might work better as he is in the movie: an inept guy manipulated by a stronger female than he does in the novel, where he shares many character traits with other smack-'em'up-and-work-on-the-car King villains.
Piper Laurie is amazing. She lost to Beatrice Straight from Network for the Academy Award. The conflict between Carrie and her mother...

...and between Carrie and Creepy Jesus

is just about as harrowing as has ever been explored onscreen.

It's a little dated (as evidenced here) but it holds up rather well.
I'm actually not really looking forward to the 2013 remake. Kimberley Peirce isn't a favorite. But! I'll give it a whirl, of course, and hope for the best.

In closing, the novel isn't bad, but the film is a classic. De Palma (like Kubrick or Cronenberg) never returned to King's material for any other films, but he knocked it out of the damn park here. 

And with that, I suspend Reading Operations for the King's Highway.

(Squeal of brakes, radio blaring AC/DC...)




  1. Not bad observations about Hitchcock. I think he and John Ford summed up an idea of American films that no one of my generation even knows about...But I'm not about to start on a rant, long story short I have seen the future of American films...and it seems disappointingly staffed by the people who never made the cut of Kevin Smith's "Clerks."

    Anyway, a lot of my thoughts on Carrie are kind stated already in a semi related post on another blog. So with apolgies to Bryant, I'm just going re-post some old comments.

    I've never experienced any neglect or hard times from any of my folks, I was just needlessly pampered, enough at any rate so that, yeha I was kind of a spoiled brat in school.

    I did get hazed endlessly from kindergarten to to elementary. It was in fifth grade however that I just started talking more and years later I realize what was up all those years ago. My classmates in elementary, and for a brief time my friend in high school were all but kicking my ass to get me to clean up my act!

    I don't know ow that must sound, but it's the truth, the instant I started talking and taking more of an interest in others lives, the more better life just seemed to go for me. Because of this, I have very different reaction when i hear king talk about his high school experience.

    Far from finding high school a torture, I'm one of those guys who worries he might have peaked in high school, and I also, because of my own experience, can't help asking, did you ever think the problems might have been, well, yours?

    Has King ever struck me as neurotic in any way?

    ..........Well....Heh, heh...He might have on occaision. During his nineties period he struck me as more or less alright, to be fair though, lately I've wondered, based on the tone of his works, if that accident might have triggered a relapse.

    Again, I learned in therapy how it's possible for a patient to suffer a relapse of neurotic behavior from incidents or words that act "triggers" which can take any form from a chance remark to even a traumatic experience.

    Still, I learned a lot while "In Session", and in fact it sort of bore out my school experience and all the good times I had there. The word i learned was "Social Interest", which is sort of shorthand for the logical concern for the welfare of others. Apparnetly, I found out, the reason I had such a smooth time of it in high school was because I learned "Social Interest" and people naturally responded in kind.


    1. Hitchcock and John Ford - absolutely. One can learn so much about the grammar of film from a familiarity with their work. (DW Griffiths', as well; silent film in general still has much to teach us. I wish I had more time to delve into it. I've been collecting a sizable silent film collection for years but have only scratched the surface. I took a great Griffiths seminar back in college, though.)

      De Palma is (to me) all about the artificiality of his medium, the unreliability of the visual image or the manufactured sound. Sometimes his work is a little too heavy in this regard, feeling more like an exercise than a compelling story. Carrie is a pretty solid example of his wedding his auteur concerns to a compelling story, I think. I wish he'd adapt another King novel. (Ditto for Cronenberg)

      I read your comments on Bryant's blog with interest, and I opened that Bogeyboys link. This part in particular made me raise my eyebrows:

      "President Clinton has made a few feeble swipes at addressing this issue, but one can only gape at the unintentionally comic spectacle of this man chastising the gun-lobby and America's love of violent movies while he rains bombs on Yugoslavia, where at least twenty noncombatants have already died for every innocent student at Columbine High. It is like listening to a man with a crack-pipe in his hand lecture children about the evils of drugs."

      He seems a bit more protective of the same spectacle with our current President, doesn't he, in "Guns?" Seems what was true then is true now, as well. Not to get all political, it just jumped out at me.

      As for high school, I had a relatively easy time of it, myself. Thankfully. Adolescence is such a painfully self-absorbed time. I don't share King's exact approach (i.e. "I don't trust people who say they had a great time in high school," though I suspect he's exaggerating, somewhat) but exploring tortured metaphors of the high school experience is somewhere between fun and instructive, I feel. I think "Disturbing Behavior" (a horror film from the 90s) is one of the better symbolic representations of it. Again, not because it resembles my own memories of high school, just as rich metaphorical territory. Our rites of passage are all deeply felt. I'm not sure where I'm going with this, just that exploration of high-school-as-(fill in the blank) seems to be something our culture needs to do, stories we need to examine. Something like "Carrie" (or "Disturbing Behavior," or "Heathers," for that matter) is definitely more on the "dark" side of that exploration, but these things touch something within us.

    2. Can I make a confession?

      I actually kinda like "The Rage: Carrie 2." It's a bad movie, but it has some decent elements. Some really lame ones, too.

      I also like the 2002 remake, although it's kinda cheap-ish and goes to some strange places at the end.

    3. I share a soft spot for Rage: Carrie 2, but I'm not a fan of the 02 remake. (Although I'm all for casting Kandyse McClure in more and more King projects; sooner or later, she'll click with the right part and let's keep trying 'til we get there.)

    4. Hear, hear! I (creepily) nominate "Gerald's Game."

      Side-note: even though there is abundant evidence to the contrary, I refuse to believe Edie McClurg was ever younger than 47.