The King of Adaptations: Carrie (1976)
With a new Pet Sematary premiering earlier this year, and Doctor Sleep and IT: Chapter Two right around the corner, the Stephen King brand is as strong as ever. A wellspring of twisted tales (and the occasional nice one), King has published more than 50 novels, with a new one due in September, but his work has always been synonymous with the screen. The number of film and television adaptations based on his work is well into the hundreds, and they started immediately with the publication of Carrie in 1974.
Carrie got the attention of Brian De Palma. A director on a streak of bold horror films, De Palma bought the rights for $2,500 (according to King) and before King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, was published in 1975, Carrie was in production at MGM. The film received a warmer critical response than the novel, and Sissy Spacek earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance as the tormented Carrie.
Perhaps the adaptability of King’s work is most clearly displayed in Castle Rock, a new Hulu series based on King’s writing as a whole. Instead of focusing on a single story, Castle Rock tells a pastiche of King themes: telekinesis, dimension/time travel, childhood trauma, crazed/conspiring townsfolk, and that general sense of discomfort Stephen King fans know and love.
Named for the fictional Maine town that serves as the setting for many King novels, such as Dead Zone and Doctor Sleep, Castle Rock tells the story of Henry Deavers (Andre Holland), a man returning to the town after years away. Why he’s been away so long, and why he’s come back, is teased out through the 10-episode season; what’s so interesting about the show is the way it references its source.
It has the rather obvious, eye-rolling nods like naming a character Jackie Torrance (the surname of The Shining’s ill-fated caretaker), but it makes interesting choices like casting Sissy Spacek, Bill Skarsgård, and other past King players in new roles. King has consistently reused his characters and crossed the universes of his stories, so it’s interesting to see that approach taken in regards to casting.
Stephen King is the Master of the Made-For-Screen Novel. His pace of publication absolutely boggles the mind, and he may be responsible for more sleep deprivation than any author in the last 50 years. A title I know he’d relish, and keep fighting hard to retain.
Over the next few weeks, in anticipation of the release of IT: Chapter Two on September 5, we’ll examine Stephen King adaptations, from page to screen, and try and unpack why his work is so prolifically adaptable. We’ll start at the very beginning with Carrie, hit some classics like The Shining and Misery, maybe a sleeper like Secret Window, and if all goes according to plan, I’ll have finished reading IT by the time the next installment is released.
Wish me luck, I just started.
Carrie may be easy to overlook in Stephen King’s robust bibliography. His debut novel, published in 1974, Carrie is the story of Carrie White, a high-school girl who suddenly, and traumatically, develops telekinetic powers. The novel is more modest in scope than most King works, but the mechanics and depth of character of King’s classics are on display from the very beginning of his career. The screen adaptation, written by Lawrence D. Cohen and directed by Brian De Palma, is one of the best in the, again, robust King filmography. Diving into the novel and the 1976 film, I was struck by just how similar the two are.
You might be saying, “Of course they’re similar, you dolt.” But I mean, Cohen’s screenplay is almost identical to King’s novel. And why not? One of the reasons King’s work is so prolifically adapted for the screen is that his stories are very visual in their construction. King often harnesses the vivid imagination of his main character. While Carrie is an epistolary novel, there are third person interludes that depict Carrie’s inherently visual powers; throwing objects through the air with her mind. The climax of the story – the horrors of prom night, and the ensuing destruction of Carrie’s high school and surrounding town – are written as intricate set pieces that drive the action forward.
The biggest difference between novel and film is the extremity of the town’s destruction. In the novel, Carrie razes the high school, then laboriously takes out various landmarks around town before returning home to her mother. The film plays Carrie as focused on the specific people that did her wrong, not the town as a whole.
As with all good Stephen King adaptations, Carrie is powered by a striking performance you can’t take your eyes off from. De Palma’s film has two of them. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both received Academy-Award nominations for their performances as Carrie and her mother, Margaret White, respectively. Mrs. Margaret White is one of King’s most dynamic characters, constantly disorienting Carrie, and the reader, with her at-once loving and accusatory disposition.
In one of King’s best scenes, Carrie has come home to Momma after leveling the high school and surrounding townscape. Momma proceeds to explain the guilt she feels at ever conceiving Carrie; a painful and angry confession of her susceptibility to basic human emotion. What’s so sad, and scary, about Mrs. White is how reasonable her behavior appears in light of how she regards herself – and what she feels she has to pay for. It may not be rational, but we can see how she has convinced herself she’s right. Margaret White has sinned.
Speaking of Carrie’s father – a man who shared Margaret’s devotion to Christ and his teachings – and the night Carrie was conceived, Mrs. White says, “With the stink of filthy roadhouse whiskey still on him he took me… and I liked it!” Not only did Carrie’s father sin, by imbibing in drink and perpetuating to drunkenness, but Margaret feels she sinned by allowing herself to be “taken” by a sinner. The ouroboric destruction of Margaret’s thinking is almost too much to bear. Margaret chastises herself for her susceptibility to basic human emotion. What’s so sad, and so scary, about Mrs. White is how reasonable her behavior is shown to be considering how she regards herself. And what she feels she has to pay for. Maybe not rational, but the reader can see how Mrs. White has convinced herself she’s right. And those are always the best (or worst) villains: the ones who have convinced themselves they’re the hero.
Piper Laurie, with her brilliant portrayal of the religious zealot Mrs. White, has said she initially thought the script was a comedy, and a bad one at that. She wasn’t much interested in the film until De Palma convinced her the unique Mother-Daughter relationship in Carrie was worth pursuing.
“I thought [Margaret White] was hilarious,” Laurie said in a 2015 interview with the Archive of American Television. De Palma convinced her to play the part seriously, and Laurie delivered one of the better performances of her career. De Palma, in the midst of a string of horror films, handled the material with a deft hand and retained the horror that King imbued in his novel, a high bar set for King’s long career to come.
What’s your favorite Stephen King adaptation and why? Leave us a comment below or tweet us at @TalkFilmSoc.
Be sure to stay tuned for a look back at Rob Reiner’s Misery as part of our new King retrospective in anticipation of IT: Chapter Two!