Monday, October 25, 2010

Stephen, Carrie, and Sissy

Having become hooked on horror and Stephen King back in the 70s after reading The Shining, Night Shift and Salem's Lot, I sought out his books every chance I got back then. Plus, when I saw what the auteur Brian De Palma did with the film adaptation of King's first published novel, I had to locate a copy of it from the local library. Carrie was actually the author's fourth novel, but the first one published (in 1974). And, it dealt with a subject that continues to haunt our headlines and landscape.

Critic-Filmmaker-Factotum Bryce Wilson (of the Things That Don't Suck blog), recently wrote a wonderful and insightful review of the 1976 feature film (as part of his grand 31 Days of Horror series this year) and nailed that age-old can of worms with this passage:
"It’s a story that I think, has the best chance out of King’s canon to be damn near eternal. Because as long as there are high schools there are going to know what that furnace of rage that can grow in your belly can feel like. And those who imagine what it would be like if they just let it explode (Or implode. Am I the only one to notice that the only difference between the rash of teen suicides that swept the country recently and the rash of school shootings that happened about twelve years ago is that this time the kids are turning their guns on themselves rather then others? I don’t know what this generational shift means. Or if it can even be termed as a generational shift. I just know that either way it saddens and disturbs the hell out of me.)"
The novel's synopsis (from Stephen King's own website): "The story of misfit high-school girl, Carrie White, who gradually discovers that she has telekinetic powers. Repressed by a domineering, ultra-religious mother and tormented by her peers at school, her efforts to fit in lead to a dramatic confrontation during the senior prom." It's easy to say that the novel has remained timely even as the decades continue to tick by (which epitomizes the book's sad subject's strength). For all of its power on the insidious and damaging nature of bullying, I hadn't revisited the novel after that initial read. Sorrow for the subject and its story only explain so much, though. The plain fact is that I've seen De Palma's film numerous of times in the years since I first took the feature and novel in. Why is that? Well, I'd suggest reading Bryce's review of the film for the primary evidence.

For the longest time, I've been of the mind that this was that rare case where the film was better than the source text. I give credit to the skill of writer Lawrence Cohen in adapting King's novel to the screen -- a feat that shouldn't be minimized since a number of the author's book conversions to motion picture pale (to put it mildly). Plus, Brian De Palma's cinematic treatment of the material can't be exaggerated or negated. Finally, Sissy Spacek's performance as Carrie White was the stuff dreams (or nightmare's) are made of. Her Best Actress nomination was not only well deserved, but as IMDB mentioned in their listing of the actress, was "notable in that performances in horror films are rarely recognized by the academy." Ain't it the truth.

I'd heard that publisher Simon & Schuster had released Carrie in audiobook form two years ago this month (as part of the good amount of King's work released to audio this decade). Not only that, it had as its narrator that same Sissy Spacek. And with Bryce's encouragement (who listened to the audio last Halloween), I had to take a second crack at that novel. In the end, my thoughts would come close to mirroring Bryce's own opinion:
"Take it from me. It's phenomenal. So fascinating to listen to her reinterpret the character."
Initially, I wondered if Ms. Spacek, so tremendous in the film as the sympathetic Carrieta, could deliver on the vocal demands of the various characters represented in the novel. I needn't of worried. She accomplished this with ease. Plus, she managed to expand on that singular character in a way that was even more heart-rending (which I truthfully didn't think was possible). Finally, who would have thought she'd also bring a stirring reinterpretation of Carrie's fundamentalist mother, Margaret White (with no disrespect to Piper Laurie's bravura characterization of her in the film). With that in mind, I now think she would have been the better and more inspired choice for that ferocious maternal character in the 2002 TV movie remake (Lords knows that film needed something more). Spacek's audio performance with King's powerful story proved to be a fantastic and one-of-a-kind combination.

Nonetheless, did it make me to reverse my thoughts on the Carrie novel vs. Carrie the film? Simply, no. The same narrative problems still exist in the book (and author King himself does not rate this work as one of his best). My main issue remains the motif of breaking up the story with various news and official or scientific reports (all attempting to explicate and decipher the final horrific events in self-important tones). It didn't work for me back then, nor now. IMO, it was too much of a good thing. Besides, too often it interrupted the momentum King had building throughout the story. Certainly, Sissy Spacek's narration made the literary device more tolerable this time (as well as spurring my desire to get back to those characters). But it was not enough to elevate the material above that of De Palma's visually audacious and streamlined film. His and Cohen's treatment smartly eliminated that ploy. Still, was I glad to revisit this novel 30+ years later for this Halloween season? Answer: Oh, hell yes!


  1. This is a fantastic look at this great film and book. Man, I really need to read this book again. It's been too long. I've actually been revisiting Clive Barker's BOOKS OF BLOOD which is a really dynamite collection of short stories.

  2. Funny you should post this, I just picked up the novel yesterday and started reading it for the first time. Not sure why I didn't read in in high school when I was delving through King's oeuvre. I am too early into the novel to generate any hard opinions, but I am finding it difficult to seperate my images from DePalma's film, a masterpiece in my opinion, from the process. I guess I will have to pick up the audio book afterwards. 

  3. Sissy Spacek: there's an actress H'wood shd be writing more scripts for. Nice write up, Michael.

  4. Thank you, Elizabeth.

  5. Oh, yes. Clive Barker's BOOKS OF BLOOD is fantastic collection of his stories. Thanks so much, J.D.

  6. Watching the De Palma film first (like you and I have done) tends to induce that effect. The audiobook with Sissy narrating is well worth the listen, Colonel. Thanks very much.

  7. Oh, yes. Sissy Spacek is one hell of an actress. She was notable since I first saw her in Prime Cut. Thanks, Naomi.

  8. OK, no throwing things, but I've yet to read a Stephen King novel.   =-O   I've seen several of the movies made for TV and theater, including CARRIE.  I didn't know that Sissy Spacek had been nominated!  She's one of those actresses that can completely sell you on whatever role she's playing.  Great review, lp13!

    If I were to read just one of his novels, it would probably be THE STAND.  I absolutely loved the miniseries they made for TV.  I don't even want to know how wigged-out I would have been if IT had been made for the big screen.  On TV, Tim Curry's clown, Pennywise, completely creeped me out!  Same with SALEM'S LOT.  Of course, when it comes to horror flicks, I rate pretty high on the Wuss (capital W) meter.  

  9. Thank you for the kind words, Christine. Great to see you back online (and give my regards to your generous spouse).

    Stephen King's The Stand would be an outstanding selection to read. There were two versions of that book. I started to read the novel when it first came out believe it not when I had the flu -- one bad idea. Freaked me out and I had to stop (though, I went back to it when I got healthy). The latter version, titled The Stand: Expanded Edition: For the First Time Complete and Uncut, was even better. Get that one.

  10. Many thanks for the kind words (and link Le0pard13) got me all blushing.

    This is a nice piece of work, not just because of the deserved credit to Spacek, but your insightful take on the novel's problems. 

    Well done. 

  11. Very kind of you to say, Bryce. Thank you for the comment and the push to revisit this early S.K. novel, my friend.