It’s 1976. Two years after Stephen King has published his first novel, Carrie, it’s being adapted to film. Though it may be difficult to now imagine, King was struggling to make ends meet. Working as an English professor, the $2,500 he was paid for the film rights to the novel must have been a Godsend.
Directed by Brian De Palma, Carrie is the story of a shy and friendless young girl who, in the final year of high school, has been the center of bulling and abuse by nearly all of the student body. The film starred a bevvy of young talent from Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, John Travolta, Nancy Allen, PJ Soles, and William Katt. De Palma’s imagining went on to be named to a host of 100 Best of Lists (The American Film Institute‘s Movies, Thrills, Heroes and Villains lists).
Carrie was a critical and box office success, grossing more than $33M in ticket sales. The film also garnered Academy Award nominations for both Spacek and Piper Laurie. By many, it is considered a horror classic, the story itself serving as a kind of eternal warning to be careful who you piss off.
So why, nearly 40 years later, has MGM decided to remake the film?
Yes, the story is still compelling – maybe more so in the wake of tragic tales of bullying and sprees of rage-filled madness – but it still comes down to money. Released just two weeks shy of Halloween, Carrie is sure to have at least a modicum of audience interest through the holiday. And with good reason. My attraction to this remake was fueled, in part, by the casting of Julianne Moore as Margaret White, the role originated by Piper Laurie in 1976. When Kimberly Peirce was added to the mix as director, I felt this was just possibly one remake I’d have to check out.
Peirce, who directed Boys Don’t Cry, has nothing to prove. Not to me. But, to a larger audience, Peirce may be mostly unknown having only directed one other feature – Stop-Loss back in 2008. For them, Peirce’s reimagining of Carrie may be nails in a premature coffin.
While Peirce’s adaptation begins on a startling strong note – with the traumatic birth of Carrie White to an unsuspecting Margaret, alone in her bedroom – the differences between the two films are disappointingly slim.
Peirce has modernized the content of Carrie to include social media – a wise, but obvious choice. As the girls yell at Carrie to “plug it up!”, she is being filmed. That video could have been used to greater effect, but it ends up being a tepid plot driver to get us to the point where Chris Hargensen (played here by Portia Doubleday) will be suspended and barred from prom. Chris is the meanest of the mean girls and her maliciousness feels strangely superficial in this version of Carrie. (Groan. Weak!)
Peirce has also deviated in the development of Carrie’s character. We get an earlier and more complete look at the character as she goes through this process of discovering who she and learning about her powers of telekinesis. Early scenes capture a kind of wonder and amusement as Carrie sits in her bed and levitates books, her bed (with her on it), and anything else in the room she can manage.
Casting for Peirce’s Carrie may have cost the director a no-brainer Halloween hit.
Spacek gave us a meek, shy girl for whom – despite killing everyone in her class, teachers included – we still feel sorry as the house crashes in around her and her dead mother at the end of the film. Empathy, or even the slightest by of sympathy, is absolutely pivotal for a horror film. Without it, there are no consequences, no rules, no moral lesson, and no emotional loss when the body count begins to rise. Without it, means there is no horror to be found.
Chloë Grace Moretz, on the other hand, gives us a twitchy, socially awkward and naturally violent Carrie. The moment Carrie begins to understand her powers, she uses them without remorse or thought to the consequences. It becomes increasingly difficult for the audience to sympathize with the character as the story unfolds because she herself turns malicious and, in a way, power hungry. Even the abuses suffered at the hands of her religiously inclined mother couldn’t excuse the behavior.
This brings me to Julianne Moore. It’s no small feat for me to make this declaration. I have many favorites, but Moore tops the list in nearly every genre so I’ll just come out and say it. Moore is my favorite actress. I’ll see anything she’s in. When I learned Moore had signed on to star as Margaret White – the self-maiming, half crazy mother of Carrie – I could barely wait to see how the actress would portray her. Would she be stark raving, or that out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye sort of crazy? Would she have the energy of a religious zealot or would her devotion to a higher power feel quiet? While Moore’s presence cannot be denied – you can take away the makeup, the wardrobe, the hair stylist but Moore is an absolute stunner – it also feels very familiar.
This brings me to the screenplay. Very little has been changed in terms of dialogue between De Palma’s 1976 version and Peirce’s 2013 version of the film. Having just watched De Palma’s Carrie, I was shocked that so much of the dialogue remained the same in Peirce’s. If the intent was to modernize the piece, it seems you’d want to change more than just the clothes and the kinds of music the kids listen to at the prom.
It makes me want to scream – You have the rights to Carrie, for God’s sake! Make it yours! Do something bold and daring! Do something unique and creative! Terrify us!!
So, why remake Carrie?
Peirce has my respect. So does Moore. But, beyond the financial, there is no reason behind the remake.
It feels familiar and even comical. In the 70s, the country as a whole hadn’t started to back away from organized religion. Most people, if they weren’t church going folk themselves, knew someone that was. A character like Margaret White wasn’t that far fetched. Jump forward 40 years. The way we feel about religion has changed. People like Margaret White are rarely taken seriously. It’s more difficult for a younger audience to understand her or her motivations. The audience laughed at many of things Moore’s character was saying because they have no context for the crazy. In short – the Margaret White of King’s Carrie just doesn’t work anymore. Peirce needed to be more aggressive with the updating of this particular – incredibly pivotal – character.
Carrie opened October 18, 2013 but my advice to you? Ask someone else to the prom, and save Carrie for a quiet night at home.
Julianne Moore Interview: