Thursday, April 11, 2013

Carrie (1974)

by Stephen King

A harassed teenage girl uses her newly-discovered telekinesis to get revenge on those who have wronged her.

Carrie is an interesting novel among King's works for the way it has a very clear and solid line from start to finish. Unlike the way many of his later stories take their time getting to the finish, this one has a natural and steady progression to it. You don't have to see the movie or know the story beforehand--it's clear right from the start what is going to happen.

Carietta White is a chunky, awkward girl, victimized by her classmates. The very first scene in the book is the famous one wherein Carrie, totally unaware of the very concept of the menstrual cycle, experiences her first period in the shower room at her high school. Naturally, she is terrified and confused by what is happening. Her peers react by laughing and taunting her, throwing sanitary napkins at her and chanting "PER-iod, PER-iod, PER-iod!"

As if things at school weren't bad enough, Carrie's mother is crazy with a capital CRAZY. Margaret White shuns the world, locks her daughter in a closet and forces her to pray anytime she does something wrong, and neglects to teach her anything about puberty, because sex is a SIN.

There are a couple of bright spots though, in the persons of classmate Sue Snell and gym teacher Miss Desjardin. Both initially treat Carrie with the same general sense of disdain that the others do. Sue laughs along with everyone else, and Miss Desjardin yells at Carrie when she comes in and sees her bleeding in the shower. It isn't until Carrie completely breaks down that they realize how callous they are being. Neither of them register the evidence of Carrie's unique abilities, a softball bat rack falling over and a lightbulb flashing out, her TK unconsciously activated by stress and strong emotions.

As the novel progresses, Carrie gradually gains control over her power. Sue, feeling bad as she realizes how she has acted, decides to do what she can to make up for it, asking her popular boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the upcoming prom. And Miss Desjardin does what she can to punish the other girls for their behavior, but it only pushes one of the girls, a real bitch named Chris Hargensen, to seek revenge on Carrie via public humiliation.

We want to see things work out for Carrie. No one else knows how bad her life really is. She doesn't want anything selfish, she just wants to be treated as just another student, another person. And with Sue's efforts, sometimes it almost looks like things will work out. But King doesn't hide where things are going, which only makes the moments of happiness leading up to the crowning of the Prom King and Queen all the more tragic.

The plot is simple and straightforward.  King doesn't pause to explore every minor side character the way he seems to in later books.With the exception of a couple of (enjoyable) scenes between Chris Hargensen's father and the principal that could have been excised without notice, everything is either character development for the main players, documents/excerpts from fictional books that hint at how things will turn out, or story that pushes directly toward the inevitable climax. The book is divided into two main parts--'Blood Sport' and 'Prom Night'--followed by a short third part titled 'Wreckage.' 'Prom Night' is more than half the book, which shows how direct the path to the end really is. Having a predictable plot would usually be a negative aspect of a novel, but King uses it to his advantage here.

Once the climax does come, the book takes a turn. It's no longer about feeling for Carrie the way we did before. We still feel bad about her and what she's doing, feeling that she's justified in a way and knowing that it's wrong at the same time, but the emotional connection we had with her has diminished. Now it's more about the spectacle of Carrie destroying the town, which, while maybe the thing that draws people in in the first place, is not what made us stick around this far. The tension that was built up before as we dreaded seeing things fall apart for Carrie is gone. King seems to have realized this would be the case, keeping Sue away from the Prom so she would still be around to give the readers a more sympathetic viewpoint, but things just go on too long at this point. We start to see the destruction of the town from other minor characters' points of view, but all the explosions and deaths are a poor substitute for the emotional conflict we had before. In fact, it feels almost disrespectful to Carrie herself to be getting enjoyment out of her rampage. The novel doesn't fall apart by any means, but it does become less interesting.

King's first published novel actually displays a much stronger progression of plot than many of his later ones. It's the only one I can think of having read that makes major use throughout of fictional police reports and books written afterward about the incidents involved. Other novels of his do include such things, but none that I've read utilize them to anywhere near the extent that this one does.

A fairly brisk and satisfying read, Carrie makes a good debut for King, but it doesn't hold a candle to some of his better works.

One final note I will make is that this is one of the rare cases where I feel that the filmed version improves on the source material. Brian De Palma's adaptation is nearly perfect to me, capturing and even amplifying the tension from the book as the film builds to the Prom crowning scene. It also brings more attention to the deaths of some of the characters, where the book sometimes seems to brush past them. Other things are changed (Carrie is skinny instead of chunky, John Travolta's Billy Nolan is far less evil than the book's, etc.), but most of the changes are insignificant details, and the bigger ones serve to improve things for the film version.

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