“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
– Mel Brooks
As an actor, one of the biggest challenges when taking on a character is often trying to find aspects of said character with which I can identify. I’ve played rapists and religious icons, cops and crooks, narrators and nutcases, even the occasional zombie. For each role I tried to look at the character from the inside-out, find something about their life or personality that mirrors my own. Even when I had to make it up myself, I wanted to have at least one connection that made the character more than black-and-white letters on a page. I want something thing makes them real; that makes them me.
But here’s the thing: just because I find a way to relate to them doesn’t mean I admire them. Take a look at that list again. That’s not a complete overview of my career, but just series of broad descriptions I could recall off the top of my head without looking at my resume. Needless to say, not every character I played was someone you’d want to bring home to the parents. Hell, some of them were just outright deplorable excuses for human beings. But what appealed to me about them – the well-written ones, that is – was that they were more than just those broad descriptions. That had a variety of emotions and complicated life choices that made them what they were. As much as we’d like to think that there’s a world of difference between “us” and “them”, said difference can be hair-thin when scrutinised.
But no, I don’t always admire them. I don’t have to. Relating to them is merely acknowledging what I have in common with another human being. Admiration is putting them up on a pedestal and wishing to achieve what they have. Relating to them happens all time; admiring them, not so much.
And if ever there were a character to whom we can relate, if not necessarily admire, it’s Carrie White.
This was my second time seeing an updated adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie in as little as two weeks (third if you count my rewatching of the King-penned made-for-tv version). Both versions attempted to update the ‘70s story into the era of mobile phones and cyberbullying. Both are credited to writer Lawrence Cohen, screenwriter of Brian de Palma’s classic 1976 film version. Both attempt to differentiate themselves from said classic by incorporating new elements from the novel… and both versions miss the point of the story.
As I said in my review of the Ray of Light production: the story of Carrie is so well-told that I feel no need to warn of spoilers – this review will talk about the story in detail. With that in mind, you need to forget any and all prerelease press claiming this film would be “a more faithful adaptation of King’s novel”. That is not true. If you’ve ever read the novel, you will know that is not true. The reason Lawrence Cohen is credited on the screenplay for this movie, despite the fact that he reportedly had no involvement with this film at all, is because this film is a flat-out remake of de Palma’s film. Remember when Hitchcock’s Psycho was remade and the changes were so minimal that they just credited screenwriter Joseph Stefano again? Same thing here.
But Cohen isn’t the only name on this film’s screenplay and the other fella deserves a mention. FULL DISCLOSURE: I have less than two degrees of separation from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. He and I have both worked with the same Bay Area theatre companies. I’m aware of his work for Marvel Comics, most notably an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand and the post-Julie Taymor rewrite of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. I’ve never met the man in person, but we probably have a few of the same names in our Friends lists.
I had to mention him because he is key to what goes wrong with this film. When he isn’t just copy-and-pasting Cohen’s original scenes word-for-word, he adds new material (again, not from the book) that add nothing to the story or characters. Point in fact, it strips them of their humanity. In his hands, Margaret White (Julianne Moore) has gone from conservative bible-thumper to full-blown ratty-haired religious nutcase, prone to self-mutilation and emaciation. The opening scene – possibly inspired by the Alien films – features her giving birth to Carrie and attempting to stab the baby with a pair of scissors. She just gets nuttier from there.
And then there’s Carrie herself. I mentioned above that Carrie White is a character to whom people can easily relate, but not to be admired. Why? Because her key moment is an act of unrepentant violence against everyone in eyesight. At least it was. Where she was once a wallflower finding her own confidence, Aguirre-Sacasa’s screenplay (and the performance of Chlöe Grace-Moretz) tries to make her story a superhero origin tale: she adjusts to her powers in record time and shows little hesitation about using them against her mother. In fact, she – like the reimagined Laurie Strode in the Halloween remake – is a more of an obnoxious bitch.
As with the new stage version, the worst insult comes at the climax. The best I can say is that the film keeps the blood. But in a foolish attempt to win the audience’s sympathy, Carrie only directs her rage at the specific students who harassed her and spares everyone else. This is followed by Carrie having a final hero-vs.-villain confrontation with Chris (Portia Doubleday) and her boyfriend. Said confrontation has Carrie using her telekinesis against power of the couple’s muscle car. After Carrie has vanquished her foes, we the audience are “treated” to the clichéd hero-walking-away-from-an-explosion shot. Oh, joy.
The performances are all hit-and-miss. I’ve mentioned Julianne Moore, who tries to do the best with what she’s given. Chlöe Grace-Moretz could probably have given a better performance if the film-makers could settle on a tone. Judy Greer is woefully miscast as Miss Desjardin, and the rest of the cast never rise above “teen drama” level.
Equally disappointing is the direction by Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce. I don’t think she’s entirely to blame for the choice of bad CGI abundant throughout the film – such is contemporary Hollywood – but she is to blame for garish choices in camerawork. You think Les Misérables and Man of Steel overused close-ups and pretentious visuals? This one takes the cake. Pierce seems to think her audience is too stupid to pick up on subtle nuance, so she focuses tightly during even the most mundane scenes (the volleyball scene, for instance) so as to show “This is important!” Doing so robs the scenes of any impact that might naturally have had. Overall, her visual style is slick, but hollow.
And I think that’s the perfect summary of the film as a whole: “slick, but hollow”. Once again, Stephen King’s first published novel is given an adaptation that fails to miss the point of the story. Namely that it is a TRAGEDY. No matter how much we can identify with Carrie White, we should not put her up on a pedestal. Hers is a story of an easily preventable, but sadly inevitable culmination of events. There are no “good” or “bad” characters in her story, just those who have clearly learned from their mistakes and those who haven’t. What’s clear from every adaptation after De Palma’s is that most people who know the story haven’t learned a damn thing.
(BTW: here’s that creepy song from the trailer, Lykke Li’s cover of The Shirelles’ classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”)
*I saw Carrie in Cinemark XD at the Century 20 multiplex in Daly City on Friday, 18 October 2013.