There’s something about Carrie White, the awkward, telekinetic teenager from Stephen King’s 1974 novel “Carrie,” that keeps inspiring visual interpretations.
Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, which features Oscar-nominated performances by Sissy Spacek as Carrie and Piper Laurie as her unhinged mother, seems a definitive work. But producers see more to mine.
“Carrie: The Musical,” which flopped on Broadway in 1988, recently was retooled for off-Broadway and Seattle runs. In 1999, Amy Irving played a grown-up version of Sue Snell – her nice-girl character from the 1976 film – in the movie sequel “The Rage: Carrie 2.” In 2002, Patricia Clarkson played Carrie’s mother in a TV adaptation.
Today, the most serious post-De Palma “Carrie” venture opens in movie theaters. Serious because it was directed by acclaimed independent filmmaker Kimberly Peirce, who directed 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and the less-seen but affecting 2008 Iraq war drama “Stop-Loss.”
The new “Carrie” stars Chloë Grace Moretz in the titular role and Julianne Moore as her mother, Margaret.
In crafting her own film, Peirce worked from King’s book and from the De Palma film. Though her film stays true to both sources, it’s also set in the present day and views its story through the prism of modern life.
Reached by phone during a recent publicity stop in San Francisco, Peirce said she views King’s fractured coming-of-age tale as “timeless and timely,” its themes of alienation and self-discovery lending themselves easily to today’s more technologically advanced world.
Here are some of Peirce’s other observations about re-imagining “Carrie” for a contemporary audience:
Like nothing they’ve ever seen: Pierce entered the project under the assumption most people who will see this “Carrie” have not seen the De Palma film. Research screenings bore this out. “Most horror fans have seen it, but the general audience hasn’t,” Peirce said.
But people who have seen the original will pick up Peirce’s homages to De Palma via slow-motion shots and the muscle car driven by teen hothead Billy (Alex Russell). The car evokes the one John Travolta drove when he played Billy in the 1976 movie.
Keeping her religion: Fundamentalist religion has risen in visibility in the United States in the decades since the first film’s release. Presenting Margaret White as a wing-nut, the way she was in the original, would have carried more potential to offend.
“You had to be very careful how you represented Margaret as a religious person in order to show due respect to religion, and to characterize her accurately,” Peirce said. “That is why it is so great that King (in his novel) gave us permission to make it very specific. It was a very safe road because (Margaret) has created her own religion. In our film, we added a new line where Carrie says, ‘That’s not even in the Bible’ (to her mother). Margaret has made it up. … She is in her own world.”
New tools for tormenting: Though the new film is set in present day, Carrie still wears figure-hiding, era-unspecific baggy clothes sewn by her seamstress mother. But her fellow teens wear more modern fashions, carry cellphones and upload video to social media.
“Life has radically changed, certainly in the last 10 years, but radically-radically in the last five,” Peirce said. “We have cellphones, we are always taking a picture, we are always recording video. We oftentimes are experiencing something and are compelled to be recording it on some level. It’s just not enough to just experience it.”
The mean behavior directed toward Carrie in the novel and in the De Palma film becomes even more public in the new “Carrie,” when Carrie’s schoolmate Chris (Portia Doubleday) uploads to social media some video footage of Carrie shot during a heartbreaking moment for the girl.
“There’s now an understanding that kids torment other kids, and that tormenting is videotaped, and that tormenting can make it online,” said Peirce, who interviewed high school teachers and principals while researching her film.
This understanding leads, in “Carrie,” not just to what Peirce calls “amplified” cruelty but to inventive disciplinary methods.
A teacher (Judy Greer) who has become aware of Chris’ nasty behavior forbids the girl from attending the prom. When Chris protests and threatens legal action, the teacher responds by promising to expose Chris on the “Today” show as the source of the uploaded video. Chris backs down.
Students’ online cruelty toward other students can “make the teachers and the principals look bad but also can make the tormentors look bad,” Peirce said.