A Nice Girl, an Awful Prom
We've already covered one version of Carrie, the 1976 version starring Sissy Spacek, and the thought that ran through my mind after watching that version was, simply, do we need another take on it. It's not that the 70s version of Carrie is great -- far from it, in fact -- but it hits all the main beats of the book. It feels of its era, sure, but then so does the book its based on. How much more can you do with the basic story of Carrie?
That's a question I found myself asking as I sat through the second version of the story, 2002's made-for-TV film Carrie. At it's core very little of the story has been changed (at least, not right up until the end). If you've seen one version of the story, or read the book, all the broad strokes will seems just as you remember. That's not to say its exactly the same but, up until the end (which we will get to), this version doesn't feel substantially different at all. It's a new, more "modern" version but still the same old Carrie.
Making this a "modern" twist is one of the ways the film differentiates itself from the previous film. Where that film was very much a product of the 1970s, this film takes place in its contemporary setting: the early 2000s. The fashions are updated, but still it doesn't really change much else about the story. Carrie (Angela Bettis) is still a social outcast, hated at school by just about everyone while put through the ringer at home by her overbearing and super-religious mother, Margaret (Patricia Clarkson).
Of course, you know how this goes: after gym class, Carrie goes to the lockers to shower and suddenly has her first period. She freaks out, not know what it meant, and the girls in class all tease and mock her. Two of the girls, Chris Hargensen (Emilie de Ravin) and Tina Blake (Katharine Isabelle), then full Carrie's locker with tampons and scrawl "Plug It Up" on her locker. This gets all the girls in gym class condemned to punishing gym detention, which Chris refuses to go to, so she's suspended for three days and kicked out of the Prom. But, in an act of revenge she, and her boyfriend and his dumb friends, setup a bucket of pig's blood above the stage at Prom, engineer Carrie to be Prom Queen (stuffing the votes), and then dump the blood on her. The chaos that comes after, though, because Carrie is telekinetic and goes into an angry fugue state. is really all on Chris.
There is one other change the TV film makes over the original: a framing device that has various teens that know Carrie getting interviewed by a detective, John Mulcahey (David Keith), about the incident at the school. I suppose if you didn't know the story of Carrie this might have led to some surprises. "Oh no, did someone kill Carrie in a bullying incident gone wrong?" But there's no suspense to this framing device when you already know what's going to happen. Carrie is a pretty famous tale and the pig's blood is going to flow, one way or another.
The framing device, with the cops, was probably there to setup the continuing series that came after the film. Yes, for whatever reason, this was originally planned, by creators Bryan Fuller and David Carson, to be the pilot for a Carrie TV series. How can you have a TV series based on Carrie when the title character dies at the end? That's the other big change: Carrie doesn't die. She comes close in this version, after killing her mom (inducing a heart attack on the abusive woman), but in the end she's saved and goes off to wander Florida (or, at least, that's the setup).
While this seems weird, I have to say that this does fix one issue I had with the original story. Carrie is so abused in the book and the 1976 film that you feel bad for her. The stories make her into a monster, but it's really her mother and the mean girls at school that are the true villains. Killing Carrie in the old versions always felt vindictive to me, so while this change doesn't come out of left fiend for fans, it's actually a more fitting ending for the character. Had her series been picked up, Carrie would have wandered the countryside (like The Fugitive or The Pretender), righting wrongs while atoning for the things she did at the Prom. That's better than just having her die, having learned nothing, in my opinion.
The one other improvement the film does make is that it lessens the leering, male gaze of the 1976 version. This is a cheaply made movie, make no mistake, and it doesn't look that great. That said, it also lacks the glossy, near pornographic quality of the opening of the 1976 film (it's made-for-TV so no nudity either), and it lacks that cheesy "After School Special" tone that the 1976 film also managed to strike. This is a more basic style of film but it's easier to just enjoy the story for its own sake instead of feeling weird and creepy about the tone the older film was taking.
All that being said, this film is overly long. Clocking in close to two hours and fifteen minutes, the film certainly takes it time to get going and a lot of the story does feel padded. While I appreciate the film giving the characters time to breathe, perhaps this film went a little too far in that direction. It's played like a TV event film but it doesn't feel like one, no matter what the producers and the network might have wanted. It's Carrie and, at a certain point, you just want the film to hurry up and get to the carnage of that fateful Prom.
Thing is, this film was actually fairly well received by audiences, being a hit on its debut. Despite that, the network, for whatever reason, decided not to pick up the Carrie series. Perhaps Fuller's continuing pitch didn't strike their fancy, or perhaps they were just using this as a way to keep the rights reserved so a bigger version of the film could be made later. MGM, the company behind this version, also made the 2013 remake (that we'll get to soon enough), so it does certainly seem like they wanted to keep the rights reserved for some time.
While I think this film could have used a bit of work, tightening up the runtime and smoothing off some edges, it's not a bad version of Carrie. All things considered, while it's not a necessary version (each adaptation of this tale is still, at its core, the same damn Carrie) I do actually like it better than the 1976 version. But, more importantly, if a TV series had somehow spun out of this I might have actually watched it. Certainly that's a more interesting idea than anything we see here in this film, and perhaps Carrie could have actually grown into a really interesting character freed of the confines of a high school that hated her. That would have been a version of the story I would have liked to see. But, sadly, it was never meant to be.