Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
Joseph Campbell wrote that all myths have the same basic structure: the Hero’s Journey. Since then, others have argued that there are anywhere from three to seventy different story archetypes, but the principle is essentially the same. All stories follow the same fundamental beats; it’s how you tell them that makes all the difference.
This is why, in theory, there’s nothing inherently wrong with remakes. They are simply a re-telling of a specific story rather than more general formulas, and they’re just as free as “original” movies to explore familiar territory in new and exciting ways. The best remakes don’t just copy the original, they improve on it and enhance it, acting as an alternative voice in dialogue about similar characters and ideas.
Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie has been adapted for the screen three times: First, in the 1976 film directed by Brian De Palma that earned star Sissy Spacek an Oscar nomination; next, in a 2002 television movie on NBC; and finally, in a new adaptation from filmmaker Kimberly Peirce. It would be a mistake to call this latest version an adaptation of King’s book, since it adds very little from the novel that wasn’t already present in the original movie. No, this is a strict remake of De Palma’s film, a work that hews so closely to that 1976 classic that it borders on plagiarism. It’s that refusal to diverge from the previous narrative that’s ultimately its largest flaw, but the decision to repeat what’s come before also ends up acting as a profound defense for remaking the same story over and over.
The narrative plays out exactly the same as the 1976 film. Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) is an introverted high-school senior whose knowledge of sex (and all relationships in general) has been stunted by her ultra-religious and abusive mother Margaret (Julianne Moore). When she gets her first period in the school showers, she flies into hysterics, and popular snob Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) leads the rest of her classmates in making fun of her instead of helping.
Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) regrets her part in the bullying and persuades her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to invite Carrie to the prom to make up for it, but after gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer) takes away Chris’ prom privileges, this only drives Chris to blame Carrie. Unbeknownst to all of them, however, Carrie has started to develop telekinetic powers, and Chris’ revenge could provoke a violent outburst that has tragic consequences.
Lawrence Cohen, the writer of the De Palma film, is credited as a co-writer on this version, and he should be – there are entire chunks of dialogue lifted straight from the previous script. Structurally, it’s nearly a scene-by-scene recreation. The decision to stay so close to the original film prevents Peirce from adding anything too new to the proceedings, at least on a narrative level – the movie often feels like a stale re-hashing of things we’ve seen before – but it also allows her to embody Carrie’s most resonant themes through form.
Intentionally or not, while it lacks the raw and inventive style of De Palma’s version (even the more intense moments are dulled by poor CGI), this Carrie acts as a compelling defense of remakes as an important step in cultural progression. By sticking so close to the original film, Peirce elevates the story of Carrie White to one of trauma and maturity that deserves to be constantly revisited and reshaped. It’s a movie that explores the cycle of violence by repeating exactly what came before it, working in dialogue with De Palma’s version to reach a more morally complex conclusion, and its few minor changes to the material have a profound impact on the film’s ultimate meaning.
The first major change is Carrie herself. Spacek played Carrie as irrevocably damaged, so traumatized by abuse at home and at school that when she finally snaps it feels more like an involuntary reaction – she wanders the streets slow and zombie-like, as if possessed – than a conscious decision. Peirce wisely chooses to go a different route, crafting Carrie as a willful seeker of vengeance who always knows what she’s doing. Moretz is quietly captivating, taking the character through a wider range of emotions than Spacek was allowed to explore. When she goes on her rampage at the end, it’s a choice. “I’m so sorry,” she murmurs later, understanding that extreme circumstances don’t necessarily justify an extreme response. It’s a fundamentally different (and better) take on the character, but because the events around her play out largely the same, the film is never quite free to fully explore this more ethically complex territory.
To its credit, however, the remake does improve on the original’s script in other slight ways, mainly by drawing out certain conversations and allowing the material to breathe. Peirce’s version lacks the style and visceral oomph of De Palma’s (despite copying certain shots and conversations outright) but it compensates with more fully-realized supporting characters. In the original, Chris uses her sexuality to manipulate the men around her, but here she’s more like Carrie, a young woman at the mercy of other people looking to take back control. De Palma also kept Sue’s motivations a bit too vague, and while the remake firmly establishes her as a bully with a conscience, it also questions whether her motivations are completely altruistic. And whereas Betty Buckley’s Miss Collins often alternated between maternal and abusive for no apparent reason, in Judy Greer’s hands the character of Miss Desjardin is another clear parallel for Carrie, occasionally lashing out in a desperate attempt to retain her students’ respect. The emotional gut-punches of the original are nowhere to be found, but these characters are far richer now than they were then.
Even Margaret feels just different enough to be interesting, largely due to Julianne Moore’s performance. Piper Laurie brilliantly played Carrie’s mother as a terrifyingly over-the-top loony, a nightmarish presence that could easily have felt too cartoonish if not for De Palma’s assured direction. Moore is slightly more understated, a fundamentalist whose mistreatment of her daughter more clearly stems from her own self-loathing. In the original, Margaret was driven mad by her own sexual repression and religious guilt, but here she abuses Carrie to cope with her own past trauma.
That trauma is the key to understanding Peirce’s approach to the film. De Palma presented Carrie as primarily a tale of female sexual awakening, with Carrie’s eventual telekinetic outburst acting as an extreme counterpoint to her mother’s abstinence (she’s so chaste she can only orgasm in death). Peirce, who previously explored the violent side of sexism in Boys Don’t Cry, takes the focus away from sex and puts it on power dynamics in general. All of the main female characters are reacting cruelly to power being taken away from them, from Chris’ social standing amongst her peers to Margaret’s sexual assault. She’s repeating the same tale, but she’s expanding on its significance.
De Palma’s film presents the climactic scene at the prom as catharsis, equating Carrie’s vengeance with karmic justice. Peirce tells the story in almost the exact same way, but she adds moral depth in the final moments, giving Carrie agency and forcing the audience to reckon with her sadistic response to being bullied. If Margaret’s past trauma doesn’t justify her abuse of Carrie, then Carrie’s humiliation doesn’t warrant murder. The true heart of the movie remains Sue Snell, who disrupts the eye for an eye philosophy of the 1976 film and brings Carrie and the audience to a moral epiphany.
Peirce’s Carrie is full of great performances, but it’s messy and ultimately not as enjoyable as De Palma’s, largely because it’s just repeating what De Palma did first. However, it’s still a remarkable achievement, and she turns that repetition into part of the point. By sticking so closely to the original film and then altering it in small ways, it functions as a meta-companion to Carrie’s journey, responding to what came before in kind before finally, at last, making a small step of progress. Isn’t that what we’re ultimately hoping to achieve when we keep telling the same stories over and over?