The first spectacularly ill-fated attempt to re-adapt Carrie came in 1981, when the film’s screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen began working on a musical adaptation with Michael Gore, the writer of Fame. Gore’s writing partner Dean Pitchford was eventually brought in to help rewrite the score. Although attempts to stage the play came as early as 1984 it wasn’t until 1988 when funding for the musical was eventually raised. First for a trial run in Stratford and then a Broadway run beginning in late April of the year.
The word fiasco gets tossed around an awful lot. But Carrie the musical certainly earns the description. Budgeted at a then unheard of 8 million dollars, Carrie ended up being The Spider-Man of its day. Opening to scathing reviews and a mere 16 previews and 5 performances before it closed. Carrie ended up being a cautionary tale. A book on Broadway disasters even took as its title Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Flops.
The play was performed a handful of times by various amateur casts, college theatrical societies and smaller companies. In the meantime other stage productions were mounted, notably an off Broadway version sanctioned by King, starring transgender performer Sherry Vine.
The story of Carrie on Broadway ultimately has a happy(ish) ending. A successful Off Broadway run, with a revised book by the original writers, was performed in 2012, with generally favorable reviews. A follow up run began September 2013 in Los Angeles.
Judging by the cast recording from 2012, Carrie isn’t all that bad; though not great. The lyrics are a bit clumsy, (Sample: “Doesn’t anybody ever get it right?/Carrie!/Can’t they remember I am Carrie White!/Carrie!”) and the music can best be described as Steinmanesque. But there are some solid songs (most notably the clever “Do Me A Favor”) and on the whole Carrie can only be blamed for having a rather odd choice of subject matter.
Nothing so charitable can be said about the next follow up. The belated, almost comically mercenary sequel The Rage: Carrie 2. Clearly meant to cash in on the post Scream “WB horror” of the era The Rage: Carrie 2, is a dreary collection of 90’s kitsch (you know that the main characters would be Tommy Ross is different from the others because he digs Garbage), spastic, borderline nonsensical stylistic choices, sitcom stars and bad CGI. Following the illegitimate daughter of Ralph White (and that timeline never adds up no matter how hard the movie tries to ignore it) who follows in her half sister’s footsteps after a group of cruel popular kids cause the suicide of her friend.
The film was originally under production as The Curse and then Carrie 2: Say You’re Sorry. (The eventual title takes its name from the first book King wrote under the name Richard Bachman. King pulled the book from publication in the wake of Columbine and the film has nothing to do with the original work. This is not exactly a tragedy as Rage isn't the best thing that King has written. Imagine that Jim Morrison commissioned someone to novelize “The End”.) The film had a troubled production history. The original director was fired weeks into production and replaced by Katt Shea, best known for the Drew Barrymore exploitation film Poison Ivy.
The Rage: Carrie 2 is a film that manages to turn even its virtues into failures, such as a nuanced performance by Amy Irving as an older Sue Snell that is thrown away in a gore gag so cynical it seems like a dare. Unfortunately it’s not the nadir of Carrie’s screen incarnations.
No that honor belongs to the 2002 TV movie. A film that wastes the committed performance of Angela Bettis in a poorly paced, amateurishly acted film (even the usually dependable Patricia Clarkson gives a disappointingly one note performance as Mrs. White) that is shot with all the flair of a soap opera. The film finally sputters to a stop in an ending so cowardly that it transcends mere badness and ends up somewhere in the realm of the absurd. The fact that the often brilliant Bryan Fuller wrote the script boggles the mind.
An equally, ultimately even more dispiriting, waste of talent was put towards 2013's remake. Unlike so many remakes Carrie seemed ripe for reinterpretation. With Kim Peirce at the helm, a criminally underused director who so naturally captured the petty cruelties of insular small town life in Boys Don't Cry, increased media awareness of bullying that kept the material socially relevant, and a wealth of unplumbed, apocalyptic material left in the original novel's finale, now accessible without the technical limitations of the 70's or the constraints of a TV budget. It was a perfect marriage of director and source material that not only had a real chance at artistic merit but an opportunity to best the esteemed original.
Carrie managed to take advantage of exactly none of these opportunities. Most of the adaptation's problems stem from taking the original screenplay as its source instead of re-adapting the novel (Lawrence D. Cohen was even brought on board). Though a lot has changed since the 1970's you wouldn't know by looking at the film. There's no real engagement in cyber bullying, none of Peirce's vaunted social conscience that made her previous two films so electric. No attempt to set itself apart from the first take on the material at all. If you told me that Kim Peirce's version of Carrie would have less engaged gender politics than De Palma's I would have thought you were stoned.
Aside from the screenplay no one really does bad work in Carrie. Chloe Moretz is miscast but gives a noble effort. Julianne Moore is an ably gothic Margret White and though Peirce's direction is disappointingly anonymous, she at least tries to engage with the horror material. All in all Carrie is just plain depressing, the very definition of a wasted opportunity.
Unfortunately though Peirce's film ended up just the latest example in a 37 year long string of unbroken failure, Carrie White will continue to be as strong of a personification of the adolescent outsider as ever. Nor is it likely to be the last attempt. While it was De Palma who added the shot of Carrie’s hand bursting from the grave at the end of his film, it has ended up a prescient piece of prophecy. Carrie White will keep coming back from the dead. Some works just hit far too close to home to be left buried.
You can read more of Bryce Wilson's thoughts on Stephen King, including full essays on The Shining and Pet Semetary in his book Son Of Danse Macabre.