Posted in Books, Film, Filmmaking, Screenwriting, Writing

Why Authorship Matters When it Comes to Adaptations

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In the early 1970s, Stephen King was like any other aspiring novelist: writing manuscript after manuscript, working hard to improve his craft, hoping for someone in the publishing industry to take a chance on him. While teaching high school to make ends meet, he began writing a novel called Carrie, a spooky horror tale of a plain-faced high school loner who has the ability to move objects with her mind. Soon after completing the manuscript, he sold his novel to Doubleday and then quickly to the movies. The acclaimed 1976 film Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma, not only catapulted King to the A-list of novelists, but it also started a trend of adapting King’s work to other mediums, including a notorious Broadway flop, two additional feature films, and an audiobook recorded by none other than the Oscar-winning star of the original movie.

A novel being adapted to both film and theater isn’t unheard of — two famous examples are The Color Purple and Mary Poppins — but it is unusual, and what can’t be denied, particularly in the case of Carrie, is how different artists bring their own visions and sensibilities to their versions of the work, in each occurrence taking someone else’s property and making it his or her own. This then raises the question: who in each of these cases is the true author of Carrie? Many might argue that King is the one and only author of Carrie, that the many adaptations are simply different spins on the exact same story, that no matter the scene alterations or song additions or endless diversions from the original text that King and King alone is the only true author of these works. However, despite King’s origination of the story itself and his influence on all the adaptations that came later, it’s clear in looking at the works themselves, from their variety of styles to their successes and failures, that the author of Carrie definitively changes from one project to the next.

King’s 1974 novel is a slim and experimental work of debut fiction, certainly not something on the surface that begs for adaptation to film or musical theater. The book has an odd structure in that only half of it plays out like a straightforward narrative, the story of a sixteen-year-old named Carrie White who’s bullied by the other girls at school when she has her period for the first time in the locker room and thinks the blood running down her thighs means she’s dying, King writing, “Carrie backed into the side of one of the four large shower compartments and slowly collapsed into a sitting position. Slow, helpless groans jerked out of her” (8). Carrie has always struggled to fit in, soft-spoken and shy, unattractive and pimply-faced, but the humiliation in the locker room sends her to the darkest of places, her religious zealot of a mother at home named Margaret not helping in the way she torments Carrie on a nightly basis. Even worse is Carrie’s fear of her increasingly disruptive telepathic abilities, not just the ability to shut books and heavy doors with only her mind but her ability to float various items through the air like she’s an all-powerful witch.

Things look up for Carrie though when a cute boy at school named Tommy asks her to be his date for the prom, and even though she believes deep down Tommy’s playing some kind of trick on her, she agrees to go and is amazed when she not only has an unexpectedly romantic time with one of the most popular guys in school but also wins prom queen next to Tommy’s prom king. The night gets better and better for Carrie, but then as soon as she reaches the podium, a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on Carrie’s head, leaving her hair and her dress in red ruins, King writing in his exacting manner, “[Carrie] looked like she had been dipped in a bucket of red paint” (136). And then in classic King fashion, Carrie unleashes an all-out assault of her telepathic abilities on the crowded auditorium of unsuspecting victims. After she wipes out hundreds of people young and old, she returns home, kills her mother, and dies when her own house crumbles in on her.

This half of the book one could argue calls out for film treatment, but the other half, in which King includes fake newspaper clippings and extended courtroom depositions and interviews with the massacre survivors, disrupts the narrative pacing and doesn’t make for easy translation to other mediums. For example, toward the end King includes specific definitions to slang terms, like this one: “to rip off a Carrie: to cause either violence or destruction; mayhem, confusion; (2) to commit arson” (198). Also, King gives away many of the narrative’s surprises at the beginning of the book, like when he reveals on the second page that “what none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic” (2). A lot of these specific details and early revelations add to the world King has created, but how does something like that make it to screen?

To do the novel justice as a film would have had to blend segments of fake documentary snippets with the more cinematic narrative, but screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen was smart to nix all the experimental material in the book and focus completely on the harrowing story at the heart of the project — Carrie’s tumultuous journey that ends in tragedy. And an even bigger stroke of genius at the time was the hiring of the up-and-coming director Brian De Palma, who had made a name for himself on horror films like Sisters and Obsession and was known for his dazzling cinematic style. De Palma could have tried to translate King’s novel beat by beat without offering his own take on the material, but instead he brings his unique gift for storytelling to his version of Carrie, which at the time was his biggest hit to date. Many argue that De Palma’s film is better than the novel, even King himself: “He handled the material deftly and artistically and got a fine performance out of Sissy Spacek. In many ways, the movie is more stylish than my book” (Rogak 82).

But whether the film or the novel is necessarily better isn’t the argument here, although it deserves to be noted; the argument is whether or not King is the true author of the 1976 film, and I believe De Palma’s fascinating stylistic approach to the material proves he and he alone is the author of the film. Take the opening for example, the way he reveals Carrie in the locker room. Instead of the novel, which cuts straight to Carrie in the shower, the film features an extended tracking shot that follows various naked and almost-naked women in the locker room for at a minute or more until we finally find Carrie huddled in the mist of the shower, the haunting musical score playing underneath that effectively builds a sense of mystery. Or take the prom bloodbath scene, in which De Palma amps up the tension by not only drenching the film stock of the sequence in dark, eerie red, but also using the unusual and unsettling and rarely utilized split-screen format.

And then of course there is that shocking final scene, “perhaps the film’s greatest departure from the novel,” in which Sue Snell, played by Amy Irving, walks up to Carrie’s grave, only to have Carrie’s hand shoot out from the ground and grab Sue by her wrist (Magistrale 3). This is a scene I would argue made the film the hit that it was, De Palma giving the audience one of the all-time great boo scares before the end credits. Additionally, in her book Haunted Heart, Lisa Rogak writes, “Some things had to be changed in the movie. In the book, as she wandered back home in shock after the prom, Carrie blew up a few gas stations, which sent the entire town into flames. De Palma struck it from the movie because the special effects would cost too much” (82). The author of a novel doesn’t have to worry about a budget, doesn’t have to worry about how to capture an entire city burning to the ground on rolling cameras, but a filmmaker has to take into account so many elements to get from pre-production to post-production, and in this capacity De Palma made important artistic and budgetary decisions to create his legendary horror film.

These reasons for why De Palma is the author of the film and not King takes us to a deeper, more complex scenario: is the director of a film always the author, even if that director follows the novel his film is based on extremely closely and doesn’t offer anything remotely innovative in terms of style? Ultimately the decision to stay close to an author’s text and not take the material too far sideways is, in a way, a major authorial decision, and it’s the decision directors David Carson (Star Trek: Generations) and Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) both made in their respective versions of Carrie. Carson’s 2002 TV movie is the most faithful adaptation of the novel to date, staying closely tied to the book from beginning to end, including its depictions of some of the aftermath of the massacre in ways that the 1976 movie never touched on, with a “screenplay [representing] an accurate picture of the source material’s complete storyline” (David Nusair). However, De Palma’s film is so beloved and familiar that it’s been difficult for filmmakers to pave new ground with this source material, the 2002 version suffering from “an almost excessively low-rent feel that’s perpetuated by Carson’s less-than-cinematic directorial choices” (David Nusair).

Furthermore, Pierce’s 2013 theatrical film, despite updating the story to modern times, with the bullies taunting Carrie with their cell phones in the locker room, and offering new tricks of special effects, like giving Carrie at the prom the ability to fly, ultimately skews closer to the book than De Palma’s film, particularly in the way it gives the character of Sue Snell, who begs her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom, a bigger role throughout. Also, like in the novel, Carrie is less a tragic figure in Pierce’s film adaptation and more of a purely vengeful source of rage at the end, with Pierce “making us complicit in Carrie’s violence. The demise of the villain that was presented in such a matter-of-fact fashion in the 1976 film is instead depicted [in this version] in long, grotesque detail” (James Berardinelli). In the end, both Carson and Pierce made specific decisions, some for the good and some for the bad, to their own adaptations that make them the specific authors of these films.

The adaptation one would argue is most separate from the novel and clearly is the work of a different author than King is the 1988 Broadway flop, Carrie: The Musical. Universally considered one of the most wrongheaded theater adaptations ever made, this musical tells the novel’s horrific story through, bizarrely, singing and dancing. It’s possible for horror to work in the musical medium — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is currently the longest running musical on Broadway, and The Evil Dead: The Musical has been performed all over the United States to great success. But Carrie: The Musical had a lot of problems going for it, starting with a disastrous preview in London before, as John Kenrick says in his book, Musical Theatre: A History, “the producers ignored all warning signs and brought the show to Broadway with only minimal revisions” (354). For the New York production, the stage was painted completely black, and the show featured a song-and-dance number at inappropriate times, like in the brutal slaying of pigs that only gets a couple of pages in the novel and less than a minute of screen-time in the De Palma film. Additionally, there’s a moment where “a blood-soaked Carrie dripped her way down a long, impossibly white staircase [that] left many audience members laughing out loud,” suggesting that the make-up effects could have used a few more weeks of prep time to reach a point of believability (355).

Another problem with the show, an unfortunate authorial decision on behalf of its director Terry Hands, was its tone, as Ethan Mordden explains in his book, The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: “[There was] a complete lack of humor. By 1988 we were used to dark shows, but most of them could at least affect a little sarcasm here and there” (67). The show closed after five performances, and nearly thirty years since it’s hilariously quick Broadway run, Carrie: The Musical has “proved to be the most infamous flop musical of its time, one whose title remains a byword for theatrical disaster” (Kenrick 354). Mordden additionally says, “There’s no other flop like it; there’s no other show like it” (69). But how can this be? How can a highly successful novel that was translated into one of the most beloved horror films of the 1970s, one that broke records at the box office and secured Academy Award nominations for both its female leads, have been turned into a disaster of a theater production? The reason is that King is not the author of this project, and neither is De Palma. The reason for Carrie: The Musical’s failure is purely one of authorship, director Hands not having a firm grasp on what makes the original story so compelling, and additionally not understanding how to translate that story into an emotionally resonant stage musical. Carrie: The Musical is the most fascinating example of authorship because it shows how different artists can create not just successful adaptations but also ones that are downright embarrassing.

The one medium of adaptation that doesn’t necessarily make a case for featuring a different author than the novelist himself is the audiobook. Unlike a film which has a specifically structured way to present the story of a novel, and unlike a Broadway musical which by its nature will need to create much of the book of the show from scratch to pave way for lyrics and music, the audiobook is simply a person reading the novel out loud. In the case of the 2005 audiobook of Carrie, Sissy Spacek, who played the title role in the 1976 film, lends her vocal talent as the sole reader of King’s original work. Bringing her soulful, calming voice to the project, and allowing the listener to hear King’s classic story through her words, Spacek “easily [recreates] the moods of that odd young girl” and “successfully takes on the personae of the small town’s other disparate residents” while also “[moving] smoothly from the magazine, newspaper, and official reports to dramatic scenes” (Publishers Weekly).

But could one really argue that Spacek is the author of the Carrie audiobook? I still say yes, although in the case of the audiobook I would argue that she’s the co-author with King. When a reader is alone and spending his or her time with text on the page, the author in this example is the one and only author of the text. If a teenager picks up a hardcover or paperback or ebook of Carrie, he or she will take a journey with the storyteller of the novel, who in this case is Stephen King. However, when someone speaks the words of the book to the listener, the experience between author and reader becomes a filtered one in which there is a third important body in the middle. That third body, whether he or she expects to or not, becomes co-author of the text by infusing the words with pauses and meaning, and bringing personality to all its characters. Spacek is not just robotically reading words on the page; when it comes to the “teenagers, teachers, moms, patrons, the town drunk — Spacek finds a voice for each of them” (Publishers Weekly). In the case of an audiobook, a person listening in the car or at home falls under the spell of a speaker infusing the novel’s words with a special and notable personality, not merely the words themselves, so I would argue that King and Spacek are effectively co-authors of the 2005 audiobook.

In looking at the various adaptations of Carrie, it should be clear that each new version of King’s story invites a different author to interpret the words on the manuscript page and make it his or her own, whether it’s a film, a piece of theater, or an audiobook. These various authors have the ability to build upon the original text, completely alter the text, sadly destroy the very nature of that text, but in each case, a different person is bringing his or her own talent and energy and thoughtfulness to one singular story that is inarguably part of the public consciousness and a highly significant entry in the horror canon, both in literature and in film. King will always be the original author of Carrie, but other authors like De Palma, Carson, Pierce, Hands, and Spacek have given the rich material further life in their respective adaptations. King is one of the most influential authors of the last fifty years, but it needs to be said that he’s not the author of every version made from his work; hundreds of talented artists have brought his stories to life with their own styles and visions through a vast collection of mediums that prove how incredibly unique different authors can be. Even when they’re all telling the same story, there’s always something new to discover.

Works Cited

Berardinelli, James. “Carrie (2013).” ReelViews. James Berardinelli, 18 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017

“Carrie.” PW.com. Publishers Weekly, 28 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Kenrick, John. Musical Theatre: A History. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2008.

King, Stephen. Carrie. Doubleday: New York, 1974. Print.

Magistrale, Tony. The Films of Stephen King: From Carrie to Secret Window. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2008. Print.

Mordden, Ethan. The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: The Last Twenty-Five Years of the Broadway Musical. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2004. Print.

Nusair, David. “Four Thrillers from MGM.” Reel Film Reviews. David Nusair, 26 July 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Rogak, Lisa. Haunted Heart. Thomas Dunne Books: New York, 2008. Print.

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