Confession time: this is the first time I’ve read a Stephen King novel. No, really. That’s quite an accomplishment, given my interest in horror and the sheer number of horror novels King has written, but I suppose we’ve all got to start somewhere.
Generally speaking, when I read a book that has been made into a film, in instances where I’ve seen the film first, I tend to come away with the impression that the book is the better version, with too much having been lost in the adaptation process. Not so with Carrie: I genuinely think that Brian De Palma improved the story in his iconic 1976 film. Carrie is a scant 200 pages (plus, in my copy, a new introduction by King in which he talks, at some length, about its origins), and I read it in dribs and drabs over the course of a week (that’s pretty fast by my standards). It definitely gripped me considerably more than the last book I read, The Historian, but I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece by any means. King uses an interesting technique (abandoned by De Palma in his film version) in which he intercuts the narrative with extracts from various publications - academic journals, courtroom transcripts, the written testimony of survivors of the fateful prom night - giving the read insight into the minds of people other than just poor Carrie White. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s just a distraction that gets in the way of the plot.
Unfortunately, I suspect that my having seen the film beforehand coloured my reading of the book. King refers to Carrie on numerous occasions as large and “bovine”, which Sissy Spacek most assuredly is not. He describes Margaret White in a similar way, which again clashes with the appearance of Piper Laurie in the film. It’s odd that the image of Carrie as a frail, slight girl seems to have been adopted so unanimously, as just about every piece of cover artwork that I’ve seen for the book, whether explicitly based on Spacek’s appearance in the film or not, bears more resemblance to the character from the film than to the one described on the page. That’s not, of course, a problem with the book itself but rather the way its image has been altered by the film’s influence.
As with The Exorcist (and I’ll get back to reading Legion very soon, Lee, I promise!), what struck me most about Carrie was the film’s faithfulness to its source material. Entire scenes and conversations have been lifted from page to celluloid, although, like I mentioned before, the film dispensed with the fictitious “secondary sources” used in the book. Some key changes were also made to the final act, probably due to budgetary constraints, and a plot involving a telepathic link between Carrie and Sue Snell (through whose eyes we see many of the events in the book) was also dropped.
So yeah, my first Stephen King, and probably not my last. I enjoyed it for sure, but it didn’t offer any startling revelations that I would have missed by just watching the film.