What the 'Carrie' Remake Gets Wrong About Cyberbullying
Last Friday, Kimberly Peirce's remake of Stephen King's Carrie opened to mixed, mostly negative reviews. Critics have noted that, disappointingly, the film operates firmly in the realm of remake rather than reinvention — Peirce's version remains astoundingly faithful to Brian De Palma's 1976 version of the film, with almost no changes to the story's progression and dialogue. Peirce's only substantive contribution to the film, apart from the obvious visual effects, seems to be her attempt to modernize the story — especially in regards to Carrie's bullying. The teens are now tech-savvy, and social media is involved in their cruelty. However, Peirce's attempt to incorporate more modern elements to Carrie's bullying fails to capture how bullying plays out today. In fact, it barely scratches the surface of the often tragic realities of online bullying.
Peirce's Carrie opens in almost the exact same way as the 1976 original: Carrie experiences her first period while showering after a gym class. Unaware of what is happening to her body, she falls into hysterics, and her peers cruelly respond by pelting her with tampons. Peirce adds a small, but noteworthy, addition to the scene: this time, one of the girls records the harassment on her phone, and later posts the video on YouTube. After Chris dumps the pig's blood on Carrie at prom (an iconic moment), the video is projected onto a wall next to the stage. Carrie's humiliation is doubled: In addition to the prank that's been played on her, Carrie is forced to relive the shame of that previous encounter. With these new additions, the film hints at the role that social media now plays in bullying culture.
However, compared to the kind of online bullying that occurs today, this attempt to incorporate social media and technology into bullying falls flat. Carrie's experience of bullying is highly visible and grounded in her encounters with her peers — she walks down hallways filled with people who laugh at her, past lockers scrawled with abusive messages. Her status as victim and scapegoat is painfully clear. Online bullying, on the other hand, can be just as traumatic as this sort of bullying, but hardly as noticeable to the public eye. Attacks are concentrated in the sphere of texts or social media, making it difficult to tell when someone is being targeted until it is too late.
One of the first cases of online bullying to receive national attention was that of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University who committed suicide after his roommate mocked his homosexuality on Twitter and spied on his trysts. Most recently, a 12-year-old in Florida jumped to her death after being relentlessly harassed by two of her classmates. Such stories highlight the fact that, when it comes to online bullying, it is only after the victims have already suffered that the bullying comes to light.
In these cases, where social media has broad effects while staying somewhat invisible to relevant outsiders, the victims have few options for speaking out or getting help. There is, for better or worse, no attentive gym teacher to intervene, no Sue Snell to convince her boyfriend to take Carrie to prom. Interestingly, it's often outside groups on the internet who take action against online bullying, with the recent Maryville and Steubenville rape cases being prime examples. Thus, compared to the kind of bullying that occurs today, the depiction of bullying in Carrie almost seems antiquated — it is too visible, too centered on the physical encounter.
The reason that Carrie has been such a compelling story, spawning so many adaptations, sequels, remakes, and even a Broadway production, is that it draws upon realistic, universal themes. It captures the difficulties of coming of age, the repressive effects of religion, and the suffering that comes from being an outsider. King takes to an inventive and fantastical extreme the cruelty that high school students can inflict on perceived outsiders, and the consequences of someone being pushed too far. And while these themes still ring true, it's a shame that Peirce's remake adds nothing new to the narrative. With bullying in particular, the story may in fact lose its relevance, as bullying transitions to taking place on the internet rather than in the halls of a high school.