Motherhood in Film & Television: The Evolution of Margaret White

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek (1976 film)

This piece is from Monthly Contributor Carrie Nelson.

(Warning: Contains spoilers about Stephen King’s Carrie and its film and stage adaptations.) 
I love Stephen King’s Carrie, and not just because we share the same name. More than anything, I love the way that Carrie honestly explores the tensions and horrors of being a teenage girl. The details of the story aren’t terribly realistic – not many teenage outcasts have telekinetic powers, and few high school send-offs involve murdering everyone at the prom. But the anxiety around getting your first period, the fear that the boy asking you on a date is only doing it as a prank, the compulsion to make fun of others even though you know it’s wrong – these are normal parts of being a teenager. King’s book taps into those experiences incredibly well, which is why the story has resulted in numerous artistic adaptations. 
Carrie was first made into a film in 1976. Since then, it has become a stage musical, a made-for-TV movie, and it will soon be made into a new film, directed by Kimberly Peirce and starring Chloë Moretz in the title role. Every adaptation of Carrie contains similar elements (notably the torturous shower scene in the beginning and the fatal prom toward the end), but other aspects of the story change slightly in each incarnation. What I want to talk about today are the ways in which the character of Margaret White, Carrie’s religious fundamentalist mother, has evolved over the years. Margaret is arguably the most frightening character in Carrie, and I believe that she has only become more disturbing in each new incarnation, but for a different reason than one might suspect. 
In the 1976 Brian De Palma adaptation, Piper Laurie plays Margaret. Laurie’s interpretation of the role is iconic, but something about the performance has always rung false to me. Laurie’s Margaret is loud and bombastic and evil, to a degree that’s almost campy. In particular, the scene in which Margaret dies is significantly different from King’s novel. In the book, Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to stop Margaret’s heart, but in the De Palma film, Carrie uses her powers to send knives flying at Margaret, crucifying her and mimicking the imagery of Saint Sebastian that torments Carrie throughout the film. It’s an unforgettable image, and given the visual nature of cinema, it makes sense that this particular detail would be modified from the book. (It’s important to note, however, that the De Palma adaptation is the only version with this ending – all others I’ve seen remain true to King’s original ending.) However, the excessive spectacle of the scene (and the film as a whole) lessens the emotional impact. Laurie’s Margaret is shocking and disturbing, but there’s an emotional element missing from the performance, which has always bothered me. 
Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson (2012 musical revival)
I saw the 1976 version of Carrie for the first time nearly five years ago, and it wasn’t until recently that I realized what doesn’t work for me about Laurie’s performance – it’s entirely one-dimensional. It’s cartoonish, even. It’s hard to be frightened by Laurie’s Margaret when she seems so unlike any mother who could realistically exist. But that isn’t how the character has to be. I thought about this in March, when I saw the MCC Theater’s Off-Broadway revival of the Carrie musical. Now, I did not see the original version of the musical, which opened on Broadway in 1988 and closed after only five performances, making it one of the biggest Broadway flops of all time. I cannot speak to that version, but I can speak to the heavily revised revival, in which Marin Mazzie played an unnervingly sympathetic version of Margaret. Though the story is the same, and Margaret is still deeply disturbed and abusive, there is a greater emphasis on Margaret’s inner struggle and the reality that she truly wants to help her daughter. In the second act, Margaret sings, “When There’s No One,” a moving ballad that reveals her intention to murder her daughter and the despair she feels about that decision. Rather than solely seeing Margaret’s evil and rage, in this version we see her rationalization. We see a fully developed character, a person who truly believes she is making the right decision, which makes the decision even more horrifying. There is nothing cartoonish about Mazzie’s Margaret, which made her far more terrifying than Laurie’s Margaret ever could be. 
Patricia Clarkson (2002 made-for-TV movie)
I feel similarly about Patricia Clarkson’s interpretation of Margaret in the 2002 made-for-TV movie version. In a dramatic shift from Laurie’s excitable reading, Clarkson nearly whispers all of her dialogue. Clarkson’s Margaret is completely understated, so much so that you almost believe she might come around and change her mind about her daughter. Of course, she doesn’t, and the scene in which Margaret tries to kill Carrie is shocking not because of the spectacle but because it catches you off-guard. This isn’t to say that the 2002 Carrie isn’t filled with spectacle – it is, sometimes to a distracting degree. But Clarkson’s performance as Margaret remains the calm, quiet element of the film, making her ultimate act of violence against her daughter all the more frightening. 
Kimberly Peirce’s highly anticipated remake of Carrie will be released in 2013. Little has been revealed about Peirce’s plans and vision, but Chloë Moretz promises the film “really looks into the relationship of Margaret and Carrie.” Julianne Moore recently signed on to play Margaret, a decision that makes me incredibly excited and anxious to see the film. I believe Moore will be able to add subtlety and nuance to the role, adding layers to Margaret’s character that have never been present before. I look forward to reading more about the film and Moore’s work on it as it enters production. 
I recently spoke with a friend who said that she didn’t think Carrie should be remade. She said the original is good enough as it is, so why change it? While I agree that the 1976 version is a classic, and nothing will ever replace it in cinematic history, I do think that much more can be done with the story. Particularly, I believe Margaret has much more room to grow as a character, and if the 2002 television film and the 2012 stage adaptation tell us anything, it’s that Margaret’s horror doesn’t come from her anger and violence – it comes from the completely calm way in which she rationalizes her beliefs and her actions. I hope to see Peirce’s version take Margaret even further as a character. I don’t know what that will look like, but I am anxious to find out.
Fan-designed poster for upcoming remake

Carrie Nelson is a Bitch Flicks monthly contributor. She was a Staff Writer for Gender Across Borders, an international feminist community and blog that she co-founded in 2009. She works as a grant writer for an LGBT nonprofit, and she is currently pursuing an MA in Media Studies at The New School.


  • Posted May 23, 2012 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    oh my….I think Laurie’s performance is brilliant, and not campy at all. Yes, she is evil–and i don’t think at all campy–but there’s something so passionate and loving about her as well, i think.

  • Posted May 23, 2012 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    Candice –

    Thanks for the comment!

    I think there’s absolutely something passionate and loving about the character. And I do like the De Palma film/Laurie’s performance — it’s what made me care enough about the story to read King’s novel. But after seeing other interpretations of the character, I feel like there’s more to Margaret than Laurie conveys.

    As much as I like it, De Palma’s Carrie is a bit over-the-top for me. Especially the ending. Like I said in the article, I get why he probably made that change, but the subtlety of the heart-stopping is much more powerful to me than the crucifix. The crucifix is an amazing image — I just don’t know that it was necessary, considering how beautiful and simple the original ending is. And my issue with Laurie is the same. I really do like the performance, a lot. But I think she makes some choices that are more over-the-top than is needed. “Campy” may have been the wrong word choice.

    But the truth is, it’s obviously an impressive performance if it makes people respond passionately, whether positively or negatively. So that’s something. :)

    Still, I am VERY interested to see what Julianne Moore will do with the role…