Constant Readers often refer to Firestarter as “vintage King.” This designation is usually reserved for works published in Stephen King‘s early career, roughly marked by his debut novel Carrie (1974) and the horror masterpiece It (1986). That run also includes fan favorites like The Shining, Pet Sematary, and Night Shift, and has spawned an astonishing number of film adaptations. Sitting in the middle of this phase is Firestarter , King’s novel about a little girl with pyrokinesis.
Born with the ability to start fires with her mind, Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore) in the Firestarter movie must flee with her father Andy (David Keith) from a government agency known as The Shop, which hopes to experiment on her and potentially use her powers as a weapon. While opinions on the novel vary, there’s little dispute about the 1984 adaptation. After fifteen weeks on the bestseller list, Firestarter was quickly adapted for the screen, but Mark L. Lester’s film has had nowhere near the staying power of Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone or Kubrick’s The Shining . The film stars a young Barrymore fresh off the massive success of E.T. But other than a fantastic score by Tangerine Dream and the image of a little girl with her hair blowing in fiery winds, Lester’s Firestarter movie has been essentially forgotten. Despite strong special effects, the film is a slow burn bore that still leaves viewers cold.
The movie adaptation of Firestarter was seemingly doomed from the start. John Carpenter was originally set to direct and commissioned two drafts of the script, one by Bill Lancaster who also wrote the screenplay for Carpenter’s The Thing . But due to the famously bad reception of that special effects masterwork, Universal decided to remove Carpenter from the project. He was replaced with Mark Lester, best known at the time for Roller Boogie and Class of 1984 . His directorial style in Firestarter lacks any kind of artistry, consisting of mostly straightforward scenes. Considering The Thing has now cemented its status as one of the greatest horror films of all time, it’s difficult not to wonder what might have been.
Though one deals with fire and the other ice, there are overlapping themes of paranoia and villainous characters hiding in plain sight. Both stories contain quiet scenes that rapidly explode into unbelievable chaos, and Carpenter has proven to be a master of resisting the urge to over explain. In fact it’s in allowing the quiet moments to breathe and trusting the audience to interpret visual cues that give The Thing and his other classic horror film, Halloween , the lasting power to terrify. Lester spells out everything, essentially hitting the audience over the head with the plot. This abundance of exposition is present in the opening moments of the film as the camera follows Andy frantically carrying his young daughter through a crowded sidewalk while an offscreen voice says, “He just got lost in that crowd there.”
Though Carpenter would have likely delivered an excellent film, the larger problem with cutting him from production is that Universal also threw out both versions of his script. Lancaster and Bill Phillips, author of the second draft, were replaced with industry veteran Stanley Mann in one of his final films. Mann had been writing scripts for thirty years at this point, likely leading to Firestarter’s rather dated feel. But by far, the largest problem with the script is that it adheres way too closely to the novel. Combined with Lester’s lackluster style, many scenes suffer from “filmed page syndrome,” with large stretches ripped directly from King’s novel.
This is particularly noticeable in the scene in Irv Mander’s kitchen. Charlie detects the impending arrival of Shop agents and the camera plods through all of the images described in the chapter nearly beat for beat and word for word. While there’s no problem with staying faithful to source material, a novel and a film are distinctly different mediums and should be treated as such. King is known for his intricate descriptions and any attempts to exactly replicate this on screen will always feel forced. Mann’s screenplay practically groans with reverence to the text and Lester presents no clear vision of his own. Also painful is the script itself. King’s dialogue is almost always interspersed with a multilayered peek into the heads of his characters. Without this crucial prose to inform the words, on screen conversations using his exact dialogue often end up feeling forced and overwrought.
Though King’s stories are incredibly cinematic, they frequently prove difficult to adapt, mostly due to directors like Lester trying to stick too closely to the source material. Frank Darabont ( The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist ) and Mike Flanagan ( Doctor Sleep, Gerald’s Game ) have both turned out exceptional adaptations of King’s work and made a name for themselves by translating his most difficult to adapt stories. But none of their films ever play out exactly like the novels on which they’re based. They succeed because Flanagan and Darabont understand the heart of the stories they’re telling, regardless of what is on the page. Holding dialogue and sequence of events sacrosanct over the fundamental core of the story is almost always a recipe for disaster. And while toxic fandoms love to point out when adaptations differ from their source material, the Firestarter movie is a prime example of how easily that slavish devotion can go awry.
Another major failing of the Firestarter movie lies with its central villain, Rainbird (George C. Scott). In King’s novel, he is a Native American assassin who develops an obsession with Charlie. Posing as an orderly, he earns her trust and convinces her to go along with the Shop’s experiments only so that he can later kill her and hopefully absorb her powers. This is also a major failing with the book which leans too hard on Rainbird’s villainy based on centuries-old stereotypes about indigenous communities in the Americas. Rainbird is the weak spot of the novel and the film’s casting escalates this miss into a near disaster. George C. Scott is a tremendous actor, but not at all right for this role. To begin with, he is not Native American and attempts to style him with a ponytail and neutral wardrobe feel comical at best and offensive at worst. He’s supposed to be playing a stealthy assassin, but the magnetic actor practically fills every scene he’s in, making it difficult to believe he would ever even want to enter a room unnoticed. His stately mannerisms would be a much better fit for Captain Hollister, a role played by Martin Sheen; essentially recreating his turn as Greg Stillson in the far superior The Dead Zone .
For a story relying heavily on a female protagonist, the Firestarter movie is overwhelmingly concerned with its men. Charlie is an interesting character, due in large part to Barrymore’s charming performance, but she’s given little autonomy and mostly just bandied about between the male characters who try to manipulate her. Though this is a noticeable flaw in King’s book as well, the author intentionally interrogates how Charlie feels about the massive amount of power her body contains. The film also marks the feature film debut of Heather Locklear before her breakout role in T.J. Hooker . Unfortunately as Charlie’s mother, she’s given essentially nothing to do. Vicky merely falls in love with Andy, gets burned by Charlie, then dies offscreen. She’s given a single line to show her fear that the Shop is watching them and planning to abduct Charlie, a subject with much more weight in the novel. While one might correctly note that Vicky doesn’t have much to do in King’s version of the story, adaptations present the unique opportunity to make these kinds of changes. Perhaps cutting one of the many scenes between Captain Hollister and Rainbird would allow for more time spent with Charlie and her mother.
The film is largely remembered for the image of Barrymore’s hair blowing behind her, an effect King reportedly hated, and her performance is the highlight of the film. Keith is also good, despite being hampered by an overwrought script. The two have believable chemistry as father and daughter, and it’s a shame they spend nearly half the film apart. Lester’s version also contains a scene in which Andy guides Charlie in developing control over her powers by toasting but not burning a piece of bread. Though it leads to a traumatic moment that will go on to haunt Charlie, it’s the only time an adult character is shown trying to help Charlie learn to manage her gift without an ulterior motive. This scene is not present in the book, and King’s Andy spends large sections of the story actively trying to make his daughter afraid of her powers. Lester’s scene is both empowering and a prime example of taking artistic license to access the heart of the story.
Another mark in the Firestarter movie’s favor is its explosive special effects. A film titled Firestarter demands spectacular pyrotechnics and Lester delivers on this promise. All of the effects are practical and filmed on set. When later speaking about the shoot, Lester noted that Firestarter was the most difficult film of his career with massive fireballs on wires and stunt people using trampolines to jump through flames. The sheer amount of people who catch fire throughout the run time is an impressive feat and this dedication to authenticity pays off in spades. Two set pieces in particular, the incident at the Mander’s Farm and the destruction of the Shop hold up exceedingly well, especially considering they were filmed more than 30 years ago. Both feature realistic fire and explosions with only a few moments where belief must be suspended. Also effective are moments of bubbling water, melting butter, and sweating foreheads intended to show Charlie slowly heating up her surroundings. But the scenes that fall between these effects essentially feel like buckets of cold water, stopping the momentum dead in its tracks.
King was reportedly nonplussed with this adaptation, brutally comparing it to “cafeteria mashed potatoes.” And it’s hard not to agree with him. The scenes of action, though engaging, are few and far between and you feel every minute of the 114 minute run time. Though promotion for the upcoming remake has been scant, the first trailer reveals that director Keith Thomas has attempted to deal with some of these flaws. Rainbird is played by Michael Greyeyes, an Nêhiyaw actor from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and Captain Hollister is played by Gloria Reuben, adding more of a female presence to the story. One clip shows Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) discussing their primary roles in raising Charlie, lending Vicky’s character more weight in the new story. And a scene in which Charlie burns a school bathroom after being teased hints at an exploration of the complex emotions she would naturally experience as a result of her massive power. The success of the remake is yet to be determined, with Firestarter premiering in theaters and on Peacock later this week. But it’s hard to imagine a bigger failure than the 1984 snorefest. Hopefully Thomas’s new film will be the strong adaptation Charlie McGee deserves.