Director – Mark L. Lester, Screenplay – Stanley Mann, Based on the Novel by Stephen King, Producer – Frank Capra Jr, Cinematography – Guiseppe Ruzzolini, Music – Tangerine Dream, Special Effects – Jeff Jarvis & Mike Wood, Makeup – Tony Sanchez, Art Director – Giorgio Postiglione. Production Company – Dino De Laurentiis.
Drew Barrymore (Charlie McGee), George C. Scott (John Rainbird), David Keith (Andrew McGee), Martin Sheen (Cap Hollister), Art Carney (Irv Manders), Freddie Jones (Dr Joseph Wanless), Moses Gunn (Dr Pynchot), Louise Fletcher (Norma Manders), Heather Locklear (Vicky McGee)
Andy McGee and Vicky Tomlinson meet on campus during the 1960s while acting as volunteers in an experimental test of the drug Lot 6. Both are left with psychic powers as a result of the experiment. They later marry and give birth to a daughter Charlene or Charlie. Charlie grows up with the power of pyrokinesis – the ability to create fires by the power of the mind. The sinister government agency The Shop, who sponsored the Lot 6 experiments, wants to exploit Charlie’s power. Vicky is killed as Shop agents attempt to snatch Charlie. Andy goes on the run with Charlie but they are captured by John Rainbird, the Shop’s crazy American Indian assassin. Imprisoned at the Shop’s headquarters, Charlie refuses to cooperate with the experiments. Rainbird creates an elaborate disguise as an orderly in order to win Charlie’s affections and persuade her to co-operate.
Stephen King adaptations were at a height during the mid-1980s. Producer Dino De Laurentiis made a number of film adaptations of Stephen King’s works – Cujo (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), Silver Bullet (1985), Cat’s Eye (1985) and oversaw King’s own directorial debut Maximum Overdrive (1986). Firestarter is usually regarded as one of the weakest Stephen King adaptations. It is not entirely all-bad.
The original novel of Firestarter (1980) is one of Stephen King’s most affecting, in particular due to the child’s point-of-view story told throughout. Stanley Mann’s script for the film in fact conducts a faithful adaptation of the book. Mann touches bases with all the main aspects of the story without seeing the need to add anything – indeed, up to that point, Firestarter was the one Stephen King screen adaptation that followed the original text the most faithfully. Yet, while accurately conveying all elements of the story, the film suffers from a blandness. Director Mark L. Lester, previously known for exploitation films like Truck Stop Women (1974), Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976), Roller Boogie (1979) and the notoriously violent revenge drama The Class of 1984 (1982), has an insipid approach. He is not helped by the cinematographer’s reliance on a fish-eye lens and a robotic Tangerine Dream score.
Nevertheless, the very faithfulness to the Stephen King story gives the film life. What saves the film is Drew Barrymore in the central role. Barrymore had just come from her scene-stealing part as the younger sister in the mega-success of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). At only age nine here, she gives a phenomenal performance. Indeed, Drew Barrymore is oddly an actress who is far better as a child performer – E.T. and especially here – than she is in the unchallenging romantic fluff she has been cast in as an adult. The performance she gives is remarkably adult in the conviction and emotional centre she manages to draw to the film.
However, there is not much conviction to the pyrokinetic effects surrounding her. While the effects team have fun, there is never the sense that it is her doing it rather than the effects team putting on a show. The effect of wind flying through her hair every time she uses her powers or her urgently trying to command the fires to “Back off” is rather silly. The Japanese Cross Fire/Pyrokinesis (2000) did a far more amazing job in making the pyrotechnics looks exciting – indeed, Firestarter is a film that would benefit a great deal from a modern remake, using CGI to create the fires.
George C. Scott seems out of place as Rainbird. (These days there would be outrage around the internet at casting a Caucasian actor in the role of a Native American). Somebody like James Woods would have been far more physically suited both to the psychotic intensity and to the physical look of the character that Stephen King wrote. Nevertheless, George C. Scott does bring some sinister effect in an otherwise entirely bloodless film – there is one nasty scene where he describes killing Charlie that gives the film some much needed bite. Martin Sheen seems uncustomarily absent-minded as Cap Hollister.
Firestarter Rekindled (2002) was a disappointing made-for-cable mini-series sequel that followed Charlie through into her twenties (where she was played by Margeurite Moreau) and brought Rainbird back from the dead (where he was played by Malcolm McDowell).
Firestarter was the first film to use of the theme of pyrokinesis, something that has proven surprisingly prevalent since. Other films taking up the subject have been Spontaneous Combustion (1990) and the excellent Japanese Cross Fire/Pyrokinesis (2000), as well as a number of tv episodes such as The X Files episode Fire (1993), the Smallville episode Plastique (2008) and the Fringe episode The Road Not Taken (2009). Surprisingly, even more prevalent have been efforts that have played the idea for comedy – Nice Girls Don’t Explode (1987), Pyrates (1991), the Hong Kong effort She Starts the Fire (1992) and Wilder Napalm (1993).
Director Mark L. Lester went onto become an action director with the likes of Commando (1985), Armed and Dangerous (1986) and Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991). Lester returned to genre material with the silly android schoolteachers action film Class of 1999 (1990), the female stalker film The Ex (1996), the hilarious psycho sperm donor film Misbegotten (1997), which is Lester’s single best film, the serial killer thriller Sacrifice (2000), the monster movie Pterodactyl (2005), Groupie (2010) about murders on a band’s comeback tour, the monster movie Poseidon Rex (2013) and the Arthurian adventure Dragons of Camelot (2014). Lester has also produced Devil’s Prey (2001), Instinct to Kill/The Perfect Husband (2001), Bad Karma/Hell’s Gate (2002), The Wisher (2002), Wraiths of Roanoke (2007), Yeti: Curse of the Demon (2008), Beauty and the Beast (2009), Jabberwock (2011), Sinbad and the Minotaur (2011), Dragonwasps (2012), Sand Sharks (2012), Jurassic Attack (2013) and Toxin (2015).
Other Stephen King genre adaptations include:- Carrie (1976), Salem’s Lot (1979), The Shining (1980), Christine (1983), Cujo (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), Children of the Corn (1984), Cat’s Eye (1985), Silver Bullet (1985), The Running Man (1987), Pet Sematary (1989), Graveyard Shift (1990), It (tv mini-series, 1990), Misery (1990), a segment of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), Sometimes They Come Back (1991), The Lawnmower Man (1992), The Dark Half (1993), Needful Things (1993), The Tommyknockers (tv mini-series, 1993), The Stand (tv mini-series, 1994), The Langoliers (tv mini-series, 1995), The Mangler (1995), Thinner (1996), The Night Flier (1997), Quicksilver Highway (1997), The Shining (tv mini-series, 1997), Trucks (1997), Apt Pupil (1998), The Green Mile (1999), The Dead Zone (tv series, 2001-2), Hearts in Atlantis (2001), Carrie (tv mini-series, 2002), Dreamcatcher (2003), Riding the Bullet (2004), ‘Salem’s Lot (tv mini-series, 2004), Secret Window (2004), Desperation (tv mini-series, 2006), Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (tv mini-series, 2006), 1408 (2007), The Mist (2007), Children of the Corn (2009), Everything’s Eventual (2009), the tv series Haven (2010-5), Bag of Bones (tv mini-series, 2011), Carrie (2013), Under the Dome (tv series, 2013-5), Big Driver (2014), A Good Marriage (2014), Mercy (2014), Cell (2016), 11.22.63 (tv mini-series, 2016), The Dark Tower (2017), Gerald’s Game (2017), It (2017), The Mist (tv series, 2017), Mr. Mercedes (tv series, 2017– ), 1922 (2017), Castle Rock (tv series, 2018-9), Doctor Sleep (2019), In the Tall Grass (2019), Pet Sematary (2019), The Outsider (tv series, 2020- ) and The Stand (tv mini-series, 2020-1). Stephen King had also written a number of original screen works with Creepshow (1982), Golden Years (tv mini-series, 1991), Sleepwalkers (1992), Storm of the Century (tv mini-series, 1999), Rose Red (tv mini-series, 2002) and the tv series Kingdom Hospital (2004), as well as adapted his own works with the screenplays for Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet, Pet Sematary, The Stand, The Shining, Desperation, Children of the Corn 2009, A Good Marriage and Cell. King also directed one film with Maximum Overdrive (1986).