Firestarter is the 8th novel written by Stephen King/Richard Bachman and the 10th to be adapted into film. It came out in 1984 right on the heels of four other adaptations of King works released between 1983 and 1984 namely Christine, Cujo, The Dead Zone and Children of the Corn. Unfortunately, the commercial success of the book did not translate into box office receipts in spite of how closely it followed the book. Then again, it could also be said that its faithful adaptation diminished the impact it could have since film is a different medium altogether.
The book’s plot followed a formula – that of a government experiment gone wrong. An experimental drug code-named Lot Six was administered by The Shop, a shady government agency, to twelve college volunteers. They wanted to see if psi ability can be stimulated by drugs and bring about telekinesis, thought transference and mental domination. The action in the film and in the book started when The Shop decided to bring in the McGee family particularly Charlie McGee, the eight-year old child who was the result of the union of the only two remaining relatively healthy subjects who took Lot Six. The others had died or lost their minds and maimed themselves during the experiment or later committed suicide. Far from being an ordinary child, Charlie could make fires with her mind.
As in the book, the movie used flashbacks to provide the background on how things came to be. In the book, this approach was used effectively since it can put in as much detail as it can not merely to explain the how and why, but also to gain sympathy for the characters’ plight. In the movie, however, this approach limited the development of the character. As it was, the characters became mere representations of the institutions they stood for. Perhaps, it was assumed that the stellar cast and their acting reputations would create audience empathy. It failed to do that, however.
The origins of Charlie’s extraordinary ability was explained early on hence there was not real tension or suspense to be had. Once the pursuit started, their capture and the eventual escape were already predictable. The good guys and the bad guys were firmly established that there could only be one ending. King may have wanted the basic premise to be thought-provoking, that of inflicting unethical experiments on unsuspecting victims. The book focused on the consequence of the experimentation. However, the movie seemed to have focused more on reaching its climax than to pursue this premise. In the movie, there was no exploration of Andy and Vicky’s unease after their psychedelic experience. There was no feeling of dread over what had transpired. There was not feeling of common guilt of being responsible why Charlie turned out to be a firestarter.
The director banked on Drew Barrymore to carry the movie and show the incongruity that such an angelic face can carry an ability that can only destroy. Dr. Wanless diatribe and should have explored the horror of the immensity of her probable power but it just came out as politically preachy. Had the approach been altered so that it followed a chronological and continuous tale from the 1969 experimentation up to the pyrotechnic display, perhaps a certain suspense could have been maintained with the audience and the characters could have been developed more clearly which the audience can relate with. Also, the visual tricks of physical turmoil used in the movie such as the nosebleed on top of his facial contortions seem over the top. King did not use both devices in the book. He just made him turn pale and very tired and if we wanted something more visual, there were the explorations of numbness on his face.
With Barrymore, her face was fully exploited. In the book, her character was becoming drawn, but in the movie she was in the peak of health. Every time she hurls fire, she gets a close u and her golden hair would be blown away from her face (the better to see you, my dear, so to speak) so one can be mesmerized by how beautiful she was as she hurled her fireballs of death. The soundtrack by Tangerine Dream also helped set the mood as its synthesized music shifts from slow to mysterious to panicky as appropriate with the action taking place on screen. The unilateral explosion of the cars in the Manders farm visually showed he spontaneity and the lack of control by Charlie over her powers as compared to the deliberate way made her fireballs and directed them towards specific subjects at The Shop’s compound.
The choice of George C. Scott as John Rainbird was a notable deviation from the book. While Scott was truly effective as the assassin sociopath, being able to transform from a kindly orderly who’s afraid of the dark to the ruthless killer who can just as easily “strike her across the bridge of the nose, breaking it explosively, and sending bone fragments into her brain,” his native American ancestry was stretching the realm of make-believe quite a bit. In the movie, his face was not deformed.
His eyepatch was a perfunctory disguise and not used to actually cover up an eyeless socket. The book explained his deformity as a result of the stupidity of his stoned fellow soldiers in Vietnam. One can only guess why these details were left out. A true Native American may not have been chosen so as not to stir up any resentments and controversy for portraying a crazy man. Moreover, his lack of deformity would avoid questions as to how he got his battle scars. In 1984, moviegoers were not yet primed by Oliver Stone’s Platoon which came out in 1986 to the harsh realities of war.
Then, there was Martin Sheen’s depiction of Hollister. The book had him losing his mind in the end, seeing things that were not there, a negative after-effect of Andy’s mind domination if he “pushed” too hard. Instead, he was made to play it like a fool in the movie, mindlessly following orders with no manifestations of incipient craziness.
The ending was also rather stilted. After the climax and after running for almost two hours, the movie just had to end quickly. There were no speculations as to what would happen to the Manders couple whose farm was the scene of the first outburst, and which The Shop knows about once Charlie sought sanctuary with them. There was no speculation about The Shop nor to the effects on Charlie who just lost her father and killed a lot of people (in self defense). The book showed The Shop running after her again and Charlie, on her own, found the Rolling Stones magazine to tell her story. It could be that the movie audience can reconcile it better if Charlie had adult supervision.
Firestarter, Dir. Mark L. Lester. Perf. David Keith, Drew Barrymore, Martin Sheen, George C, Scott. Universal Pictures, 1984.
King, Stephen. Firestarter. New York: Signet, 1980.