Firestarter (1984)


“Burn It All Down!”

Main Cast: Drew Barrymore, David Keith

Director: Mark Lestor

How do you make a pretty good book into a wreck of a movie? You can start with a very competent screenplay adaptation by Stanley Mann (Conan the Destroyer and Damien: Omen II). If that doesn’t do it, bring in a veteran cast of some of Hollywood’s most established actors, like George C. Scott, Martin Sheen, and Art Carney.

Add in a few up-and-comers like David Keith, fresh from his role in An Officer and a Gentleman, and the always beautiful Heather Locklear, plus the E.T. girl, Drew Barrymore who, let’s face it, is practically the spitting image of the character from the novel the movie was adapted from. And if you get all these things together and you still can’t ruin a fine movie, just ask Mark L. Lester to direct it for you.

1984’s Firestarter, the big screen adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, had enough going for it to make it one of the big ones. It came from a best-selling book, it had spectacular explosions during the climax, a touching story between the two main characters, and a group of actors that should have been enough to ensure this movie did well. But Mark Lester proved with this movie sometimes a director can’t just go through the motions. On occasion they actually have to pay attention.

There are two shots in Firestarter that completely ruin any credibility Lester may have been trying to build. We’ll get to those in a little while.

The story is a simple one, and one I’m sure everyone in the free world knows. I mean who HASN’T seen Firestarter? Andy McGee and his daughter Charlie are on the run from the government-sanctioned “The Shop”, a sort of scientific CIA, formally known as DSI, the Department of Scientific Intelligence. While in college Charlie’s parents Andy McGee and the former Vicky Tomlinson participated in an experiment testing the properties of Lot 6 which was supposed to be “a mild hallucinogenic”.

Turns out it was a pituitary extract which granted Andy the ability to control others with mental domination (Vicky is also granted a mild dose of telekinesis in the novel, but this is never explored in the movie). When these two fall in love and get married, their daughter is born with pyrokinesis, the ability to start fires with her mind.

The Shop wants to study Charlie and see just how far this ability of hers goes. The McGees, however, just want to live a normal life. Andy comes home one day to find Charlie missing. When he catches up to her and the Shop agents who’ve kidnapped her, he escapes with his daughter. The two have been on the run for a year when Firestarter opens.

Eventually The Shop tracks them down and Rainbird, The Shop’s assassin-for-hire, brings them in. They convince Charlie to let them test her powers, with the unfulfilled promise that she’ll be allowed to see her father. But Andy is able to get his mind rested enough to “push” The Shop’s head honcho into letting go. However, Rainbird hasn’t yet gotten everything he wants from Charlie and he is the wrench in the plan.

The chemistry between Barrymore as Charlie and Keith as Andy McGee seems genuine, you’d believe these two might just be father and daughter. Martin Sheen plays a good Captain Hollister, head of The Shop’s Virginia branch where the McGees are being held.

Art Carney and Louise Fletcher turn in fine performances as Irv and Norma Manders, the farm couple who give them a ride and end up in the middle of a fiery showdown. But it’s George C. Scott who, I think, delivers the movie’s top performance as John Rainbird. There’s something about his sneer in some scenes where he looks as evil as the character in the novel is, a madman who’s actually looking forward to killing an 8-year-old girl.

As I said, Firestarter should be good. But there are some things Lester lets slip by and, for me, they discredit the believability factor.

In one scene, while Andy and Charlie are supposed to be dozing in a cab on the way to the airport, Drew Barrymore cracks an eye open, glances at the camera, and closes her eye again. There’s no way this was honestly missed in editing. Someone had to have seen it and was just too lazy to fix it.

In another scene, when Charlie is lighting a tray of wood chips for The Shop, the camera is set on a close-up shot as the smoke begins to rise from the chips. Except if you look below the tray, you can see the smoke rising from under the table they’re sitting on. They didn’t do a good job of setting up the shot before they told the guy with the smoke can under the table to let her rip.

Unfortunately, as much as I wish the correction of these two shots could put Firestarter into the realm of great movies . . . the bulk of the movie rests on the shoulders of an 8-year-old girl. She can say her lines and she can pretend to put some emotion into it, but in the end everyone knows she’s acting. But, she was a kid, what are you gonna do?

The fact remains Mark L. Lester–the biggest thing he did after this movie was Armed and Dangerous with John Candy and Eugene Levy two years later– was just going through the motions with Firestarter, putting the script onto film and slapping a soundtrack on there. I believe a better director could have taken everything Lester had to work with and made a great movie.

Before closing, I want to say a little about Stanley Mann’s screenplay. There were subplots and minor details galore in King’s novel, and Mann did a great job of combining all the important elements into a 1 hour and 53 minute movie, without losing any of the important parts.

In fact, he helped the story a great deal by deleting one of the characters altogether, giving all his important lines to the others and not making us become acquainted with anyone we don’t need. I mean with Andy, Charlie, Cap, Rainbird, Dr. Wanless, Vicky, Dr. Pynchot, and Irv and Norma Manders, don’t we have enough characters to keep straight already? In this instance, the loss of Dr. Hockstetter is a minor one and we don’t even notice it, really.

I’ve never been one to encourage remakes, but of all the King movies, Firestarter is one of the few I think would actually benefit from another turn in front of the camera. As long as they used Mann’s script, that is. (EDIT: Firestarter HAS been remade but I can tell they did not use Mann’s script, I’m not even sure they’ve read the book, from what I’ve seen of the trailer.)

A note about the four star rating. This one carries a lot of nostalgia for me. It may be bad, but it’s MY bad.

King on Film

Carrie (1976)

‘Salem’s Lot (1979)

The Shining (1980)

Creepshow (1982)

Cujo (1983)

Disciples of the Crow (1983)

The Woman in the Room (1983)

The Dead Zone (1983)

Christine (1983)

Children of the Corn (1984)

The Dark Half (1993)

The Tommyknockers (1993)

Needful Things (1993)

The Stand (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

The Mangler (1995)

Dolores Claiborne (1995)

The Langoliers (1995)

Sometimes They Comes Back … Again (1996)

Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)

Thinner (1996)

The Shining (1997)

Ghosts (1997)

Chattery Teeth (1997)

The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson (1997)

Trucks (1997)

The Night Flier (1997)

Chinga (1997)

Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

Gerald’s Game (2017)

1922 (2017)

The Stand (2021)

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