For Stephen King fans, 2017 is beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. This year we’ll get major film adaptations of THE DARK TOWER, IT and GERALD’S GAME. On the small screen, we’re looking at two forthcoming series: THE MIST (on Spike) and CASTLE ROCK (on Hulu). And now Blumhouse has announced a remake of FIRESTARTER. Stephen King hasn’t been this hot in Hollywood since the early 1980s.
All these projects have been met with a certain amount of fanboy skepticism, and FIRESTARTER will be no exception. Horror enthusiasts of a certain age have a soft spot in their hearts for the 1984 adaptation starring cherubic Drew Barrymore as pyro-kinetic avenger Charlie McGee, but it’s hardly a fan favorite. Stephen King himself once aptly described the film as “flavorless… like cafeteria mashed potatoes.” That said, even he had trouble explaining why the film was so bland. Where’s the missing spark?
To be fair, FIRESTARTER is not one of Stephen King’s strongest novels. In fact, the author almost didn’t finish writing it because he felt it was derivative of his earlier novel CARRIE. Both are stories about young women with psychic powers (King calls them “wild talents,” in homage to a book by paranormal researcher Charles Fort, who chronicled many cases of spontaneous human combustion and “fire-geniuses”). Both young women have single parents who urge them to suppress their talents. In CARRIE, religious fanatic Margaret White declares her daughter’s psychokinesis “evil,” and contemplates murdering her. FIRESTARTER’s Andy McGee is more open-minded and empathetic, partly because he understands that he is genetically responsible for his daughter’s fire-power, but he still can’t keep his daughter safe. A perverse government assassin named John Rainbird fashions himself as Charlie’s surrogate father—for reasons vaguer and more unsettling than anything Margaret White could conjure—and lures her down the same dead-end road.
The crucial difference between Carrie and Charlie is their age. Carrie discovers her wild talent when she (belatedly) hits puberty. At that point, she has a lot of rage and no one to guide her; her story doesn’t end well. Charlie is prepubescent, still innocent and trusting—for a while. The turning point in the novel is an explosive scene at a rural farmhouse, where government agents surround Andy and Charlie—and Charlie unleashes her fury, like Carrie on prom night. But because Charlie isn’t Carrie, she pulls back and gets captured. The rest of FIRESTARTER is a slow-burn revenge story, building suspense around one central question: What will happen when Charlie goes “wild” again?
The 1984 film, written by Stanley Mann and directed by Mark L. Lester, is equally straightforward. The film imports King’s cadre of conniving villains, led by George C. Scott as Rainbird and Martin Sheen as Captain James Hollister, head honcho of a secret government agency known as The Shop. Scott is downright creepy, but mainly because he has been wildly miscast as a psychopathic Indian. Sheen is comparatively boring as a soulless bureaucrat who orchestrates a series of science experiments on Charlie. The scariest thing about Hollister and The Shop in general is the apparently emotionless and unthinking commitment to the destruction of a child.
In many of his novels, King conveys an instinctive mistrust of the U.S. government. The government—and The Shop specifically—is responsible for the apocalyptic scenario of his novel THE STAND, having carelessly created and released a super-flu that destroys 99% of the world population. As recently as the 2001 novel DREAMCATCHER, King has repeated his fears. He explained to Tony Magistrale, “There is a terrifying fear of government that runs throughout DREAMCATCHER, and that’s something that runs through many of the films—FIRESTARTER, THE STAND—the idea that they would rather kill all of us than tell us the truth. This is something we should all remain afraid of.”
In each of these works—as well as THE MIST, THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, GOLDEN YEARS, and THE LAWNMOWER MAN movie—the embodiment of government corruption is The Shop, named for sci-fi writer A.E. Van Vogt’s 1951 novel The Weapon Shops of Isher. In Van Vogt’s work, the universe is ruled by a powerful Empire and the only thing preserving individual liberties is the existence of underground weapon shops. In essence, Van Vogt’s story is an NRA-friendly tribute to the Second Amendment. By contrast, King’s more liberal-minded work presents The Shop as a secret police force for a real-world “Empire.” In a 1981 interview about FIRESTARTER King said, “I think elements of The Shop exist in the CIA and probably in the DSA [Department of Scientific Activities] in this country. And I think that a lot of that stuff has gone on.”
It is indeed scary to think that the villains of FIRESTARTER might be more or less real… but it’s not viscerally scary, the way that Martin Sheen’s psychopathic president Greg Stillson in THE DEAD ZONE is scary. Stillson was a human monster, not a monstrous abstraction. Where the FIRESTARTER movie ultimately falls short is in creating compelling characters. Without compelling human villains, the heroine’s journey fails to achieve an emotional catharsis.
It’s been said many times that the secret to adapting Stephen King’s work to the screen is characterization. If viewers are invested in the characters, they will be invested in the plight of the characters. And if not… well, special effects (cheesy or not) just aren’t going to cut it.
The most compelling thing about the original novel is its intimate understanding of Charlie McGee, and her troubled relationships with her father and Rainbird. Writing the novel in 1976-1977, King had a strong frame of reference for the power of father-daughter relationships; he consciously patterned Charlie McGee after his 7-year-old daughter Naomi, and drew on his observations about her nascent power.
Andy McGee likewise observes that his daughter is a hidden reservoir of power. When Charlie unleashes the full force of her abilities during the farmhouse attack, Andy also realizes that she likes it. There is nothing overtly sexual about King’s book, but it’s hard to escape the idea that Charlie is experiencing, for the first time, a literal state of ecstasy—existing outside of herself, becoming one with her environment as she super-charges it. This is the fascinating thing about FIRESTARTER’s concept of pyrokinesis: Charlie heats up the air by becoming one with it. To take the idea further: She is essentially invading the bodies of other people, and burning them from the inside out. According to researchers of spontaneous human combustion (like Charles Fort) this is how it actually happens: victims of spontaneous human combustion do not die from direct contact with fire, but from contact with super-heated air that burns the soft tissue of their throats, lungs, etc. The fire consumes from within.
This is a far cry from Drew Barrymore’s wind-blown hair and flying fireballs in the 1984 film… but, to be fair, it’s a lot easier to write about the dawning power of a 7-year-old girl (even a “normal” 7-year-old girl) than it is to show it.
When I saw FIRESTARTER for the first time, it mostly left me wondering what Charlie McGee would be like as a teenager… and made me eager to see a sequel that would return Drew Barrymore to the role years later. At one point, I dreamed of a pyro-kinetic version of POISON IVY (the 1992 erotic thriller, not the BATMAN AND ROBIN villain). Of course, if King had gone that direction, he really would have been in danger of repeating CARRIE. Someone else eventually explored this idea … but the less said about FIRESTARTER 2: REKINDLED, the better. It’s not a terrible movie…. just another helping of flavorless mashed potatoes.
The unique power of FIRESTARTER—and the potential power of the future film adaptation—exists in the tension between childhood innocence and emotional vulnerability on one hand, and the specter of adult sexuality and super-human power on the other. The characters are all trying to prevent—or generate—the spark that leads to an explosion, while the filmmakers keep us guessing about who will succeed, and how.