A Tale of Two 'Firestarters' and What Neither Film Gets Right

A girl creates flames with her mind
Ryan Kiera Armstrong as CHARLIE in FIRESTARTER

The release of a Stephen King adaptation always inspires curiosity from horror fans. With over 200 TV and movie adaptations to date, directors and screenwriters can't seem to get enough of his stuff. In 1984, Stephen King's novel Firestarter came to the big screen for the first time, only four years after the source material was published. Remembered mostly for the child performance by a young Drew Barrymore and the score by electronic musicians Tangerine Dream, by all counts Mark Lester's (Roller Boogie) Firestarter was a box office flop with miscast performances, barely there character development, and decidedly decent special effects.

Now 38 years after that misstep, a new adaptation comes to theaters and Peacock, directed by Keith Thomas (The Vigil) with screenplay by Scott Teems (Halloween Kills). But is this adaptation an improvement? Well, yes and no. While the new Firestarter corrects some of the sins of its predecessor, the most important pieces are missing: a compelling story and characters you can understand and care about enough to follow on this journey. Let's dive into this new version, also examining the original, and why no director seems to be able to get it right on film.

The plot of Firestarter hinges on a little girl named Charlie with the ability to start fires with her mind, known as pyrokinesis. An organization known as The Shop, a super secret government agency, performed experiments on financially strapped youths, injecting them with a psychedelic drug known as Lot-6. Two of those youths, Andy and Vicky, gained telekinetic abilities, got married, and had Charlie. While both Andy and Vicky endure painful after effects from using their power, Charlie effortlessly wields her abilities with a skill the Shop wants to understand and control for their own purposes. The Shop's need for power leaves Vicky dead and Andy and Charlie on the run. While Charlie and Andy manage to evade The Shop for a while, an Indigenous tracker named Rainbird, who also got injected with Lot-6, manages to hunt them down. Charlie finds herself caught between what her father has taught her – to repress her powers at all cost – and what the Shop demands – that Charlie demonstrate the full span of her power or else.

A man and woman talk intimately face to face
[L-R] Sydney Lemmon as VICKY, Zac Efron as ANDY in FIRESTARTER
The plot and the original cover art of Stephen King's novel inspired much of the wildly successful first season of Stranger Things, with a child born out of irresponsible drug trials performed in the wake of Cold War era paranoia. So we've seen this type of story done well. At its heart, Firestarter asks viewers to ponder the irresponsible actions of The Shop and the impact these actions have on Charlie, her family, and the world. It's a simple story that relies on King's signature character development and pitch perfect writing, neither of which seem present in either movie version.

The 1984 Firestarter is directed by the aforementioned Mark Lester with Drew Barrymore playing Charlie, fresh off the boat from her unforgettable performance in E.T. David Keith plays Andy, Martin Sheen plays Captain James Hollister, the current head of The Shop, Art Carney plays a kindly farmer named Irv, and most laughably of all, George C. Scott plays the "magical Indigenous" character, Rainbird. Scott puts in one of the better performances in the film, due to his skills as an actor, but he's no Native American, of course, and the complex Rainbird is converted into a one-dimensional pedophile. While King is guilty of putting the "magical person of color" in his novels, the character of Rainbird has much more dimension than this film lets on. Like the McGee family, Rainbird, too, is a victim of the Shop's reckless experiments and has terrible scars to prove it. Although he works for The Shop, he has motives of his own and views Charlie with a chilling mixture of admiration and ownership.

Likewise, David Keith as Andy gives little indication as to his emotional affect or thinking process. Sure, he wants to help his daughter control her power, but he barely changes facial expression the whole movie. The direction given seems to be stand here, make this facial expression, and say these lines, but Keith never offers the audience any nuance in his performance. Apparently Lester gave Drew Barrymore a little more direction, but he directs Charlie as if she was Shirley Temple, throwing pouty temper tantrums. There is no vulnerability or fear in her body language, actions, or words. Anger is the only emotion in her Rolodex. The 1984 Firetarter becomes just some fun special effects and a cool soundscape.

A man stands in a field
Michael Greyeyes as RAINBIRD in FIRESTARTER
The 2022 version corrects some errors, offers a trimmed storyline, and alters the ending, but these improvements do nothing for the overall impact of the movie. Director Keith Thomas and screenwriter Scott Teems combine efforts to offer characters that feel a bit more like real people. While Zac Efron doesn't make an impact as Andy, mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) has more screen time than in the 1980s version, which starred Heather Locklear. Locklear only showed for two scenes before being killed off. In this version, viewers gain more understanding of the toil raising Charlie has taken on her parents. Ryan Kiera Armstrong's Charlie feels much older than the Barrymore version and has a more varied emotional spectrum, but the performance is still wooden. The only spot of light arrives via Michael Greyeyes playing Rainbird. Greyeyes has been a respected Canadians First Nations actor for awhile, but he won great acclaim at Sundance 2021 for his role as Makwa in Wild Indian (directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.). Greyeyes grants dignity and depth to the character of Rainbird, giving him a presence. John Carpenter's score also graces the screen and offers his signature mood-enhancing music.

For all of these meager improvements, the storyline, even at just 94 minutes, just drags. Events happen, but we don't care about these characters or their journey. They are paper dolls who move and speak with no meaning. And for whatever reason, most of the scenes that take place in The Shop, what most fans of the book consider the best part of the story – are cut. Andy barely arrives before Charlie shows up and wrecks havoc. Most mysteriously of all, Teems changes the ending considerably from the book and first movie. Does it make the story better? Not really, although it does cast Rainbird in a better light.

With two page to screen flops of Firestsarter now in existence, one has to wonder why it's so hard to make a good movie from this book? And why is it so hard to adapt any Stephen King book into a great movie? Now, the world is full of good, even great Stephen King movies: Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Stand By Me, and Misery all have great reputations. But there are many more mediocre King adaptations than exceptional.

A girls screams and her father cowers behind her
[L-R] Zac Efron as ANDY, Ryan Kiera Armstrong as CHARLIE in FIRESTARTER
King often introduces paranormal elements into his stories that are difficult to translate onto screen. For a while, the special effects department couldn't keep up. But most importantly, screenwriters don't always transfer King's excellent character development into their scripts. King doesn't just bring nightmares to life. These nightmares happen to complex characters and King vividly portrays their internal conflicts with clarity. Readers get to know the psychosis of King's characters intimately, even the most depraved. In both versions of Firestarter, character development is almost nonexistent. The characters are like paper dolls who move from point A to point B. We don't see that Andy feels shame and fear that he can't protect his little girl. That shame and fear manifests itself in his treatment of Charlie. We don't see how Charlie feels like a monster when she uses her power, but it also feels good to let go. Lazy screenwriting dictates character development happens in lines that tell, not show: "I don't want to hurt anyone but it feels kind of good." 

Without character development offered through convincing acting and clever screenwriting, King's stories just appear on screen as sensationalist and conjured for pure shock value. That makes a good circus act, not a 90-120 minute movie. A King adaptation requires characters that display vulnerability and intense fear. Sadly, most screenwriters don't seem up to the task.

Before Mark Lester got the directing job in the 1984 Firestarter, John Carpenter was slated to direct. The bigwigs at Universal retracted their offer after the disappointing box office returns from The Thing, now considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time. What would Carpenter have done with Firestarter? Sadly, the world will never know.

Release info: In theaters and on Peacock May 13, 2022

Final score: 2 out of 5