Salutations, Tor.com! Welcome back to the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia!
Today’s MRGN will be a little different from our usual fare, O my Peeps! Owing to Easter weekend madness and a truly absurd concatenation of scheduling conflicts, my sisters will not be joining us for this post; your Auntie Leigh will be flying solo on this one. And given that, I decided to do a film appropriate to my solo status: 1984’s Firestarter, adapted from the 1980 Stephen King novel. Yay!
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
So! Firestarter is the story of young Charlene “Charlie” McGee and her father Andy McGee, who are on the run from what we hope is an entirely fictional secret branch of the U.S. government known as The Shop, who performed illegal experiments on Andy and his to-be wife Vicki, which gave them (faulty) psychic powers, which then got passed on to their daughter in distinctly non-faulty fashion, in a way which meant that the latent pyros on the stunt and special effects teams for this movie probably had the time of their lives.
As I mentioned in my Carrie post, I had really wanted to do Firestarter as the MRGN’s first Stephen King movie, but we switched to Carrie because my sisters had neither seen the Firestarter movie nor read the book it was based on, and were therefore not nostalgically equipped to comment upon it.
This obviously made perfect sense, but I was still a little sad about it. Because as I also mentioned in that post, Firestarter was not only the first Stephen King novel I ever read, but it was very possibly the first novel not aimed at a younger audience I ever read as well. It was certainly a great deal of the source of my childhood fascination with stories about psychic phenomena – a fascination King and I clearly share, given how many of his books center around the idea in one fashion or another. Firestarter, though, was arguably the quintessential Stephen King take on paranormal mental abilities and the probable results of their introduction to the modern world.
Needless to say, I adore the shit out of the novel, and have reread it probably at least a dozen times over the years. By contrast, I’m pretty sure that before this week I had only seen Firestarter the movie once or maybe twice, and that many years ago, but I remembered that I had loved Drew Barrymore in the role of Charlie McGee, and had general warm fuzzy feelings about the movie overall, and so I was moderately excited to see it again and see if it held up.
And, well. It, uh, didn’t.
We’ve all heard or read – or said – some variant on the truism that The Book Is Always Better Than The Movie, but I feel like that takes on an especially pointed truth when applied to movie adaptations of novels about psychic phenomena in general, and adaptations of Stephen King novels about psychic phenomena in particular. That latter may only be because King’s books were the ones that everyone tried the hardest to make into movies (because as I said before, Stephen King in the 80s was money, baby), but it was a distinct and recurring problem that I really should have remembered before getting my hopes up about Firestarter.
And it’s not like I’m not sympathetic to the inherent problem here. Figuring out how to visually depict things that are almost exclusively happening inside characters’ heads is really difficult, you guys. Many a film director has flung him-or-herself against that particularly sharp-edged windmill and come out the worst for it, and perhaps I should therefore cut Firestarter’s director Mark L. Lester a little slack about it.
Maybe I should, but I ain’t gonna, because I spent the whole film irritably making mental notes about the ways in which Charlie’s pyrokinesis and Andy’s “mental dominance” could have been depicted SO much less cheesily. So many directors seem to feel that there has to be some kind of obvious visual or aural component of an otherwise invisible action to make sure the audience knows something is happening, and I personally think this is bullshit. Mostly because it leads to eye-rolling nonsense like mandating that Charlie can’t set things on fire without being in her own personal and inexplicable wind tunnel:
Or that her father can’t mentally “push” people into doing what he wants without clutching his head and popping a forehead vein, which is supposed to convey the strain his gift is putting on him, but mostly just made David Keith look like he was trying (and failing) to take a massive dump.
Sorry, but no. Even Brian De Palma’s “quick zoom and violin screech” method of indicating psychic happenings in Carrie was less annoying than this. I am very much a fan of the “less is more” approach when it comes to conveying this kind of thing from the actors’ end, and just making sure that the results are the spectacular and/or visually communicative aspects of what’s going on. I feel that this is the key method in which to avoid much cheese when it comes to portraying ESP-type things on screen, and I also feel this is an area in which Firestarter very much fell down on.
Ham-handed visual cues were not the only failing of the movie, sadly. King’s novel was really about two things: the wonder and horror of a little girl with such destructive power at her beck and call was the main thing, of course, but it was also just as much about the terribly casual way it’s taken for granted that the U.S. government is doing illegal and awful things to its own citizens, with total impunity and horrific disregard for the principles it and we are supposed to be operating under.
The film adaptation of Firestarter sorrrrt of conveys that, but not with anything like the conviction (or power) of the novel. The best example of this, I think, is the scene with the postman.
In both the novel and the film, Andy McGee attempts to send letters to major newspapers and magazines to expose the fact that the U.S. government is hunting him and his daughter in completely illegal and unsanctioned ways, and in both novel and film, Shop agents intercept those letters before they can be delivered.
The difference is that in the film, the Shop’s resident hitman Rainbird just strangles the postman to death and steals the bag with the letters, whereas in the novel, the mailman lives. More importantly, the scene is from the postman’s POV, as Shop agents pull him over and hold him at gunpoint while they rifle through the mail for the letters, and then leave him behind, crying, because, he pleads, this is the U.S. mail. It’s supposed to be protected, because this is America, and yet, it isn’t.
It’s a scene that struck me vividly, even as a kid, because of how palpable King made the sense of utter betrayal the postman feels. The postman’s ideological anguish at the revelation that America is not the shining bastion of justice and good that we have always been taught it was is a theme that’s endemic to the entire novel, and while the government agents in the movie are obviously just as callous and awful as their novel counterparts, the movie’s failure to make that point as, er, pointedly as the novel did meant it just kind of melted into this nothing of random villainy. I know it’s maybe a bit weird that I’m arguing that it’s worse to make the guy cry than to actually kill him, but I’m talking about thematic and dramatic impact here. This is a story; those things matter.
Speaking of random villainy. There’s no denying that George C. Scott did a good job of portraying the deeply creepy semi-pedophiliac serial killer character of John Rainbird, to the point where I can’t decide whether the blatant whitewashing of what was supposed to be a Native American character might actually have been a good thing, because ain’t nobody going to want that in their ethnic group. And besides, statistically nearly all psychopathic serial killers are white men anyway. (Though of course the actual problem is that the whitewashing erased a chance for a Native American actor to have a significant role in a major Hollywood film, so.)
Also, holy crap is Martin Sheen young in this. Also jarring, because I totally forgot he was in this movie, and by far my most significant association with Sheen is in his decidedly heroic role as President Bartlet on The West Wing. But in fact, his cold and calculating Captain Hollister isn’t even the first “Stephen King evil government figure” Sheen had portrayed at that point, as he also played the apocalypse-bringing potential future President Greg Stillson in the 1983 adaptation of The Dead Zone. Which makes his later West Wing role kind of hilarious by contrast, doesn’t it.
This movie in general had a pretty stellar cast, actually. In particular I have to point out that Drew Barrymore’s performance as Charlie McGee is really way above and beyond what I would expect out of 95% of child actors that age. I know she rather went off the rails once she grew up (though by all accounts she actually pulled herself back on the rails as well), but in my opinion her fame as a child actor was entirely deserved.
Holy crap reaction #2: Hey, that’s Heather Locklear! Not that we got to see her for long, as she played the swiftly fridged wife/mom Vicki, whose character got even shorter shrift in the movie than she did in the book. (This is, probably, my one real beef with the novel.)
So, good cast, but the movie failed to use them very well. There were some good choices made in adapting the exposition from the novel, but the slow pace and weird editing choices killed nearly all the narrative tension that the book sustained so beautifully. The special effects were probably pretty good for the time (and it must have been hell, ha ha, to work with so much fire), but they were not employed to nearly their best effect, in my opinion.
I also have to note that the music for the movie was by Tangerine Dream, whose score for Legend, as you may recall, I considered so iconic and essential to the movie that I threw a temper tantrum at the director’s cut for taking it out. By contrast, well. I would not have stomped a single foot had someone decided to take away Firestarter’s “score”. I use the scare quotes advisedly, as one of the little bits of trivia I found about the film stated that Tangerine Dream never even saw the movie; they just sent a bunch of music to the director and told him to “pick out whatever he wanted”. Let’s just say, you can tell. Ugh.
Basically I would have made many many many different choices in how this movie was made, because as is, it doesn’t remotely do justice to the source material. I’m also pretty sure I would have been bored out of my mind had I watched this movie without knowing the source material.
In fact, I was pretty bored anyway. My sisters should feel pretty good about the bullet they dodged on this one.
So! In conclusion, O My Peeps, if you’re jonesing for some excellent psychic psychodrama avec a healthy side of evil government conspiracy, give the film version of Firestarter a distinct miss, and go read the book instead. You won’t be sorry, I promise.
And at the last, my patent pending Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!
For Firestarter the movie:
For Firestarter the book:
Reality: well, I haven’t reread it all that recently but I’m willing to bet it’s probably at least a 9
And that’s the MRGN for today! Come back and see me reunited with my lovely siblings in two weeks! Later!