Firestarter vs. Firestarter

Stephen King movie adaptations are almost a genre unto themselves, and for some reason I’ve always been fascinated by them, even the ones that aren’t very good. King’s output is so prodigious that there are literally hundreds of novels and short stories of his that have never been adapted to film; but on the other hand, some of his works (like The Shining, It, Carrie, Pet Sematary, and The Dead Zone) have been adapted more than once. So when, in May of 2022, another adaptation of his well-regarded 1980 novel Firestarter was released in theaters and on Peacock, I thought it might be interesting to see the new film, and then watch the original 1984 adaptation the following day, just to compare and contrast. I thought I would be able to come to the viewings with a relatively objective perspective: I did read the novel, but it was so long ago that I barely remember it, and I’d seen the 1984 film several times growing up, but it wasn’t a beloved classic for me or anything. I liked the 1984 movie, but it wasn’t one of my favorite King adaptations from the era, so I didn’t have any nostalgic blinders on about it.

So, how does the new one stack up against the old one? Well, right from the outset I’m going to say that the 2022 Firestarter falls right in the middle of the spectrum of Stephen King adaptations; it’s not great, but it isn’t terrible either. Incidentally, this is right about where the 1984 movie falls for me as well, so it’s all kind of a wash. I will say that I think the 1984 version is a better film generally, and was more faithful to the novel, but there were some aspects of the new film that I thought were done better, even though the 2022 Firestarter took a lot of liberties with the source material. Overall, though, both films for me are kind of…just okay. Pretty decent. The 1984 one wasn’t as good as other SK movies from the same era, like The Shining, The Dead Zone, Christine, or even Cat’s Eye; and the new one wasn’t as good as more recent adaptations like Gerald’s Game, 1922, and Doctor Sleep (though I actually liked it better than the 2019 Pet Sematary reboot, so there’s that).

The 1984 adaptation, directed by Mark L. Lester (of Commando, Class of 1984, and Roller Boogie fame), has a pretty stacked cast, including an eight-year-old Drew Barrymore, David Keith, Martin Sheen, and the great George C. Scott; the film also features smaller roles for Heather Locklear, Art Carney, and Louise Fletcher. Despite the talent in front of and behind the camera, though, the film got a pretty lukewarm reception from both critics and audiences at the time, and Stephen King himself wasn’t really a fan of it.

The movie is structured similarly to the way King’s original novel was, beginning with Andy McGee and his pyrokinetic daughter Charlie on the run from the sinister agents of The Shop, and filling in details via flashbacks along the way. The first half of the film sets up the characters, their powers, and the stakes of the chase, while the second half is a bit more static, as Charlie and her father get captured and imprisoned at Shop headquarters, where Charlie is befriended by the sinister John Rainbird—masquerading as a lowly orderly—and eventually manipulated into being experimented on.

Some things I like about the 1984 version include the fact that it begins with action, with Andy and Charlie being pursued, and if you weren’t familiar with King’s story, you’d be drawn right in, wondering what was going on. I also really like Drew Barrymore as Charlie; she’s cute as a button, and remains sympathetic even when she torches hundreds of people alive, which is no mean feat.

I also love the scenery-chewing turns by Martin Sheen as Captain Hollinger, Freddie Jones as Dr. Wanless, and of course George C. Scott as John Rainbird. I don’t love that a white actor was cast to play a character that was Native American in the book, especially because nothing in the film really necessitated the character being Native American in the first place, so why not just make the character white to match the actor? It wouldn’t really have made much of a difference. But that said, George C. Scott was as fantastic in this as he always was, and is genuinely scary during his long interactions with Charlie, not least because there was a vaguely pedophilic menace to his interest in her. And it was doubly frightening, I feel, because the audience is well aware that Rainbird is evil, but Charlie doesn’t know this and thinks he’s her friend.

Though the part of the film where Andy and Charlie are trapped in The Shop does drag some (the film could have benefited from being about ten to fifteen minutes shorter, I think), I did like the extended scenes with Rainbird and Charlie, and the scenes where Charlie was made to demonstrate her powers. I also absolutely love the show-stopping finale, where Charlie just burns the whole wretched Shop to the ground, throwing fireballs left and right and basically roasting everyone on the grounds (while saving the horses from the flames, thankfully). It was 1984, so those were all practical effects, y’all, and they’re pretty incredible. Hats off to the hard-working stunt people and technicians who pulled that off, because it still looks great.

The 1984 film isn’t perfect, though; as I said, some of the scenes after Andy and Charlie’s capture are sort of slow, and even some of the setup in the first half, when Andy and Charlie are on the run, could have been trimmed down some. On the whole, the piece seems slightly meandering, uneven, and disjointed in places, and some of the characters have sort of murky motivations.

I also wish the character of Charlie’s mom Vicky had more screen time, so her murder would be more impactful; as it is, we only see her in a couple of flashback scenes before her death, so you don’t get quite the sense of urgency to Andy and Charlie’s flight that you might have otherwise. In addition, though David Keith is fine as Andy, I felt as though he was lacking a bit of charisma at times, and at other times was sort of overacting in a weirdly awkward way.

The 2022 version, directed by relative newcomer Keith Thomas (whose only previous full-length film was the well-regarded 2019 horror movie The Vigil) changes things up by altering the structure of the story to play out more chronologically, with minimal flashbacks. I appreciated the economical storytelling of having a montage of the Lot-6 experiment on Andy and Vicky taking place during the opening credits; a lot was conveyed in just a couple of minutes, and I thought that was a good decision.

This film chose to make Charlie older than she was in the 1984 version (eight years old there, eleven years old here), and I’m still not sure where I fall on that; while some may feel that this made her seem more of a threat, the 2022 film also seemed to rein in her powers somewhat (likely due to budget constraints), so I didn’t see her as more threatening than adorable Drew Barrymore, who ended up having a much higher body count, at least as far as I could determine. Charlie in the new version was less sympathetic, for sure, not only because she was older, but also because she grew to kind of enjoy destroying things, including a cat that she burned alive, which really didn’t do much to endear her to me. I actually found it really ironic that Drew Barrymore in the original version killed WAY more people than Ryan Kiera Armstrong in the new one, yet the new version of Charlie was less likeable generally.

However, I very much liked that Charlie’s mom Vicky was actually a character in this version, and we got to spend some time with her before she got murdered, giving her death more importance to the story. Allowing more time to build up the family dynamic also introduced an interesting conflict between Andy—who wanted Charlie to completely suppress her powers because he felt they were too dangerous—and Vicky, who was in favor of teaching their daughter how to use her powers safely. This was good stuff from a storytelling perspective, and added some extra dimension.

I also liked how the film clarified that the McGee family were in hiding from The Shop; they didn’t have wifi or cell phones, and had to move around and change their names all the time to keep from being tracked down. In the original film, it seemed as though the family were using their real names, and that The Shop had had them under surveillance for some time, so knew just where they were when they wanted to get them. There was more of a heightened sense of danger in the 2022 version, because Charlie, who didn’t really understand why she couldn’t have internet like a regular kid, started losing control of her powers at school, which caused The Shop to be able to pinpoint their location.

I also thought it was a good idea to make John Rainbird more involved from the start, at least from the point of view of this altered version of the story. In the original version, Vicky was murdered and Charlie was kidnapped by two random Shop agents, who didn’t really factor into the story significantly; but in the new version, Rainbird is actually responsible for killing Vicky, giving him a more direct tie to the narrative.

It should be noted, though, that the film could only do this because the entire second portion of the 1984 film—where Andy and Charlie are imprisoned at The Shop and an undercover Rainbird befriends Charlie—has been changed. In this version, Andy and Charlie know that Rainbird is a bad guy right away. Also, in this version, Andy is kidnapped and taken to The Shop as a lure to get Charlie to come there to get him. So instead of father and daughter both trying to break out of The Shop, like in the 1984 movie, in the 2022 version, Charlie actually has to break in to try to save her father.

It’s also nice that Rainbird is actually played by an indigenous actor this time (Michael Greyeyes, who is Plains Cree, from Saskatchewan), and that he’s given more of a back story and motivation for his actions. It was a good choice to make him something of a victim of The Shop himself, so he had cause to want to double cross them, and to give him some telepathic powers of his own. That said, I didn’t think he was as scary as George C. Scott was in the original, but that may have been because he just has significantly less screen time.

Another positive aspect of the new film was a stronger motivation for Irv Manders, the friendly farmer who takes Andy and Charlie in while they’re escaping from the agents. In the original film, Irv was just a nice man who took in two total strangers and was weirdly quick to defend them when government agents showed up at the door, which from a real-world context isn’t all that believable, as much as I loved Art Carney and Louise Fletcher as the couple. In the new version, it’s clear that Irv (played here by John Beasley) doesn’t really trust Andy, but Andy psychically pushes him into helping them. And once they get to the house and Irv finds out they’re fugitives, he calls the cops on them (as you would), but changes his mind after Charlie is able to tell Irv what happened to his paralyzed wife, and is able to tell him what she’s thinking after communicating with her telepathically. This gives Irv more of a reason for wanting to defend these strangers who straight up lied about their identities at first.

The 2022 film was also much leaner and more action-oriented, clocking in at a brisk 94 minutes as opposed to the 1984 version’s 114. Sadly, though, I thought the climax of the new adaptation was pretty…well, anticlimactic, as Charlie breaks into the facility and burns some people up, but doesn’t do anything near the utter destruction that Drew Barrymore unleashed at the end of the first one. I also didn’t love that the ending was changed so that John Rainbird survived and sort of teamed up with Charlie; I get that this was probably done to set up a sequel, and I would be interested to see where they go with that angle, especially because Rainbird didn’t get enough time to really get fully developed in this film, but it still made the movie seem somewhat unfinished.

On the plus side, I have to say that I did like Zac Efron in the role of Andy, and thought he was a bit more charismatic than David Keith in the original. Sydney Lemmon as Victoria was also good, and the conflict between the couple over the best way to handle Charlie was a nice highlight. I didn’t love Gloria Reuben as Captain Hollinger, as I thought some of her lines sounded too much like a cartoon supervillain (which was likely more a fault of the screenwriters than the actor), and I wish they had done more with the great Kurtwood Smith as Dr. Wanless, who only gets one brief scene.

Overall, neither film is a masterpiece, but both have their strengths and weaknesses. The new version is getting pretty negative reviews, but the original did too back in 1984, so we’ll see if people’s opinions soften in the years ahead.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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