The Daily Stream: Firestarter Is A Movie In Need Of A Reboot

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Firestarter" (1984)

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Mark L. Lester's "Firestarter" arrived amid a tempest of King-to-screen adaptations. The previous year brought the releases of "Christine," "Cujo," and "The Dead Zone," while "Children of the Corn" would get the big-screen treatment in 1984. So many of King's stories have been adapted that they sit among a hierarchy, from Oscar-nominated fare to straight-to-video sludge. Centered around a young girl with pyrokinetic powers, "Firestarter" is one of the mid-tier adaptations that not even the author himself cared for. But a fresh spark has been lit: a new adaption of "Firestarter" is coming in 2022 by way of newcomer Keith Thomas ("The Vigil"), straight to a day-and-date release in theaters and on Peacock on May 13, 2022. In anticipation of Blumhouse's new adaptation of the classic novel, it's time to revisit the original and see just how badly it needed a second go, providing a genuine answer to the annual question horror fans ask under sequel/requel news: "Who even wants this?"

Why It's Essential Viewing

This writer believes that the best remakes happen with stories built on solid ideas, that happened to be at the mercy of a low budget or a merciless cultural climate. The story of Mark L. Lester's "Firestarter," an adaptation of Stephen King's bestselling 1980 sci-fi novel of the same title, concerns a little girl named Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore) who has a talent for setting fires with her mind. She and her fugitive father, Andy (David Keith), are on the run from a government agency whose agents, Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen) and John Rainbird (George C. Scott), intend to weaponize the girl.

One standout component of the production comes by way of Tangerine Dream's stalking score, which lends the urgent cosmic energy that the film needed all along to its explosive climax. Finally, Charlie is burning it all down and the electric psychedelia matches the mood perfectly. Tangerine Dream will not be returning to do music for Thomas' new iteration, but it's hard to meet news of John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies' attachment to "Firestarter" '22 with anything but hot anticipation. Their soundtrack for David Gordon Green's "Halloween" requel debuted at #12 on the Billboard Albums chart and #2 on the vinyl chart, standing tall as one of the most noteworthy movie soundtracks of the last decade.

Ripe For A Second Interpretation And A New Audience

The 1984 adaptation of "Firestarter" was poorly received, with critics pointing out that the story was drained of all the emotional aptitude of King's novel. King agreed, telling American Film magazine in 1986 that it was "flavorless, like cafeteria mashed potatoes" and speculating that Martin Sheen was just recycling his character from "The Dead Zone." The characters, he said, were so mishandled that not even a seasoned actor like George C. Scott could salvage them. 

John Carpenter was once involved, with Bill Lancaster writing the script, but poor returns on "The Thing" prompted Universal to replace the director with Lester, so there has long been fan speculation on what could have been. Thirty-eight years later, an answer arrives — with Carpenter crafting the tunes, to boot.

There Are Many Ways To Light A Flame

One avenue for improvement in the reboot is in the neat parlor trick itself. Like the Wolfman's transformations, Charlie's psychic arson-setting scenes are a lasting element of the story, and Lester's version had practical but fairly contained fires that limit the scale of power that Charlie can flex. The scene when Charlie shows off her ability in a laboratory is a flurry of dated technical instruments, all trying to quantify her destructive strength; even those could use a digital upgrade. The players could use the upgrade, too; despite a cadre of veteran actors known to be capable in previous roles — Sheen, Scott, Barrymore, Louise Fletcher, Moses Gunn — their respective characters just can't come to life. 

King's story is a Grimm study of an ordinary girl with an extraordinary power at a delicate time in her life, and it's fully possible (even likely) that the same mind that created heavy religious horror "The Vigil" can handle that delicacy with care. Stanley Mann's penchant for taut action (seen in "Conan the Barbarian") is absent here, and so with Scott Teems' pen handling the new "Firestarter" to come, it's reasonable to hope that he can conjure up translations of King's original characters as memorable as the singular townsfolk of Haddonfield in 2018's "Halloween Kills."

"Firestarter" acts as a stellar example of the kind of material that's ripe for remakes, rather than the Sisyphean task of rebooting a five-star movie from the jump. In his pan of the 1984 movie for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert reduced it, with derision, to its essentials: "A little girl has her dangerous power, some government agents want to examine her, others want to destroy her, and things catch on fire. That's about it." It's a fair summation of both the events of "Firestarter," and its synth-pounding contemporary echo, "Stranger Things." Young Charlie McGee wasn't much appreciated in 1984, but there are traces of the character in "Stranger Things" protagonist Eleven, who continues to enjoy success as a pop culture phenomenon on the cusp of the show's fourth season on Netflix. Under a steady hand, Charlie could find a similar triumph, and might even impress Stephen King this time around.