Here's Why Stephen King Hated 1984's Firestarter

Stephen King does not mince words when it comes to movies adapted from his novels. Indeed, the prolific author is famously a vocal critic of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," a film that is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. King undeniably has his reasons for dismissing it, however, and even the most staunch fan of Kubrick's film can understand where King is coming from.

Less understandable is King's on-the-record distaste for director Mark L. Lester and producer Dino De Laurentiis' 1984 adaptation of "Firestarter," starring Drew Barrymore as Charlie McGee. While the author's criticisms of "The Shining" revolved around the film making major changes to King's characters and story, King disliked the original "Firestarter" movie for reasons that are far more aesthetic than story-based. As Blumhouse and Universal prepare to release another take on King's novel of a pyrokinetic little girl named Charlie into theaters in just a few weeks, reflecting on King's response to the 1984 version might prove — ahem — illuminating.

'You're making her sound like Armageddon': King incinerates 'Firestarter'

Speaking to American Film magazine in June of 1986, King hardly had anything nice to say about "Firestarter." Calling the movie "one of the worst of the bunch" of adaptations of his works, King found the movie "flavorless ... like cafeteria mashed potatoes." The author explained that "there are things that happen in terms of special effects in that movie that make no sense to me whatsoever," such as "why this kid's hair blows every time she starts fires." To that point, King "never got a satisfactory answer" when he viewed the rough cut of the movie, and when it came to the post-production process he found himself speaking to De Laurentiis, who he says was "regularly asking me for input ... Sometimes he'd take it."

King did mention that "the movie has great actors," but made an exception for the lead, David Keith, who portrays Charlie's telepathic father, Andy. King stated that he "didn't feel [Keith] was very good" and, adding insult to injury, mentioned how "my wife said that he has stupid eyes." Though he praised Martin Sheen (who plays Captain Hollister, head of the nefarious government agency The Shop), calling him "a great actor," King claimed that Sheen's performance suffered thanks to "no direction and nobody to tell him" what to play. In King's opinion, Sheen "simply reprised Greg Stillson," his maniacal politician character from 1983's "The Dead Zone," De Laurentiis' prior (and more well-regarded) King adaptation. Calling Sheen's Hollister "the same character exactly," he elaborated that a Stillson type "should not be in charge of The Shop ... he's not the kind of guy who gets that job."

It should be said, however, that the interview wherein King makes these comments (alongside frank, albeit more positive, criticisms of "The Dead Zone," "Cujo," and of course "The Shining") occurred on the verge of the release of "Maximum Overdrive." That film, written and directed by the horror maestro, would become his first and (to date) only directing credit. As seen in the movie's trailer, the promotion revolved around King claiming he "just wanted someone to do Stephen King right" and promising to "scare the hell out of you," and when audiences and critics were not sufficiently scared (or otherwise amused) by the film, King walked away from the experience a bit more humbled.

'I got some tall apologizing to do': King reconsiders 'Firestarter'

"Firestarter" makes a point of sticking close to King's novel, an aspect that King himself acknowledged in that 1986 interview, saying "in terms of story it's very close." Director Lester, upon being interviewed in 2014, gave his side of the story when it came to King's involvement with the film. In his recollection, Lester explained that King "approved the script, he even worked on it" and that Charlie's blowing hair "was his idea to begin with!"

As it happens, King's reaction to "Firestarter" and that blowing hair some 30-odd years later is significantly different. Appearing on "The Drew Barrymore Show" in 2021, the author praised Barrymore's performance, saying that "I thought you were terrific in that part, that was very, very difficult and you were great." King added that when Barrymore as Charlie "got ready to light a fire your beautiful blonde hair would blow back, it was great," revising his take on the visual device from the film that became iconic enough to end up as the movie's one-sheet.

'Back off...just back off!': why 'Firestarter' is still underrated

Clearly, King has at least come around to realizing that the decision to depict Charlie's pyrokinetic powers with something as visually simple and elegant as her hair blowing in the wind was an inspired choice. Of course, "Firestarter" wouldn't be nearly as effective had that been the only special effect — while Andy's mind powers are depicted via a signature sound effect and a small nose bleed (the latter touch undeniably impacting the Duffer Brothers' conception of Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven on Netflix's "Stranger Things"), Charlie has more than just an offscreen wind machine at her disposal. The film's stunt work and pyrotechnic effects are still incredible to witness, as Lester and his crew set up a variety of tricks ranging from fireballs on wires to gas lines buried in the ground, all of which can be seen in the movie's rousing inferno of a finale.

"Firestarter" is a well-made film that fuses King's themes of ostracized outsiders that have supernatural powers with the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, a movie that sits comfortably among similar "psychic abilities gone wild" films like "The Fury" and "Scanners." Though Charlie and Andy's abilities are menacing, their father-daughter bond is genuinely touching, and it's clear that the real villains are the congenial, sociopathic authority figures represented by Sheen's Hollister (whom the actor plays with far more subtlety and nuance than he did Stillson) and George C. Scott's Rainbird, a character that Scott makes into a fascinatingly creepy piece of work with his performance. While the movie certainly isn't an auteurist work of personal expression, it is nonetheless engaging, exciting, and compelling, and features a score by '80s masters Tangerine Dream that carries with it a beautifully haunting quality. Let's hope that "Firestarter" 2022 can be half as accomplished—and if not, it'll be fun to see what King has to say about it.