The book is always better. No matter the quality of the movie or TV show, that maxim remains true. Indeed, the only movie in memory that approached what I would call a faithful adaptation was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as far as covering all of the major beats of the story, and even that plot left things out. Stephen King adaptations run the gamut from excellent to awful, and they will never stop coming. I’m old enough to be around for two versions of some of King’s works (It, The Shining, Carrie and Pet Sematary). It ranks as my favorite of his novels, and although I like various aspects of the miniseries and the recent movies (It and It Chapter Two), a definitive adaptation has yet to be attempted. Only a miniseries will do. A second version of Firestarter has just been released. I don’t remember the novel or the first movie enough to do a fair comparison to either. That shouldn’t be necessary anyway because a good adaptation should stand on its own. Firestarter feels modern and gritty in its approach and still provides the same thrills that you would expect from one of King’s creations.
Director Keith Thomas (The Vigil) and writer Scott Teems (The Quarry and Halloween Kills) somehow landed this assignment and put their own spin on things. We live in a different world from the time when the novel was released, yet secretive government organizations still exist that perform experiments on human beings. Two such subjects of those experiments — Andy McGee (Zac Efron) and Vicky McGee (Sydney Lemmon) — develop telepathic abilities that manifest differently in their daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). When Charlie gets stressed out, she exhibits pyrokinesis — the ability to create fire with her mind. The McGees have been on the move for a while because the same government facility that experimented on them, known as DSI, wants to get their hands on Charlie. Captain Jane Hollister (Gloria Reuben) leads the DSI, and she sends another powerful psychic known as Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to capture Charlie, putting the McGees on the run yet again. Although they’re far enough apart in subject matter and superhuman abilities, I can’t help but feel the same sadness at the family’s predicament of always having to leave just when things get good as did Dr. David Banner in the television show The Incredible Hulk.
Drew Barrymore famously followed up her big break in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by portraying Charlie in the original. The movie was not a financial success, and I always thought that Barrymore was still too young and in her cute phase for this serious role. I have no misgivings at all with Armstrong. I was excited to see her after watching the tenth season of American Horror Story, known as American Horror Story: Double Feature, in which she played a musical prodigy who goes to extreme, violent lengths to play her violin even better. Armstrong brings that same intensity to Charlie, who shifts from a normal girl to accepting “the bad thing” that she can do and later indulging in her powers because “it feels kinda good.” Armstrong seems to be at the same place in her career (maybe a little younger) as Chloë Grace Moretz, who also starred in an update of a King story (Carrie) before graduating to adult roles. Look for great things from Armstrong.
The adults in this production impressed me across the board. Efron left behind his high school phase long ago, and the results include The Greatest Showman and this new challenge. Andy forces people to think or act a certain way with what he calls “the push,” and Efron’s acting sells his powers along with some special effects and a snapping sound effect. Efron is better in the quiet, fatherly moments with Armstrong, and their characters’ relationship forms the heart of the film. The filmmakers swapped genders from the book and first movie to include Reuben, and although she makes a great villain, she doesn’t get enough screen time to play it up. Greyeyes inhabits Rainbird so well that I would have liked some more backstory for his character. One of the stops along the way for the McGees is the farm of Irv Manders (John Beasley). You will recognize Beasley instantly from his dozens of roles over the years, including a brief appearance in horror movie Sinister 2. I was glad that he received more substantial screen time here.
You can’t make a movie called Firestarter without a lot of fire and special effects. Fortunately, the filmmakers indulge in a variety of such practical and digital effects to tell Charlie’s story. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to pull off some of the scenes, probably approaching the same level of danger as the original movie and maybe Backdraft. Armstrong does that screaming thing where her hair blows around her in some unseen wind as flames ignite. I always laugh when that happens, as I did when Barrymore did it, but Armstrong has such a great facial expression that I perhaps chuckled a little less because she means business. Nothing’s safe from Charlie’s attacks, and that even includes members of the animal community in a couple of intense scenes. Firestarter goes into the category of movies where I would love to see how they put together effects sequences after I watch them in context.
Although I hope to see another version of It sometime in the future, I don’t think that Firestarter will get another treatment beyond the two movies (and a TV movie sequel) that already exist. Never say never. Blumhouse Productions specializes in horror, and they took care of this property the right way. The music deserves a special mention because John Carpenter composed the score along with his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies just as they did for the 2018 Halloween and Halloween Kills. I was especially impressed with the heavy electric synthesizer sounds in the finale and over the credits that feel like something from the ‘80s or even the Italian horror flicks. I swear that the people in marketing get lazier or dumber over time. Just as some moron put the ellipsis in the wrong place in the advertising for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, somebody decided to capitalize the “s” in this title. I don’t understand how these kinds of mistakes survive scrutiny in the midst of marketing campaigns. As a writer, I can tell you that this stuff isn’t that hard to get right. Anyway, no matter how it’s spelled, Firestarter adds to the win column for successful adaptations of King’s novels.