Firestarter: Page to Screen
by Kristin Grady
Stephen King, one of the most prolific and best-selling authors of all time, wrote some of his most popular works in the throes of a severe alcohol and cocaine addiction. Firestarter (1980) was an unconscious projection of that extremely unhealthy writing process, while parenting a young daughter. Novel adaptations will always be judged against the source material, often harshly, even by their creators. Steve described the 1984 film version as “flavorless, like cafeteria mashed potatoes”, in 1986 when he was directing Maximum Overdrive, while still using heavily. Is that a fair judgement? Were the producers just cramming a coke-binge-written novel into a Hollywood film while simultaneously showcasing and attempting not to injure or traumatize a beloved child star?
Like Andy McGee, Steve was using a power no human should have to provide for and protect his family, turning his brain into swiss cheese in the process. Analyzing omissions and changes in the film shows us how the producers capitalized on the dangerous, breakneck pace of his writing and the ticking clock on Drew Barrymore’s entrance into awkward preteen years… and eventually her own addiction. Her natural, joyful light was amplified through Charlie and showed us the terrible burden that exploitative powers can put upon such powerful children. Both the book and the film contain an important message for all children: Authority figures aren’t always right, don’t know what they’re doing a lot of the time, and you can say no.
It’s impossible to fit the entire personality of a literary character into a two hour film. Time, budget, and continuity require characters to be eliminated, reduced, or altered in order for the primary characters to be fully developed. Even protagonists are warped to fit the screenplay narrative or intended audience. Several key characters in the film were watered down or cast like donkeys at a horse show, but the film retained enough core characteristics to get invested in the story. It’s often up to the actors to breathe life into the stifled versions of their inspiration.
Andy McGee (David Keith)
Keith put as much heart into Andy as was possible in such a single-minded version of a rather dichotomous character. Andy’s internal self-hatred, post-traumatic-stress, prolonged addiction to Thorazine at the Shop, and brief thoughts of primal murderous intentions were minimized or left out entirely. Some of the more harsh aspects of Andy’s psychic mental dominance were cut from the film. “Echos” that can cause psychosis, the possibility of “pushing” someone into suicide, and the Shop’s interest in using that ability for assasanation… Not in the movie. The sickeningly excruciating headaches Andy experiences after “pushing” are downplayed, perhaps due to their stark similarity to a hangover. They didn’t want Andy to seem like the addict who created him as a desperate, subliminal cry for help. Love for Charlie is Andy’s raison d’etre and at least that shines through brilliantly in both characters.
John Rainbird (George C. Scott)
The casting director needed their eyes checked. George C. Scott was in no way Cherokee, but whitewashing was an unfortunate common practice until recently. In the book, Rainbird is described as almost seven feet tall, long black hair, terrifyingly disfigured, and missing an eye. Scott was shorter (shot from low angles, they tried to make him taller), gray haired, a bit pot-bellied, had minimal latex scarring and a blue contact instead of a missing eye. There was a brief shot of the Lot 6 participant who clawed his eyes out, so their makeup artists were capable of creating a missing eye. Maybe Scott didn’t want to sit in the chair that long? Not as imposing, when John asks Charlie if his face bothers her, she says “I’ve seen worse”. Yeah, we all have. In the book.
Movie John is a simple sleazy pedophile. He has a single motivation: to kill this child as it’s his verison of fucking. Rainbird’s serene intelligence, weird shoe fetish, and many more interesting elements were left out, which wouldn’t have been very difficult to work into the script. The actor hit on one definitive trait, Rainbird’s nihilistic sense of humor, because he didn’t seem to be taking the role seriously. Book Rainbird may have been too much for a movie starring the little girl from ET, but still, an actor with at least a drop of Cherokee blood and more sinister dialogue would have paid a better homage to the character.
Dr. Herman Pynchot (Moses Gunn)
Pynchot was cast as a black man. It’s pretty cool they didn’t change the character or dialogue to reference his race because doctors can just be black without it being ABOUT them being black. The book didn’t mention Pynchot’s race at all, just that he was slightly effeminate and smiled creepily all the time. Colorblind casting isn’t always a bad thing, but this doesn’t really make up for giving a Native American actor’s role to a white guy. Gunn captured the sly, disingenuous pleasantry Dr. Pynchot applies to manipulating Andy and the panicked reason he attempts to impose on Cap Hollister when things get too hot. Book Pynchot’s horrific reaction to Andy’s “push” (committing suicide by shoving his arm down a running garbage disposal while wearing his wife’s underwear) was changed to a fireball on a golf cart for a lot of reasons. It was too sexual and gruesome for a movie starring a kid. Kid fans of ET would be seeing this movie and the producers didn’t want piles of hate mail on that.
Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore)
Perfect casting. Besides being an astounding child actor, becoming famous so young, she knew what it was like to have an immense power that people wanted. She was too grown up for her age, like Charlie. It was written all over her sweet, miserable face.
Drew could have beautifully delivered this line from the book. Despite the immense guilt she felt about it, book Charlie LIKED starting fires. The movie lacked that delicious ambivalence we all feel about playing with destructive powers. Steve wrote Firestarter after he had a daughter. He understood how her mind worked, how his mind worked as a father. Steve, Andy, and Rainbird all showed respect for Charlie’s strong personality, not just her pyrokinesis, and this was not well represented in the film. It appears the writers either weren’t giving a wonderful child actor enough credit or perhaps the audience enough credit.
Besides the character differences, the film transformed or left out many aspects that composed the novel’s whirlwind palette for various reasons. One of the most notable changes was the lack of dark comedy that frequently arose in the book. Psychic echo-mad Martin Sheen freaking out about snakes would have been really funny to watch, but that was probably cut because they didn’t want to turn a horror into a horror-comedy and it’s a fine line. One joke can augment. Two can heighten the tension. More than that slips it into a gray genre the producers appeared to be actively resisting. Additional thematic changes were made to fit the Hollywood narrative and time constraints:
Internal Monologue of Random Characters
In novels, the thoughts of protagonists are usually expressed in italics and ancillary characters are rarely given the brain microphone. Firestarter contains many paragraphs detailing the thoughts and unexpressed emotions of random characters from the soldier whose shoes catch on fire to the secretary with the gun in her desk drawer. It gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to read minds and adds a lot of dynamics to characters we otherwise would have passed over. The film could have expressed these thoughts in quiet voice-overs, but it probably would have overwhelmed the dialogue.
Andy and Charlie express frequent suicidal ideations in the novel, driven by guilt, the stress of government control, and the wild powers in their heads. Lacking any internal dialogue, we get little sense of Andy’s desperation to save his child at his own expense or the extremely painful cost of his ability. We don’t see much of Charlie’s survivor’s guilt, her complex over using her power, and her tragic desire to permanently end her misery. Apparently it was okay to show a child making people explode, but not becoming suicidal over it.
Despite his own self-destructive thoughts, book Andy gently shoo’s away his daughter’s suicidal exclamations, comparing her pyrokinesis to a disability she can’t control. This is a very stirring theme which may have been too sensitive a subject for Hollywood producers to pursue, or perhaps on an altruistic level, they didn’t want to traumatize young Drew anymore than they had to. She does end up saying the line “That’s NOT my fault!” with such conviction, we have hope for her healing.
Government Surveillance, Corruption, and Ineptitude
The JFK assassination. Gulf of Tonkin. MK-Ultra. The FBI dosing random people at bars with LSD. The government fucks up A LOT in real life. In the novel, the power outage that led to Rainbird gaining Charlie’s trust is detailed as a cut-corner engineering mistake. Shop agents could have manufactured something like that if they were smart enough, yet it was sheer government ineptitude that caused it. Makes perfect sense. That explanation wasn’t in the movie, softening the bumbling, greedy, criminal behavior of the Shop.
At least two references to Hemmingway appear in the book. Another alcoholic writer who, prior to his suicide, became paranoid government agents were survailing him due to his ties to Cuba. He ended up being right. The Reagan era was rife with government corruption involving espionage and drugs. No wonder Stephen King was paranoid enough to write a novel about it. The government agents in the film lacked a certain comical stupidity, instead represented as faceless Big Brother adherents. Perhaps the producers reduced this theme because it resembled their role in the film’s creation?
A Pleasure to Burn…
The film’s creation mirrored Andy’s struggle to keep his child out of exploitative hands, carried on the tiny shoulders of young Drew Barrymore. She appeared to be aware of this and the fact that no child should have to be responsible for a multi-million dollar operation, adding to the strength of Charlie’s character. Displaying impressive resilience, she gave a flawless performance. Stephen King may have called the movie “flavorless” as it had little, if any, of the charred, coppery gallows humor of his novel. The film feels unfairly judged as being a bland copy of the book, denying it was enlivened by the star’s bright, yet aged spirit. They could have done a lot differently, but that kid did her best.
Kristin Grady is a freelance writer, video editor, and graphic designer in Hollywood. Check out more content on imaginationforsale.blog!
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