Firestarter was another successful novel for Stephen King back in 1980, and following the trend of the time period, it quickly got a film adaptation like Carrie, The Shining, and The Dead Zone before it. Mark L. Lester helms the film as director, enlisting David Keith to play the film’s father figure Andy McGee and a young Drew Barrymore (post-E.T.) as main character and titular firestarter Charlie. At the time, Firestarter did not garner great reviews from critics despite screenwriter Stanley Mann closely following King’s original storyline; however, that criticism feels somewhat unwarranted upon subsequent viewings, a harsh reaction that does not give enough credence to the relationship Keith and Barrymore build together.
Firestarter is about the supernatural in small part, about the ways that some humans can transcend natural ability because of scientific experimentation, but it’s also a story about the bonds people form between each other. Lester’s decision to open the film with a chase sequence starts things with suspense before settling into a relaxed state, allowing Firestarter to explore the intricacies in Andy and Charlie’s relationship while hinting at the telekinesis and pyrokinesis abilities they have at their disposal. The father/daughter bond is an important part of Firestarter‘s plot, because much of the film alternates between the present – with Andy and Charlie running from a mysterious organization known as The Shop, which both created human guinea pigs and now wants to destroy them – and the past, showing how Charlie has often failed to control her anger and how Andy has attempted to mold her while protecting her along the way.
That relationship becomes Firestarter‘s main plot impetus once Andy and Charlie are captured and separated, eventually leading to Charlie figuring out how to channel her pyrokinetic abilities. Their motivations to rejoin each other become important, and even despite a slower second act involving scientific testing, Lester manages to build an emotional character arc for both individuals, emphasizing how human connection fosters development even in the face of adversity.
Charlie and Andy’s closeness also facilitates introducing the film’s central villain Rainbird (George C. Scott), a man who wants to control and eventually kill Charlie to potentially inherit her powers. Rainbird as a character is underdeveloped, with Lester including random scenes of Scott delivering killing blows to the bridge of the nose to drive skull fragments into the brain in order to make sense of his bizarre occultic beliefs; however, Scott makes for an excellent villain, especially when he impersonates Charlie’s janitor to pretend to be her friend. It’s an act of evil that makes sense within the film, and it leads to a powerful confrontation in the finale that again highlights the power of relationships and Charlie’s pyrokinetic development.
Firestarter features a number of action scenes that look rather good, especially when it involves cars exploding or the conclusion’s conflagration. However, these excellent scenes are quite dispersed throughout the film, and Lester’s pacing can feel slow. At nearly two hours, Firestarter is somewhat under-stuffed at times, and a few scene edits could have removed some of the issues that plague the movie.
Still, Firestarter is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of King’s work that may not be able to deliver as much of an emotional punch as the novel but manages to recreate the ideas that made the book such a success. Its pacing is a problem, but if viewers can look beyond the extended running time, Lester offers a fiery tale of supernatural ability paired with a solid thematic observation on the power of human connection.