Sunday, September 11, 2022

Firestarter (2022).

I can remember the first time I encountered Stephen King.  Guess I'm just one of those dummies with all the luck.  He was right there from the very beginning, in a sense.  My childhood must be out of the norm.  Because it consists of a series of well preserved memories that were easy to stick in the mind.  A lot of it is helped by the fact that these were movie images.  It also maybe doesn't hurt that these flickering pictures were drawn from what some would consider the cream of the cinematic crop.  I can recall Lawrence of Arabia wandering through an endless desert.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducting both orchestra and audience as if he held the universe in the palm of his hand.  For a time, at least, he might have come near to just that.  Then there's a wild-haired Christopher Loyd and Michael J. Fox conducting a wacky science experiment with time on the face of a giant clock tower.  One of the strongest images turns out to be a group of kids in jeans and t-shirts perched on the edge of a set of railway tracks, looking out into the wilderness, trying to get a good, long look at the terrain ahead, before deciding to plunge headlong into it.  That last snapshot of memory came from a film with the simple, yet somehow grand title of Stand By Me.  It's a good film, with an equally brilliant soundtrack.  The irony is it took a while to realize it had anything to do with the work and writing of Stephen King.

So in that sense, I knew something of King's fiction, before I ever knew anything about the writer himself.  In retrospect, I think that just might have been the best introduction to the man and his stories any potential fan could ask for.  Stand By Me is one of those films that you look at for the first time, all unknowing, and see it as one sort of a film.  The kind of thing you might expect to find tossed off the cuff by the likes of John Hughes, or something like it.  Then, when you learn about King, and and go back and watch the movie again, it becomes something else, while also still managing to keep all the other elements you remember from when you were a kid.  It turns the film into a movie of layers.  It becomes a story with a higher sense of sophistication that belies its deliberately rough hewn quality.  In fact, it's this quality that can sometimes fool the audience, and single it out as its own little masterclass in storytelling.  When I first saw the movie, for instance, I was thinking the setting couldn't be in the 1950s.  I was thinking this was all taking place not far from my own backyard.  That's how good it is.

Let it stand as a testament to the achievement of King's writing.  Like I say, though.  While it might have been my first introduction to King's work.  It was quite a while before I learned to associate the film as having anything to do with King himself.  That seems to be an amusing recurrence with films like this.  The same goes for The Shawshank Redemption.  It's a tell on the cloud of prejudice that artists like King or Steven Spielberg may continue to exist under for some time.  After all these years, critics continue to harbor the idea that anything the majority of the audience likes just isn't worth considering as valid.  In recent years, it's gotten worse when it comes to a recent spate of pop cultural controversies that shall remain unexplored here.  The funny thing is I never seemed to have any such problems with all those old, 80s popcorn flicks, or ancient popular novels.  To me, all that matters is whether the final product was entertaining, whether or not it qualifies as "pulp fiction".  In that sense, when I finally picked up my first copy of a King book, it didn't take much time before I realized we were going to get along splendidly.  The writing itself was on a level of sophistication that I believe is genuine.  It's just that "Book People" insist on giving him a hard wrap, and a bad reputation to go along with it.

None of this mattered to me growing up, as I was beginning to gain slow familiarity with King's writings.  Far as I was concerned, there was nothing to suggest there was anything illegitimate about getting to know the work of a "popular author".  For me, this was a slow, gradual process, amounting  to a sort of informal word of mouth.  I'd be watching TV, minding my own business, and then suddenly a commercial for one of his books (such as Gerald's Game, or Needful Things) would appear for an instant, and then be gone in a flash.  I've got to give each of those hoary old bits of self promotion credit.  They did their job well.  They didn't just deliver the message they had to sell.  Whoever made them was smart to know you had to do it with just the right amount of style fitting for the works they had to peddle.  The results are these amusing, a little corny, though sometime just a bit creepy snapshots of 80s to 90s era nostalgia.  They've become glimpses into a world long gone, and yet it's this same reality which King was able to make his own.  It was all enough to get the attention of one ten year old boy who was otherwise engrossed in the adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  It let you know that there was this dark, yet somehow interesting vista out there waiting to be explored.  Perhaps it also didn't hurt that long before I knew who King was, I'd developed a healthy interest in the Horror genre by then.

It was Saturday Morning Cartoons who taught me what ghosts and monsters were, including the likes of the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man.  The punchline is I even owe my interest in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe to a Steven Spielberg produced animated series.  So in other words, TV is one of the influences that taught me how to have fun being scared.  The important thing to note is that all of this happened before I ever had a chance to know just who Stephen King was.  The perfect irony being that he was kinda-sorta always there, as a looming background presence that began to come into clearer focus as those early, impressionable years went on.  From seeing him advertised on TV, I soon wound up noticing his titles lining the shelves of various bookstores I'd happen to frequent.  From there, I moved onto the reading the plot synopsis written down in the front flap covers surrounding each book.  The ones that I recall picking up and examining at this early stage of my developing fandom were Wizard and Glass (a Dark Tower novel), along with The Green Mile and Bag of Bones.  The first tentative baby steps into King's secondary world on paper came from purchasing a copy of a comic book adaptation of Creepshow.  It looked and read as both gnarly and undeniably cool at the same time.

The next big step was to pick up a copy of Cycle of the Werewolf.  I'd read interesting things about in a small booklet known as The Films of Stephen King, and so I decided to see if it was all as cracked up to be.  Turns out it all seemed true.  There were some parts that were still difficult for me to read at such an early age, yet I remember being fascinated by it at the same time.  In retrospect, that little novelette might very have been the gateway text, any all-important piece of writing that can help make the prospective reader a fan for life.  What I know for certain is that it left me wanting more.  And I began to cast about for any of his books that would allow my reading of this writer to go further up and further in.  The book that managed to make me a King reader for life is not something even his many fans would cite as an example of his best writing.  However, I think I'm just about out of apologies for this one.  While the case for the defense may stay a going concern, I can't find any reason to be ashamed that it was Dreamcatcher which catapulted me into the Gothic heights of King's fictionThat book remains what it is for me to this day.  I'm still willing to call one of his most underappreciated works.

It's also the text that made me realize I was dealing with a genuine talent.  It's the one that allowed me to go on and pour through works like Misery, Salem's Lot, and The Shining.  My experience with all of this has allowed me to come away with the conviction that what we're dealing here is a man who deserves to be regarded as perhaps the premiere writer of Gothic fiction.  This goes not just for American, yet also English or Western Literature in the modern age.  What I do know for sure is that somewhere down the line, you might just see future scholars make an attempt at annotated additions of his best work, similar to the attention that J.R.R. Tolkien and Bram Stoker have received lately.  While it's a generally accepted idea that King has now cemented himself a place up there with the likes of Shelley and Lovecraft, the work I have to focus in on today is a bit more ironic.  It's something that formed a building block in my growing King fandom, and yet my relationship to it today is somewhat distanced, and a bit more up in the air in terms of its overall quality.  I don't know if that sounds like a comedown after all this build-up.  All I know for sure is that I hope you'll join in with me now, as I take the time to examine an adaptation of Firestarter, and what kind of work it amounts to in King's canon.

The Basic Premise, and its Background.   

In his 2001 book. The Essential Stephen King, author and critic Steven Spignesi describes the story under discussion today in the following terms.  "Firestarter is King at his most paranoid, and the novel can be thematically linked with King's 1985 poem, "Paranoid: A Chant, in which a narrator believes he is being surveilled for some horrible, nefarious reason.

"In Firestarter, the clandestine government agency The Shop performs ostensibly innocent experiments on college students, telling them that they are testing low-grade hallucinogenics for psychological study.  The Shop was actually trying to stimulate paranormal abilities (better psychic powers through chemistry) for covert use and didn't have a contingency plan for what would happen if two of the test subjects married and had a child.  Two of the test subjects - Andy McGee and Vicky Tomlinson - did marry and have a child, Charlene Roberta - Charlie - and Charlie was born with pyrokinetic abilities.  She was a firestarter.  The Shop inhumanly decides that all of the "Lot Six" (the drug used in the test) experiment subjects must be eliminated and Firestarter is the story of the organization's pursuit of Andy and Charlie, and Charlie's ultimate victory over the powers of bureaucratic evil (79-80)".

So much for a basic plot synopsis.  This just leaves us with a general question of where the idea itself comes from, and what was the history involved in setting it all down on paper.  That's where the work of King fan and scholar Bev Vincent does reader and critic alike a more than valuable service.  One almost wishes he would devote his efforts to an entire book filled with neat, entertaining, and informative essays like the following one on the genesis of King's literary pyrotechnical feat.

"Firestarter arose from research Stephen King had been doing into psychic phenomena, specifically, pyrokinesis[1]. He read about spontaneous human combustion and other bizarre incidents. In one case that he has mentioned on several occasions, a boy started to burn while the family was at the beach. His father dunked him in the water, but he kept on burning and died from his injuries, with his father sustaining serious burns on his arms. King has admitted to a fascination with fire, referring back to one of his favorite characters, Trashcan Man from The Stand, who loves to start fires, the bigger the better. King wanted to explore what might happen to a person who had the ability to start fires with his or her mind and could control it.

"Then he thought about people taking part in psychology experiments who unwittingly received drugs like LSD. He envisioned such a drug turning people telepathic and causing a genetic mutation that allowed the test subjects to pass this talent on like “the Wyeth people hand down artistic talent.”

"King also wanted to write about the uncontrolled power held by government agencies to do things whether or not they are advisable. In an afterword included only with the first paperback edition of the novel, he talks about the “undeniable fact” that the government and its agencies had administered potentially dangerous drugs to unwitting subjects, and that both the US and the USSR (this was during the Cold War, remember) had programs for isolating and studying people with “wild talents,” a phrase he attributes to Jack Vance. He writes, “One of the things that Firestarter tried to say is it’s gotten to the point where people are saying, ‘Don’t think about it, just do it. If it works let’s use it and let’s never mind what causes it or anything else.’ Which is a military and scientific philosophy this country has always pursued.”

"King patterned Charlie McGee on his daughter, Naomi. “I know how she looks, I know how she walks, I know what makes her mad. I was able to use that, but only to a certain degree. Beyond that, if you tie yourself to your own children, you limit your range. So I took Naomi, used her as the frame, and then went where I wanted.”

"When he reached the shootout scene at Manders’ farm, he gave up on the book because he was afraid he was simply writing Carrie all over again. He recognized the recurring theme of the tension between emerging psychic abilities and nascent sexual awareness in both novels and wondered if he might be lapsing into self-imitation, or even self-parody.

"When he returned to the manuscript after finishing The Dead Zone and the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” however, he was gratified to discover that his fears weren’t justified. Not only was Firestarter better than he remembered, it was better than Carrie. He realized he was amplifying themes that were intrinsic to his work, which is something more acceptable in literary fiction than in popular fiction.

"He finished the final draft in the fall of 1978, after the family moved to Orrington, working during the evening while teaching creative writing at the University of Maine, his first experience teaching at the university level[2].

"The book ended as it did because King didn’t know what happened next. However, he said over the years that he had wild moments where he imagined Charlie McGee meeting Danny Torrance and they get married and move to ‘Salem’s Lot. As we now know, that didn’t happen (web)".

So far, this appears to be all that we can know about the inspiration and composition of Firestarter as a novel.  All that remains is to figure out its quality as both a story in its own right, as well as how it stacks up in King's wider, literary pantheon.  In making final judgment calls here, in addition to the pioneering work of critic George Beahm, I'll keep relying on a few of the insights offered by Vincent and Horror scribe Richard Chizmar, as their insights have proven more than valuable here.  Anyone wishing to know a lot more about King, his fiction, and its context is urged to go and wade into Chizmar's website, Stephen King Revisited.  It is one of the handful of useful sources out there to the work of a Modern American Master Storyteller.  And it is all well worth the time and the effort.

Conclusion: A Spark That Won't Ignite.

There have been two adaptations so far of King's novel.  The first was way back in 1984, and then there's the one under review today, from 2022.  I've had an opportunity to see each film by this point, and what is the most striking is just how similar they are, in spite of the later film's attempt at shaking things up.  Let's start with the 22, Keith Thomas vehicle first.  His version opens with this strange hybrid attempt at a quasi-documentary feel.  The reader is introduced to the Shop, and it's Lot 6 Experiment.  Thomas has made the deliberate decision to smudge the camera lens, perhaps as an effort to reproduce the Analog Horror trope that's still currently in use.  It's perhaps the most standout moment in the entire film, as it serves as a clear clue to the audience that this movie stands in line with the continuing 80s nostalgia trend.  I'll admit to thinking this is one of the few potentially positive enthusiasms to emerge in the Arts just recently.  It's also frustrating in that out of all the filmmakers out there who are willing to use this style, only a handful seem capable of capturing it well on screen.

Thomas seems to be one of those creators who struggle with it, more often than not.  I'm willing to go with the idea that he's a genuine fan of the style, and he might even be an 80s kid himself.  If so, this is just one of those cases where his failings become all the more acute and noticeable.  As things stand, Thomas is left giving us a situation where it looks as if the artist can't quite find a way to inhabit a format, or style that he cares about.  Instead, it's as if he's left to observe the main show as a detached outsider.  Someone who seemingly has nothing he can do to make the events unfolding onscreen look interesting. Though, to be fair, this could be too harsh of a judgment.  After all, there are occasions in which a proper sense of artistic detachment can be just the right ingredient for a well told Horror story.  In films like Rear Window, or Psycho, for instance, Alfred Hitchcock was able to give his audience moments of pure terror that work precisely because they first go for the jugular, and then demand that we watch the horror unfold in a way that forces us to view it all in a manner of cathartic distance that also goes on to make us complicit voyeurs in the very act of cinematic transgression.  It remains one of the great feats of cinema, and the fact that Hitchcock could also accomplish this feat, not just once, but several times over, and often without shedding a drop of blood, is a testament to his narrative skill.

It is just possible that Thomas might be going for something similar with his King adaptation.  If this is so, then something has definitely gone wrong.  All we're left with in those opening moments are brief snatches of security footage that show us first a brief outline of the Lot 6 Test, and its subject, including Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) McGee.  What follows is a series of quick cuts meant to highlight the progress of the Shop experiment, and the subsequent fallout.  This results in brief segments in which patients are found thrashing around in bed, tearing around the scenery in an uncontrollable rage, and one unfortunate patient walks up to the Lot 6 doctors, cackling madly, like an old crone in a fairy tale, her hands held out to deliver the severed eyes that she's torn right out from her own sockets.  If this makes it all sound in any way exciting, then I apologize for doing a good job.

Clearly, I've given off a false sense of excitement that the film itself seems incapable of delivering on, even in those graphic opening moments.  Instead, the over-arching feeling I experienced when watching all this was of an initial sense of open-minded curiosity, giving way to a belated sense of let down, and boredom.  If I had to put all that in an immediate reaction expression, then it would probably go something like, "Really?  Is that it"?  The sad part is that the rest of the film goes on to reassure the audience that, yes, that truly does seem to be all there is.  The unenviable truth is that the opening scene fails to deliver much in the way of promise, and the rest of the film does nothing to help pick things up in any meaningful sense.  The best it can offer is maybe one scene of Charlie's (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) experience with bullying in school.  It's the one moment where it almost seems like things could begin to enter into classic King territory, as one of his strongest tropes has always been the struggles of adolescents as they try to survive the unforgiving gauntlet of high school and childhood elementary.

Sadly, the film is able to fail with great success even in this scene.  We could have had a potentially interesting moment of explosive rage, followed by a nice bit of subversive mischief.  What could have happened is the obvious chain of events.  Charlie looses her temper, and causes a fire in the school.  However, once this occurs, the first thing she does is turn it to her advantage.  Like what if she then turns right around and, in a moment of immediate guilt, winds up saving the very bullies who were giving her such a hard time in the first place?  In doing so, she also alerts the rest of the school, and a key sequence from a novel or film like Carrie gets turned upside down on its head.  

This time, instead of causing the death of all her teachers and classmates, the firestarter's abilities become the means of making herself out to be a hero in all their eyes.  It could have been a tense, exciting sequence in which all sort of narrative tables are turned.  It would start out with Charlie doing a bad thing, then she successfully course corrects by doing a good thing, and rescuing the entire school.  It should be at precisely that crucial moment (as Charlie is being congratulated by the staff and teacher, and apologized to by the same kids who bullied her just moments earlier) that the camera should linger on her face, as she beings to realize just how she can turn her own powers to her advantage.  She would have entered into a moral grey area, and that in turn could have led to all sorts of interesting storyline or plot developments.

More than this, it might just have granted Charlie the opportunity for being a fictional player with those all important qualities of narrative agency, and a more fleshed out character arc.  To Thomas's credit, there are moments where it seems as if the film is at least trying to grant her these qualities, and yet they come so late in the film, and even then its less because of whatever Charlie might want for herself, and rather what the plot demands of her at that particular moment.  In contrast, the scenario outlined above would have allowed her the chance to tightrope walk across the span of the White and the Red sides of the street.  We could have followed her as she is forced to make the difficult choices over just what kind of person she wants to be, given the powers she now has.  Hell, we could have gone in entirely different directions, following along as Charlie figures out all the interesting angles to the circumstances she finds herself in, and the way it allows her abilities for either good, evil, or that middle ground area of tricksy mischief.  That at least sounds more interesting than what we've got.

I think there are a number of reasons for this, and to their credit, I'm not certain any of the blame lies with Thomas, Armstrong, Efron, or even the earlier efforts of guys like Martin Sheen, George C. Scott, Dino De Laurentis, or Drew Barrymore.  Though it might just rest with a mistake made by the original storyteller.  The ultimate problem that plagues the Thomas adaptation is the same issue faced by De Laurentis and his own crew way back in 1984.  The trouble seems to be that the basic plot of Firestarter is somehow too fundamentally thin on the ground to work as a story.  One possible reason for this is that Stephen King himself might never have bothered to go as far with the narrative potential of the idea when he should have.  So far as I can tell, the best dramatic capabilities in the story all seem to lie in how you want to portray a character like Charlie McGee.  Rather, let's say the most interesting approach would be the one that follows her on her journey, as she decides on whether she wants to be either a heroine, or else just a flat out villain.  It would add a proper subversive element to her character.

I keep getting the impression that if you were to find just the right way of playing off that one, continuous note, then you could have had a very interesting story in its own right.  It might have been something that was derived off of the likes of Carrie, and The Dead Zone, and it would have found its own direction, thus making it able to stand out from the pack with an identity and narrative of its own.  Instead of all this, King seems to have made the fatal creative decision of trying to play it safe with a story in a very particular genre, in which trying to find and cross the taboo line is one of the main draws for this kind of fiction.  In which case, that's just too bad.  We could have had a really interesting character study on our hands.  What we're left with, is little more than a puppet show with stick figures that are dutifully put through their paces, and then packed up in a trunk and forgotten about.

That doesn't leave the audience with much to go on.  Even when the story tries to give us an insight into the character's motivations, the results just come off as bland and too distanced for us to care.  This is one of the few cases where I wonder if a tighter focus on the action would have helped.  In fact, it almost makes sense to me that a more ideal way for the story to be told would be to have it framed as a road trip journey, with Charlie at the center.  If there's one favor Thomas might have done for both critic and audiences, it's to suggest how a potentially better, alternate version of the story would go.  It would start out with Charlie and her family trying to live normal lives.  Then the Shop enters the picture.  The McGees try to make to make a run for it.  However, things take a bad turn.  Vicky is killed, and Andy gets kidnapped.  The last thing Victoria can do is to find a safe place for Charlie to hole up before being shuffled off the stage.  There's just one catch, though.  Charlie now has nowhere else to go.  From there, the film shifts into a Road of Trials mode, as Charlie resolves to follow the trail of the Shop agents, and try to make her way to their headquarters, in a desperate attempt at getting her family back together.

This would be the main part of the movie, and it would almost be framed like a fairy tale.  It's main action would be centered around Charlie herself, as she makes her way toward her goal.  All while learning to survive on her own.  There would be scenes of her learning how to harness and control her powers, and even using them to "cook up" some food for dinner.  Interspersed between these segments would be moments featuring Andy held captive by the Shop.  With Andy not talking, and very little options left open to her, this is where Hollister (Gloria Reuben) would decide to send out a posse of Shop personnel to either collect or "contain" (i.e. eliminate) the final Lot 6 subject.  This would set up the big action pieces of the film.  Each of them would probably be pretty basic in terms of setup.  The bad guy shows up, the heroine trounces them in a "flame war".  The key element that should make these moments stand out is the way all this effects Charlie's character development, and arc.  Ideally, the audience should be treated to signs that she is starting to "enjoy" her powers, and is beginning to get the first taste of what it means to wield power over others.  This is what I mean by a good character study.

It perhaps should have been an entire, feature-length exploration of the old motto that goes "With great power comes great responsibility".  By letting Charlie take occasional walks on the wild side, the story could have gained a greater sense of ambivalent suspense, as the audiences soon become unsure whether they are meant to root for a hero, or be afraid of a villain.  This could have been heightened at certain points in the film, during Charlie's continual interactions with Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes).  It's just too bad that all of these ideas remain confined to the land of missed opportunities.  As a result, the film just goes back to resembling the original book.  That is one of the greatest ironies I've ever encountered, because its one of the few times where a less faithful approach to the source material would have done the story a favor.  Instead, Thomas's adaptation just conforms to all the criticism that George Beahm had to level against King's own novel in his study, The Stephen King Companion:

"Firestarter is a midrange King novel, certainly an interesting read, but representative of neither his strongest nor of his weakest works.  It lacks the breadth of plot and setting that elevate earlier novels such as The Shining or The Stand to the level of masterworks and potential classics of contemporary American fiction; and it equally lacks the cosmic scope of later works, including It, The Talisman, and Insomnia, that expand readers' horizons and expectations to something approaching epic intensity.

"Like The Dead Zone and Cujo, which bracket it in order of publication, Firestarter focuses on a single individual and her struggle against a specific intrusion into her life.  At the the same time, those intrusions are less overtly supernatural and horror-oriented than vampires, haunted hotels, quests for the nexus of worlds, and centuries old space-alien monsters that rise periodically to feed off the psychic energy and fear of children; at times, the horror rises more from King's mode of telling than from the story itself (216)".  That's fair enough so far as an initial assessment of the situation goes.  What's interesting to note is how the simple passage of time has gone on to shape and frame this novel in the overall scope of King's work.  Keep in mind, that quote above was lifted from an old, battered yet held together, 1995 copy of Beahm's study.  Looking at the novel, and both of its adaptations today, it becomes clear that this is all better looked at as "an idea that either got away, or was never all there to begin with"  At the time, Beahm was willing to label it as just "midrange", yet the passage of years have since gone on to place it as one of the handful of weak novels in King's otherwise productive career.

It's a testament to his skill that he's managed to have very few of them.  Yet the quality of his best writing is enough to make the poor efforts stick out like weeds among an otherwise good crop.  For me, the best demonstration that we're dealing with a story that just fails to come together can be taken from an otherwise quiet scene in the 84 De Laurentis version.  It's a dialogue between George C. Scott, Martin Sheen, and an old character actor named Freddie Jones.  In the scene, they are all debating what's to be done about the story's titular fire maker.  Here's the thing that always sticks out to me about that moment.  Everybody is on the same page.  All the actors assembled are skilled and consummate pros.  Indeed, between them, Scott and Sheen are now often regarded as film legends, and with plenty of good reason.  In fact, the scene itself sort of helps showcase just why they are remembered so fondly.  You can tell all the actors are bringing their A game to the production, and are busy giving it all they got.  In fact, I almost want to say that it's Jones who manages to up stage the two veterans.

So what's the net result?  Would you believe it if I told you that not a single damn thing ever manages to come together?  This isn't the actors faults, by the way.  They're all keeping it professional.  Instead, it's the simple fact is that each of them is left having to struggle with a story that just refuses to come together in any meaningful way.  That was the moment where I thought: "Yeah, this probably was never going to be any good".  Turns out I was right.  Whether in 84 or 22, in each case the same thing happened.  I found myself growing so damn bored with the whole thing that I wanted to change the channel, or else just hit stop in order to keep from falling asleep.  In terms of major failings, Stephen King seems to have exactly three when it comes to any of his works.  The first is when he tries to tackle more than he can handle, such as the case with books like Insomnia.  The second is whenever he makes the mistake of writing well outside of his comfort zone.  This is what happened with The Dark Tower series.  The final error, I think, is best exemplified with a novel or film like Firestarter.  This is where the author might have stumbled upon a good idea, and yet he just never really manages to capture it on paper.

The final result, in all three cases, is best described as a burnt out, lifeless husk.  Something from which all the magic has fled, leaving scattered pieces of fool's gold in its wake.  Probably sounds harsh; still turns out to be true, so far as I've experienced it.  In the end, it seems as if King and all of his collaborators over the decades have had the misfortune to be dealing with a somehow unusable concept.  Either that or its always been one that keeps remaining well out of grasp.  The tarot hand just didn't seem to be in anyone's favor for this particular project, and for the record, none of the failure can be chalked up to the filmmakers.  King perhaps gets most of the blame on this one.  Yet in a way, I think even that's kind of unfair.  It's not as if he set out to write a bad novel, after all.  It's just that a potentially good idea seems to have gotten away from him, somehow.  In that sense, I think the real blame here all has to go to that fabled "luck if the draw", or rather a lack thereof.  It means I'm afraid I can't give any good recommendation here.  Either film amounts to a complete and total bust 

The story's not good, and even if the plot elements do come together in the end, none of it amounts to anything that seems important enough to keep watching or turning the pages.  Still, I don't think that's any reason for troll bashing, or that sort of thing.  King might have struck out on this one.  Doesn't mean he never went on to bigger and better things.  As of this writing, he still remains the premiere voice of American Gothic Letters, with a vast and wide range of creative material to draw from.  There are plenty of other books and adaptations worth looking into.  Firestarter just isn't one of them.


  1. "One almost wishes he would devote his efforts to an entire book filled with neat, entertaining, and informative essays like the following one on the genesis of King's literary pyrotechnical feat."

    My new book, coming out tomorrow, is, I believe, just that!

    1. Uh, okay then. Wow. Like, just, it's difficult to know what else to say in cases like this except for the obvious, and pretty darn stupid. So I repeat, wow.

      Also, thanks for the reply. It's funny because in the King related fandom, guys like you and Hans Lilja kind of somehow managed to take on legend status. Far as I can tell, the process was simple. You're that one fan that somehow goes whatever extra mile is necessary to cross over into the realm of critical authority. So, as you're probably sick of noticing, getting this kind of shout out is one of those things that can mean a lot to certain types of people.

      Call it the value of small gestures. All of which is to say thanks for even noticing such meager efforts as this, man. Also, thanks for letting me know about the upcoming book. That's really something to look forward to.

      Hate to sound like a broken record. However, all I can do is repeat an honest sentiment. Thanks!


    2. Just a fan like you and it's always cool to find my name pop up somewhere online. I don't think I'll ever get used to that! (You should also check out the current issue of The Big Thrill if you get a chance -- Stephen King interviews ME. How cool is that?)

    3. I hear ya. Understood. Perhaps that's the smartest possible choice (whatever intelligence amounts to, in the end). Maybe that's just the best guarantee of humility anyone is ever going to have. Which could mean nothing or everything, depending on the circumstances, I guess?

      Thanks for the article, by the way. Have a better one.