King's Highway pt. 4 Firestarter

I actually finished this one a few weeks back. I've gotten way ahead of myself. Which is fun - it always feels good to be reading at a good clip. Like sailing with a strong headwind. A comparison I am perhaps unqualified to make - more accurate to say, What I imagine is like sailing with a strong headwind. In reality, put me on a boat, and I spend the entire time waiting to throw up. Unfortunately, as I love the water.

Anyway - I have to remind myself that these little informal reviews and notes-of-my-progress down the King's Highway of the mind are mainly for me, so not to fret, just write. When I get paid to critique novels and film, I'll adopt a more scholarly approach, but this whole thing is just a way of leaving markers, breadcrumbs, graffiti. Something visible as I attend to this project. Something I don't want to spend a lot of time editing, in other words.

And sometimes it won't even be about (as we have seen already in this series) the books themselves and more just about the memories the re-read is triggering. Ask Dawn - pretty much my favorite thing to do is time travel via re-connecting to something that made an impression on me as a youth. Sure, my period time travel is limited to the late 70s to the early 90s or so, but you play the hand you're dealt.

For some reason, the movie version of Firestarter freaked me out completely back in 1985.

In the basement of our row-house in Weiterstadt, I watched our VHS copy of this movie as many times as I could. I knew each viewing would deprive me of a night's sleep, but I persisted in this madness, to the growing puzzlement and anxiety of my mother. Watching it again the other night in 2012, I couldn't for the life of me connect to the panic of my 11 year old self. What was it that freaked me out so?

The idea that there is a branch of an allegedly democratic government that behaves as Secret Police, above the law, unstoppable in their pursuit and accountable to no one? A frightening idea to be sure, and I'd certainly begun to form a political viewpoint by 1985, as eleven-year-old-ish as it was. But I can't say with any honesty that this aspect of a government-out-of-control was on my mind in a coherent way.

That your parents can't protect you? Maybe.

In meditating on the subject, the two images that come most clearly to mind are the guy who bleeds from his eyes and his screams of torment, and the one shot of George C. Scott deftly driving Dr. Wanless' nose into his brain with the back of his hand. But surely that's not it?

I admit, though, I spent a lot of time as a teenager, terrified by (and perversely fascinated) by hallucinogens. I don't know if Firestarter was the start of it or not, but that Lot Six experiment scene imprinted itself deeply on my imagination. It lit the fuse (no pun intended) for the way my mind later approached things like Go Ask Alice or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. 

Another image from the film, that of Andy MacGee bleeding from his nose, also comes to mind when I close my eyes and think of the movie.

Perhaps that's not the best selected image, but on we go.

So beyond the personal connection to the single greatest bug-out of my overactive imagination as a child (I think the period of insomnia related to this film was 2 months. I spent years afterward, literally, worried I'd scare myself into another such period of sleeplessness and three-a.m. terror.) how does the movie stand up now? Well, not very good, I'm afraid. It may enter the history books only as trivia. (Drew Barrymore had a drink of champagne at the wrap party and credits this as the catalyst for the subsequent years of binge drinking. I saw that as part of the on-screen trivia/ entertainment they show before the movies sometimes.) But yeah, the special f/x (particularly at the end, which is staged like a bad episode of The A-Team, where the bad guys basically wait, one-by-one, to charge out from hiding, attempt the same take-down of Charlie that has been unsuccessful (and fatal) for each previous member of their bad guy team, then some explosion or yet-another- guy-flailing-around-on-fire,) are bad, and everything has a superficial-production sort of film.

I disagree with Harlan Ellison's take-down of the performances. (I'd provide a link, but my first two attempts were unsuccessful, so, moving on. His review can be found in his book Harlan Ellison's Watching or in The Stephen King Companion, which will be reviewed as part of this series, sooner or later.) The performances aren't bad. Nothing Oscar-worthy, but no one embarrasses his or her self.

It is amusing, as well, to imagine this film as a prequel to The West Wing:

President Bartlett's first job! Actually, I might even enjoy The West Wing if it had adopted this as back-story.

There is one really beautiful shot, taken from the middle of the bridge at the lake right after Charlie and Andy are hit with the darts. I tried to find a screen-grab, but no luck, unfortunately.

January 2013 edit: Here it is.
But it really stands out. First we see only the woods, and then the men in haz-mat suits emerge from their hiding places. Otherwise, the film isn't much for great images. (The screaming man with the bleeding eyes notwithstanding.)

January 2013 edit: Here's that one, too.
Having just finished the book, I was in a good spot to pick up on the changes/ compressions to scenes from the novel. There are many. But the one that is most jarring and, to me, so inexplicable that I can only think it was the result of inattention, is in the translation of John Rainbird to the screen. Although Rainbird's interest in Charlie is explicitly described as non-prurient/ pedo, they leave that open as a motivation for Rainbird in the film. Maybe even suggest/ nudge along this perception? Why? Wry commentary on the cult of pedo that some ex-child-actors says is Hollywood's dark secret? (Why is a pedo ring cover-up always part and parcel to the shadowy network of elites, be they political, religious, or Hollywood?)

HOMEWORK: It is worth considering how the depiction of fire has progressed on film. Next time you see an old movie that has a lot of burning flame on-screen, like The Alamo or Jason and the Argonauts, to name only two, pay close attention to how it looks. It's quite different-looking, isn't it? Now think of a film from the 80s, like this one, or something like Temple of Doom. Contrast that with the primarily-CGI flickering flames we see these days. (THEN: contrast bad-CGI flame (from something on SyFy) to big-budget-CGI.)

Finally, I leave you with these words from Irv Manders when the shadowy operatives of The Shop descend onto his property to capture Charlie and to murder Andy. After first asking to see their warrant and being told they don't need one, he answers "You do unless I woke up in Russia this morning." Afterwards, once the carnage has been unleashed and their home is up in flames, (quick note - at some point in a lot of King's work, someone's house will burn down. The guy will say "It's insured." The woman will say "That doesn't replace my Mom's dishes/ dresses/ mementos," etc. It happens here, in "Secret Window, Secret Garden," and in The Mist, off the top of my head, but elsewhere, too. I digress.) Afterwards, Irv Manders, when questioned by his wife why he wants to get himself involved any further in helping these fugitives with awful powers, says:

"Those men came with no warrants nor blue-back paper of any kind and tried to take them off our land," he said. "People I'd invited in like it's done in a civilized country with decent laws... What do you want me to do, Norma? Sit here and turn them over to the secret police if they get their peckers up enough to come back? Be a good German?"

I'll leave it to you to ponder the changed implications in this bit of dialogue from the early 1980s to 2012 and what new things it might bring to mind. But how much you want to bet, if they re-made this film (or whenever they inevitably do) the special f/x will go through the roof, but the subtext of this exchange/ raid on the farm will be watered down?

Extinguished or smothered, in other words, ahem.

Next-up: Not sure! I'm reading Duma Key now and have just finished Skeleton Crew/ Everything's Eventual as a planned two-for, though I might throw in Just After Sunset into that, too. Do I save all the short fiction for one mega-short-fiction blog? I'd like to pair up Full Dark No Stars with Four Past Midnight, as well, i.e. keep like-with-like. We shall see. On Writing and The SK Companion will be another one. We shall see!

Thanks for reading.


  1. I forgot to mention two things:

    - I am just old enough to remember the time where the idea of a story getting out and starting a "shitstorm of truth" might topple even a secret government assassination/ out of control agency. I don't know if I believe this anymore, but it's heartening to remember a time where that was a basic belief most people had, and there was a visible watchdog media in place. How times have changed.

    - Along these lines, it was amusing to see how the organization to whom "the truth" is brought was changed from Rolling Stone magazine in the book to The New York Times in the movie. Considering what has become of the once-independent Grey Old Lady, methinks details of the Shop's shenanigans might still be better served by Rolling Stone.

    1. Agree on the Rolling Stone bit. And I believe they explicitly discuss in the book how such mass media publications as the NYT are likely corrupted by the Shop. Having read a few early '80s King books recently (this one, The Talisman, Danse Macabre), I am struck by some of the similarities between the political climate of then versus now. Being born in '81, I wasn't really aware of much in politics until the Clinton years, so it's a bit surprising to note how some of the concepts on the right that are glaringly front and center were just starting to take root in the early Reagan era. Which I've read about in other places as well, but sometimes a King book is a veritable time capsule for getting a sense of what things were like in a given year.

      Interesting side note - as I look back at your Highway project, I happened to read Duma Key and Firestarter back to back as you did, but in reverse order. Funny enough too, as Firestarter has been on my to read list for probably twenty years and for whatever reason I never got to it until now. Makes it all the more satisfying, I guess!

    2. Hey that's pretty cool on your reading order, there! Maybe there's something to it. Let's recommend it to people.

      King's books are time capsules indeed, particularly his 70s and 80s ones. All of them, really, but you can totally grok a whole different mindset/ context from something like Roadwork or Firestarter.

  2. I still like the movie; it's cheesy, but I think it's a little better than it generally gets credit for being. Can't touch the novel, of course, but that's a given.

    Ever seen the "sequel"? It sucks. Again, a given.

    1. Nah, never bothered with the sequel. I usually never do, unless King has some personal involvement. (Tho I've caught one or two of the Children of the Corns.)

      A friend and I stopped in FYE today and I asked if they had a copy of The Night Flier. No luck. No Storm of the Century, either. They did have Riding the Bullet and Sleepwalkers, though, they happily told me, like they wanted my gratitude for recommending anything King-related. (Once I told them what I was looking for was the above and that it was based on SK stuff.) "Uhhhh, no thank you."

      I'd like to see the Night Flier, though. I enjoy the story a lot. I'm sure the movie sucks, but meh, I'll check it out.

    2. Oh, actually, re: the Night Flier, I just checked over at your worst-to-best blog and see it cracked your personal top 20. That bodes well. I look forward to it.

    3. Blast from the past! How things have changed.