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Monday, January 4, 2016


Happy New Year, Constant Readers!

I hope your holiday season went well. Mine was...too short.

Well, what way to kick off the new year than with the first full Stephen King novel from the 80's!

Disclaimer: The Mist was written before this, but it's technically a novella.

Firestarter is another chapter in Stephen King's non-horror collection. Already collected therein, at least by my estimation, are Carrie, Rage, The Stand, The Long Walk and The Dead Zone. We'll have the argument over what qualifies as horror in a future post, but suffice it to say that Firestarter is more along the lines of sci-fi thriller than horror.

In this case, the plot revolves around a young girl, Charlie McGee, and her father Andy, trying to escape the clutches of a shadowy government agency known as the Shop. They want Charlie, you see, because several years ago Andy agreed to participate in an experiment wherein his pituitary gland was altered, giving him a special mental power that allows him to mentally "push" people to sort of believe and agree with everything he's saying. While in this experiment, he met Vicki, another test subject, and the two would later marry. Their combined DNA with their altered pituitaries, produced Charlie, who has a much stronger ability than either of them. Her "push" works on machines, too, but when she pushes, there's enough friction built up by the energy that fires break out. To a limited, but growing, degree, Charlie can even control where the fire starts.

I'm afraid I won't be able to talk about this one much more without some spoilers, so be warned. If you haven't read this yet, you might want to before you read the rest of this post.

The plot kicks into gear when Charlie is 8, almost 9, and a misunderstanding causes the Shop agents to believe that Andy and Vicki have gone on the run. Before Andy can act, Vicki is killed and he narrowly manages to get Charlie back from two Shop agents before going on the run for real. For a large part of the novel, Andy is using his pitifully small level of resources to try and get Charlie somewhere safe.

This is the first novel to really introduce the Shop, an organization that King uses a couple of more times. He inserted them into his expanded edition of The Stand, in an off-hand mention (I honestly can't recall if the original edition mentioned them, but I can't imagine it did) and I believe King confirmed that they were behind the Arrowhead Project from The Mist, but as they're not mentioned by name in that story, I can't confirm if that's true. They showed up as the villains in the Stephen King-created television series Golden Years, which I haven't seen, and they were used in the film version of The Lawnmower Man, which I've already mentioned has nothing to do with King's story, and thus I have no interest in seeing it.

Their actual name is the Department of Scientific Intelligence and they are apparently just another branch of the government. Outside canon, the Shop has taken on quite a life of its own, with CR's quick to attribute almost any shadowy conspiracy directly to them. I don't mind this. I even like it. I kinda wish King himself had done more with it.

But in this novel, the Shop is definitely not all-powerful. They're just a rogue government agency, but they make handy villains in this story.

What's at the heart of this story, at least to me, is a father's love for his daughter. What drove the first half, and a majority of the second, was Andy's struggle to keep Charlie safe, and the hazards he encounters while trying to do so. As many of you know, I have daughters myself; one's almost 20 and living apart from me and the other is 15 months old as of this writing. In the flashback scenes with Charlie as a toddler, I couldn't help but see my own baby girl as Charlie, and boy, did that make those scenes hard to read without getting misty-eyed.

And this is one reason why I rejected one of the earliest ideas I had for this adaptation. I thought "Why not make it Vicki who survives and Andy that's murdered? Just say it's Vicki who got the push power and the rest of the story tells itself."

I rejected this idea for several reasons. For one, single moms on the run protecting their kid haven't exactly been under-represented on screen. There are umpteen thrillers about them, and I'm sure there will continue to be more. There are movies about single dads on the run, as well, but it's harder to do because it's very easy for an audience to feel sympathy for the mother. Fathers on screen are usually portrayed, at best, as providers or perhaps advice-givers, but when it comes to actually caring for the kids, dads are usually portrayed as not really knowing what they're doing or even being the problem.

Also, when a woman is obviously on the run, people want to help her. When a father goes on the run with his kid, as this novel shows, people are automatically distrustful and wondering if this isn't a kidnapping situation. This makes Andy's struggle a bit harder and thus, more dramatic to watch.

And as I said before, we just don't get that many movies about the bond between father and daughter. It's a special bond, and one that might even be stronger than father and son, or mother and daughter. Firestarter shows this aptly, and I'd like to see it kept for the screen.

Of course, as most of you already know, Firestarter has been adapted before, back in 1984 with Drew Barrymore in the title role. For bonus points, it also has Martin Sheen in it, who was also in The Dead Zone the previous year. This adaptation I have not seen, though I plan to someday, but what I know about it is that while it's not exactly bad, per se, it wasn't really all that good, either.

There also seem to be plans to remake this, but whether or not it's going to be a straight adaptation or whether or not it's just so that a TV series can be made surrounding an older Charlie (and other people with abilities) on the run from the Shop, or whether it's both, aren't clear. This is far from greenlit. Even the Dark Tower project is light-years ahead of this one, and we don't even know how certain The Dark Tower movie is yet.

So I'll proceed as normal, without really worrying about the supposedly planned project for this. The hardest part is that I won't be casting the title character! This might be the first time a lead role is being left uncast by me because of my own rules: I won't cast preteen characters because of the tendency of young actors to age out of the role very quickly. There also aren't many Drew Barrymores among the young talent of today. Charlie is not an easy role to play. Whatever actress is cast will be called upon to carry half the movie. Charlie's an ordinary kid (barring her ability) in a far-from-ordinary situation. Whatever actress is cast should probably be a young-looking 11 or 12, rather than 9. Drew Barrymore was 9 at the time, but like I said, she was kind of an exceptional 9-year-old.

The rest of the roles actually were pretty easy to cast this time. Certain actors just fell into my head and wouldn't leave. We'll start with the male lead, Andy. Andy's described as a big man, physically, but a very gentle, cerebral type of man who's more of a big teddy bear. We need a man that audiences immediately sympathize with and could never imagine would let his daughter be harmed. I decided that Jason Segel would work, and as weird as this sounds, this is not a case of me choosing a comedy actor to go serious. Segel has already proved his serious actor cred, and oddly enough, it was in episodes of How I Met Your Mother that it happened. His best scenes on that show are dramatic. He'll do a good job.
This next role isn't nearly as large, but I wanted to have Charlie's parents' pictures close to each other. I wasn't sure who should play Vicki, but she's described as being really pretty with reddish blonde hair. I went with a redhead. That's right, Jason Segel gets a hot redhead again! I chose Karen Gillan, who, at 28, can be taken seriously both as a college student (where most of her scenes would take place) and as a young mother.
And now for the men from the Shop. First, there's Captain James Hollister, or "Cap" as he's referred to throughout. Cap is the head of the Shop. This is the role Martin Sheen played in the movie, but I don't know why, because Cap is referred to several times as elderly. I grew to appreciate the idea of a man who looks like a kindly old grandpa but wouldn't hesitate to pick up a phone, if needed, and order the death of someone he personally liked, and would lose zero sleep over it. I picked Michael Gambon for the job.
And on the other end of such a phone call would probably be John Rainbird, the Shop's most feared assassin, and a strange, enigmatic character in his own right. He's a large First Nations man (his tribe isn't specified), a Viet Nam vet with hideous battle scars and a missing eye. There's a subplot where Rainbird pretends, rather successfully, to be nothing more than the friendly orderly who cleans Charlie's room, and ends up gaining her trust in a way that Cap could only dream of. I almost think this would work better on screen if the viewer was kept in the dark as to his true intentions as well, and only after the reveal would we see him putting into action his plan to gain Charlie's trust and then kill her. I chose Graham Greene for this role, because he's a very good actor, because he's actually First Nations (unlike George C. Scott who played him in the first movie) and because he's old enough that he could have believably fought in Viet Nam even in today's day and age. And he can be scary looking when he wants to.
The man behind the Lot Six experiments that gives Andy and Vicki their powers is Dr. Joseph Wanless, a creepy mad scientist-type who Andy thinks looks like the guy from Dr. Cyclops. Is there another choice than Ben Kingsley?
Then there are the two scientists who conducts tests on our two protagonists. I initially thought they were prime candidates to replaced by a single composite character, but they do enough different stuff that they both need to be there. Let's talk first about Dr. Patrick Hockstetter. There's a name that sends a shiver down the spine of your average King fan. I'll discuss this here: the name Patrick Hockstetter is used again in the novel It to describe a thoroughly creepy character, in this case, a young solipsist from the 50's. I cannot help but think this is the same character. After all, There Are Other Worlds Than These. Thus, I wanted a creepy actor for this role, and there are few younger actors with more lifeless, mask-like faces than Cillian Murphy.
The other doctor, Herman Pynchot, isn't described much but I imagined him speaking in clipped tones with barely concealed irritation and even rage. I imagined him as Joel de la Fuente.
When it comes to composite characters, I decided that Orville Jamieson, one of the Shop's field operatives, would be the "face" of the Shop's goons. Aside from the two who kidnap Charlie in the beginning, for reasons you'll know if you've read this. Jamieson can stand in for Al Steinowitz, Bates, Mayo and Knowles, watching over the Lot Six experiment (and being the scarred face that Vicki remembers) and then leading the troops out to capture Charlie, never understanding just how dangerous she is. I pictured him as the ultimate scarred tough guy, Michael Kenneth Williams.
Finally, there's the Manders family. Irv and Norma are a friendly farm couple and probably the only real help the McGees ever receive. They're folksy, brighter than they first appear and I immediately pictured John C. Reilly as Irv...
 ...and Dale Dickey as Norma.
If you've read the book, I doubt you're raising too many objections.

As for a director, well, this thing would be at home in the hands of almost any director of thrillers. I doubt even Joel Schumacher could kill it (well, maybe he could, lol). I admit I'm not sure who'd be best, but there are many who could be competent. If you've got a choice, let me know in the comments.

So, welcome to the 80's, Stephen King style. Coming up we've got more Richard Bachman, an angry dog and a certain Gunslinger we all know and adore. Probably more besides! I don't know if they'll all get separate posts but I'll definitely do another skipped stories post. I also just challenged myself on Goodreads to have all these works read by the end of the year. Let's see if I can hold to that...

Next Up: Roadwork!


  1. The first name of a director that comes to mind for me is Christopher Nolan. "Interstellar" had that rich vein of father/daughter angst. Also, one imagines that he would do some interesting things with both the effects and with the spiritual/philosophical implications.

    I know that both Segel and Reilly have dramatic chops, so they'd be good for those roles. But imagine the outtakes.

    I'm all for Michael Kenneth Williams being in things. ALL the things: put him in 'em. I'm still catching up on the final season of "Boardwalk Empire," and recently watched an episode that features him prominently. That guy... He doesn't (so far as I can tell) have the world's greatest range, but he rivets your attention like few other screen actors I know of.

    I like all the other suggestions, too. I'm guessing this one really will get remade before much longer; it seems like prime remake material.

    1. Nolan would be fine, but then I'd have to recast all the non-Brits, lol.

      I admit I was really wanting to see what you thought of Graham Greene as Rainbird. Rainbird is probably not that old in the novel, but I wanted to update the setting but keep his 'Nam history. Plus Graham Greene is a badass.

      As I have not seen the original film, I don't know if the original film did this, but I really got attached to the idea that in this film, Rainbird's true intentions would be kept secret from the audience until the moment he's convinced her to light the fires. Then we get flashbacks to his conversations with Cap, murder of Wanless and shooting the tranq dart at Charlie.

    2. Greene would be fine by me, although I'm not sure I've ever seen him play scary. Is that something he can do? I'd be tempted to go for Wes Studi, if he's still kickin'. He might be too old by now, but twenty years ago, he'd have been cool. I dig that guy.

      The '84 movie plays it more or less the same way as the novel. You know Rainbird's intentions from the get-go. I think it might be interesting to try it your way, but ultimately, I think King's way is preferable.

    3. Studi's about the same age as Greene, and I considered him for a time. The reason I didn't is that Greene looks like he could kick your ass without breaking a sweat whereas Studi looks skeletal. Sure, he'd be scary, but more in a gaunt, ghostly way. Greene is pretty threatening in Defiance, but the picture I used above really showed me Rainbird; cold, impassive, dispassionate, considering you as a god might consider an ant. Even the one side of his face looks a bit damaged, and that one lazy eye is almost like the missing eye from Rainbird's face.

  2. Another one that I've yet to read, although through reading some of the key plot points, I have some stronger feelings on this than The Long Walk or The Dead Zone.

    First, Jason Segel is a brilliant choice for the protagonist. He's a good actor that actually can bring some gravitas, as you said. Michael K. Williams can always bring the intensity, although as you said, I might not cast him in a romantic comedy. Reilly is always dependable, and I really like Graham Greene as a badass, even at 63, and he looks the part far more than Studi, in my opinion. And Cillian Murphy is always a great choice for playing unsavory types.

    Now for a couple things to consider: he does look like Dr. Cyclops, but I kind of hate that Oscar winner Ben Kingsley, Gandhi himself, plays nothing but villains now. I loved the direction they took it in Iron Man 3, but I just feel Kingsley has so much to offer. It would be fascinating to see him as Ted Brautigan or a role where he gets to do more than evil scheming.

    Dale Dickey just has one of those unfortunate white-trash appearances (which she plays extremely well), and I'm not sure I've ever seen her in a sympathetic role (and I've seen her in a lot). Of course, I've mentioned several times on this blog that it's unfortunate to pigeonhole actors like that, so hell, maybe it's a good call.

    As for Michael Gambon, I love him as an actor, as well as the description of the role, and think he'd be terrific in it, but I know he retired from theater about a year ago due to memory loss. Hopefully he stays sharp enough for film for a while, because I thought he embodied Dumbledore much more than Richard Harris, who always sounded like he could die at any moment before he actually did it, and the contrast between those two roles would be great to go out on.

    1. First, about Gambon, he specifically retired from THEATRE, as you say, because on stage you're expected to recite from memory. He did say he'd keep doing film and television, because there cue-cards can be used, as well as multiple takes.

      I get what you're saying about Kingsley, but the argument could be made that Wanless isn't really a villain. He's just a scientist who decided to play god and realized what he'd done too late.

      As for the rest; thanks. I figured I'd get some push-back about Segel, because I have put comedy actors in dramatic roles here a few times. I love to see a comic actor prove they can really act when they're not able to joke around. I know that doing comedy well is much harder than doing drama well, but somehow seeing a serious actor go comic doesn't have nearly the same impact as watching a comic actor go serious. Also, someone (can't recall where I saw this) pointed out that comic actors tend not to look like they came straight from Central Casting, and because King tends to write about average joe's, having a comic actor almost works better.

    2. Agreed. My wife has actually remarked that Segel reminds her a lot of me, although she was probably thinking mostly of Marshall from HIMYM. We are the same age (I'm just a few months older), and we both have the same build, neither fat nor muscular, just a large frame. Okay, maybe a little doughy. I dislike how quickly most actors get stuck in the same kind of roles, because except for the ones who came from Second City or SNL, they don't start off specializing in one or the other. I don't think Segel was ever into stand-up, he just happened to get cast on Freaks and Geeks, which has a lot of humor, then other sitcoms and comedy movies followed. Even Tony Soprano got to be in a romantic comedy, and it was very well-received, which goes to show you that it's okay to think outside of the box sometimes. I'd love to see how someone like Sean Penn would fare in a comedy.

    3. You realize I'm now going to picture Jason Segel speaking every time I read one of your comments, right? Lol.

    4. There are certainly worse people to picture me as. I should add that I don't particularly look like him, and am unfortunately way worse off in the male pattern baldness department (not to mention net worth). Just a similar sense of humor, and the same height and build. I picture you as a 38-year-old with a beard pushing toward ZZ Top length, but that's because of your recent Christmas post.

    5. LOL, yeah, the beard is a recent development, and my wife is iffy on how much longer it will grow before she demands I cut it. But it helped when I was George RR Martin for Halloween!

    6. Nice. Did you sing the Wiener song from South Park?

    7. I don't actually watch South Park. No, I just put on a nice shirt and slacks that I pulled up over my gut, dyed my hair and beard grey and put on a cap with a turtle pin. And carried around a copy of A Dance with Dragons.