The premise in Firestarter was always fairly thin, but the way Mark L. Lester depicts it makes this all the clearer because it stays very true to the source material but moves along at an extremely fast rate. As the film feels rather rushed, viewers not familiar with the novel might be confused as to the motivations of characters and the actual occurrences in many scenes. In an effort to convey this to viewers, Stanley Mann's screenplay profusely simplifies things which ends up revealing just how little happens. The novel unfolded by providing us the paranoia of the characters in dealing with a character like Charlene "Charlie" McGee from the perspective of people on both sides of the law which gave readers the motives of both heroes and villains, but the simplistic path of the film adaptation's narrative leaves it as being simply black and white.
You would think that a film adaptation of Firestarter would have greater cinematic power due to its ability to depict Charlie McGee's powers in a tangible form, but it doesn't compare to how Stephen King originally envisioned it. The film merely cuts between shots of Drew Barrymore staring silently and fires getting sparked up. There is no feeling of tension in these scenes because the technique is so mediocre; there isn't a sense that the fires are uncontrollable creations of Charlie's anger but rather that they are small-scale stunts which are very controlled. Due to Firestarter's low-budget it can only do so much, but given the nature of the original novel it would be easy to get away with this. Still, the film emerges as no flaming extravaganza. The entire visual style of the film is a little to amateur since it relies on a generic collection of medium shots and shot-reverse shots, but that's to be expected from Mark L. Lester as his style is too distinctive of the 80's era to carry lasting value, particularly since his adherence disregards the nature of a Stephen King text.
Firestarter does not carry the Stephen King feel. While the novel maintained his distinctive language and deep examination of psychological darkness, the film is very much a watered-down imitation of his work. Rather than being a dark and sadistic depiction of a young girl with violent powers, Mark L. Lester turns it into a gimmicky 80's science fiction film which is practically a family-friendly film. It's clear from the beginning that Firestarter is a little too 1980's for its own good as the musical score by Tangerine Dream starts the film out on its narrative path. As well-composed as it is, the musical score carries the synthesized feeling of the decade which is trippy at some moments yet never appropriate to the story. It's the kind of music more fitting for a Dario Argento film than a Stephen King-penned text, and it's a key factor in the film's inability to establish atmosphere. Other reasons include the inability to establish the depth of the story's father-daughter relationship or the mystical attraction shared between Andrew "Andy" McGee and Victoria "Vicky" McGee and the actual cognitive dissidence of carrying powers. In the end, Firestarter is just not a scary film and lacks both visual panache and genuine characterization which leaves it faltering on every major level.
Still, Firestarter does manage to absorb some flair from the inherent talents of its cast.
Drew Barrymore's leading effort is surely a solid one. Being the flavour of the month after her breakthrough in E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982), Drew Barrymore carries over her innocent childish charms into a far more dramatic role. In the role of the titular Firestarter, Drew Barrymore incorporates an introverted nature that contrasts her outgoing friendless, easily capturing her ability to oscillate between being a little girl and a troubled soul. Drew Barrymore is easily likable, but she also takes the part very seriously despite the limitations of filmmaking around her. Though the script may oversimplify her character, Drew Barrymore manages to hone the role into being her own and finds an accurate pursuit of the source material. She offers both childish charms and genuine intensity which keeps the mediocre drama of the script with at least some life in it, ensuring that she is an active and engaging presence consistently throughout the film. And her chemistry with David Keith is powerful because the two appear to really share a bond in their time together on screen, relaying a strong effort to capture the sentimental intentions of the original story. Drew Barrymore is, in all essence, the greatest thing about Firestarter.
David Keith also proves a strong leading man. Andrew "Andy" McGee was hardly much of a distinctive character in the novel and so it would take little more than star power to carry the role. Given that actor David Keith was fresh off his Golden Globe nominated performance in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), he carries the correct appeal. As a lead, David Keith constantly remains focused on his goal to protect his character's daughter and remains in a state of constant intensity over his fatherly ambitions. This is the source of his character's strength, yet he also carries the vulnerability of Andy McGee's state that comes as a result of him using his powers. David Keith makes an effort to capture the clear themes of the story through both internal dedication and physical ambition, effectively leading Firestarter into powerfully-acted territory.
Martin Sheen's instinctive charisma gives him a commanding presence which easily presents antagonism to viewers, and George C. Scott is a convincing John Rainbird.
Firestarter maintains strong performances from Drew Barrymore and David Keith, but in remaining faithful to Stephen King's original story it brings over the thin story without the psychological thrills that kept it engaging, leaving it short on narrative and too reliant on 80's filmmaking tropes to offer any kind of visual experience in the process.