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SYFY WIRE Firestarter

Here's why John Carpenter didn't direct the OG 'Firestarter' movie

We were this close to getting a Stephen King movie from the Halloween director.

By Matthew Jackson
Firestarter Originalmovie

It's a shame we can't visit the corner of the multiverse where John Carpenter's big screen adaptation of Stephen King's Firestarter exists.

By the early 1980s, Stephen King and John Carpenter were both among the biggest names in modern horror. In the years following King's debut novel Carrie, the author had produced a string of literary hits including Salem's Lot, The Shining, and The Dead Zone, several of which had already made their way to film and television. Carpenter, of course, broke through in a big way with the 1978 slasher classic Halloween, which he followed up with the dystopian action film Escape From New York and the atmospheric ghost story The Fog

In other words, they were both on top of the genre, and it made sense to pair them up. A John Carpenter film based on a Stephen King novel felt like box office gold. So, Universal Pictures courted Carpenter to helm their adaptation of King's 1980 novel Firestarter, the story of a pyrokinetic young girl on the run from a secretive government agency and the ruthless fixer they send to bring her in at all costs.

Carpenter was interested, and King was a fan of Carpenter's work, so it all seemed like a match made in horror heaven. Of course, if you know your horror film history, you know that Mark Lester ended up directing the 1984 Firestarter film starring Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott. So, what went wrong?

Apparently, the offer to make Firestarter came around the time that Carpenter was hard at work on Universal's The Thing, and the King adaptation was all set up to be his next film. Carpenter took a look at Bill Lancaster's screen adaptation and brought in his own writer, Bill Phillips, to do some rewrite work on the project. The changes the filmmakers had in mind were to de-emphasize what Phillips termed "cheap-looking pyrotechnic work" and reportedly even change the chief villain, John Rainbird, into a woman. Everything seemed set for the first King/Carpenter pairing, and Carpenter was even courting Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss to play Charlie McGee's father, Andy. 

Then The Thing was released in the summer of 1982, and while it's now considered a horror classic, it was a box office and critical disappointment at the time. That's when Universal went to Carpenter with an offer to keep him on Firestarter, but at a greatly reduced budget.

"John had a 'pay-or-play' deal, which meant that whether Universal made the film or not, he would get paid (it’s a normal deal for talent with clout – to get and hold their attention.)," Phillips recalled. "When the marketing folks at Universal got cold feet because The Thing didn’t do well at the box office and Stephen King films were clogging up the pipeline and not doing very well… They decided that, since John is very good at delivering low budget films, they would cut the budget from $27 million to $15 million. Since John didn’t have to agree to that, he didn’t. He took the money, and with it bought a Bell-Jet Long Ranger Helicopter, which he later rented out to the L.A. Olympics. John is well-known among filmmakers for knowing exactly what he wants, how long it will take to shoot and then change locations, so when the Universal bean counters wanted him to cut corners, he decided he wouldn’t."

With Carpenter out of the picture, Universal forged ahead with a lower budget plan for Firestarter, which is the version that ultimately arrived in theaters in 1984. Carpenter, for his part, moved over to Columbia Pictures to take on one of their Stephen King projects, the haunted car film Christine (written by Phillips), which remains one of his best-remembered movies. 

But it's safe to say that Carpenter never forgot about Firestarter, or the chance to one day work on another Stephen King project.

When the new Firestarter adaptation from director Keith Thomas hits theaters and Peacock on May 13, it'll feature an original score from Carpenter and his son, Cody. 

That's as close as fans will get to seeing two of the greatest storytellers ever in horror working together.