After thirty-eight years, Firestarter is once again lighting up theaters. Adapted from Stephen King’s 1980 novel of the same name, Firestarter is the story of Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), a nine year old girl with the power to light fires with her mind. Though opinions vary on the novel’s success, Firestarter has always had its ardent supporters. Considering the hot streak of successful King adaptations arguably beginning with the 2017 remake of It, the time seems right for a new interpretation of another vintage King novel. Helming the new film is Keith Thomas, a relative newcomer to the genre, fresh off the success of The Vigil. Reviews have been mixed, but there’s no question that Thomas takes some big swings in updating the story.
Charlie is the daughter of Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) and Andy McGee (Zac Efron), participants in a college experiment known as Lot 6 designed to increase psychic powers in its subjects. The combination of their augmented genes results in a baby born with tremendous psychic abilities and Charlie is hunted by government agents who would love to weaponize her extraordinary powers. And that’s where the similarities to King’s book end. While the bones of the story remain the same, there are numerous differences between King’s original novel and Thomas’s retelling. Though these changes sometimes result in fewer flames, this version of the story feels intimate and relatable. The fear comes not from who will try to control Charlie’s power, but what using that power will cost her and the people she loves. Seemingly less interested with fire, Thomas’s story taps into the heart of King’s novel, a little girl making peace with who she truly is.
Charlie’s Early Years
Anyone familiar with King’s novel will note drastic changes as early as the opening scene. The book begins with Andy on the run, but Thomas’s version opens with a mother quietly rocking her baby. Vicky McGee holds an infant Charlie and lovingly puts her to sleep in her crib. Sensing something is wrong, Andy returns to the nursery to find it in flames. He grabs the baby seconds before the blazing mobile collapses on top of her. He holds his infant daughter as the flames engulf her before waking from this shocking nightmare covered in sweat. King’s novel describes the horror of raising a pyrokinetic baby, but these stories are told second hand, blunting their intensity. Thomas opens his film with this parental nightmare, immediately setting the stakes and allowing us to empathize with a father desperate to protect his child.
After waking from this nightmare, Andy walks into the kitchen to find Charlie alone at the table, upset because of changes she’s beginning to notice with the power her body contains. She is nervous about what she calls the Bad Thing, the phrase her parents have taught her to reference her pyrokenesis. She’s spent years learning to hide it, but as she ages, the power is outpacing her methods of repression. Charlie is nervous that if the Bad Thing does escape, she won’t be able to stop it and might hurt someone. Andy reminds her to use her tools and the two start naming things they see in the room. They’re using the popular 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Coping Technique. When Charlie feels the power start to grow within her, she’s been taught to name five things she can see, four things she can touch, three things she can hear, two things she can smell, then take one deep breath. This attention to Charlie’s emotional state is a welcome addition to King’s story in which Andy mostly teaches Charlie to fear her body. Though this grounding is still based on a need to repress her abilities, it is a lesson in control and opens the door for conversations about how to use her powers safely.
Roughly the first half of Thomas’s film centers on Charlie’s experiences at home and at school, a major difference from the book. King’s novel begins with Andy on the run with his daughter, chased by Shop agents who have finally found them after months of living under an assumed name. Her life before fleeing is shown only through flashbacks. This version of Charlie lives with her parents off the grid, without access to wifi or cell phones, anything that would cause them to produce traceable data. The reason they’ve given Charlie is a belief that too much screen time rots your brain, but feeling the need to run again, they finally tell her the truth. Charlie is understandably upset that she’s been lied to, but she’s more frustrated that her powers prevent her from living a normal life. Calling herself a monster, she lashes out at her parents. Screaming, “I hate you!” she accidentally sends a burst of flames towards her mother, lighting her arms on fire. It’s an understandable reaction considering her age and a prime example of the need to teach her control. Though Charlie does burn her mother in the novel, it’s the result of a rather mundane parent/child argument. Vicky luckily happens to be washing dishes at the time and is able to easily plunge her arms into the water in the sink. This time spent in the McGee household allows us to see the inner workings of a relatable family and makes the coming tragedy more emotionally impactful.
More time in the McGee household means a larger role for Vicky as Charlie’s mother is something of an afterthought in King’s novel. A damsel in distress, she fills the role of wife and mother then dies offscreen while Andy is at work. He comes home to find the house disturbed and her body in the laundry room. Though we get to know her through flashbacks, she exists in the story as a memory and a source of guilt and grief informing her daughter’s actions. Thomas’s Vicky feels more like an active co-parent. She comforts Charlie after she is teased at school and has several conversations with Andy about the best way to care for their daughter. Vicky believes that Charlie should be taught to use her powers safely, a plan Andy vehemently rejects.
Though Vicky’s role is larger, her fate remains the same. She’s killed by Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), an agent looking for Charlie, but her death in Thomas’s film is much more dynamic. This version of Vicky has powers of her own. In King’s story, Vicky has a touch of precognition and telekinesis, but she’s not fully aware of these abilities and only uses them as an afterthought. Andy suspects she may have used her powers to defend herself against the agents, but there’s no way to know. Thomas’s Vicky has stronger powers though Andy notes that she’s also afraid to use them. As Rainbird follows her through the house, she uses her abilities to defend herself, mentally throwing pictures off the walls and objects at her advancing attacker. Unfortunately, she also lacks control and is unable to focus her telekinesis to effectively keep him away. After Vicky’s death, Andy begins to teach Charlie how to use her powers, framing it as a tribute to her mother.
The Incident at School
In a nod to King’s debut novel, Carrie, Charlie faces school bullying that leads to a destructive emotional explosion. A boy in her class teases her for her anti-tech lifestyle, upsetting and humiliating the young girl. She’s able to use her grounding tools at first, but when the bully throws a dodgeball at the back of her head, her anger spins out of control. She runs to the bathroom to calm down, but unintentionally raises the temperature inside. The water steams in the sinks and the walls begin to blister. As a teacher comes in to calm her, the door of the stall she’s hiding in begins to slam back and forth before exploding outward in a fiery blast. It’s an early signifier of her powers, likely replacing King’s airport scene in which Charlie angrily ignites the shoes of a soldier while he berates his pregnant girlfriend. King’s novel supposes that the Shop would always manage to find Charlie, but this explosion is the flare that finally gets their attention. Ironically, Andy’s attempt to hide his daughter has led to their undoing.
Perhaps the best update to King’s original novel lies with the near overhaul of Rainbird’s characterization. King’s controversial version is a Native American assassin who develops an obsession with Charlie and vows to kill her in hopes of absorbing her powers. He poses as a janitor in an attempt to gain her trust and convince her to cooperate with the Shop’s tests. He’s meant to be a terrifying presence, but his villainy rests on stereotypes that have not aged particularly well. Thomas cast Michael Greyeyes, a Nêhiyaw actor from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, already an improvement over George C. Scott dressed as a Native American in the original film. He works as a janitor before being reactivated by the shop and set on Charlie’s trail. But this version of Rainbird has psychic powers as well. Before killing Vicky, he tells her he was a participant in an earlier experiment and he appears to have abilities similar to Andy’s. Though he is responsible for Vicky’s and Andy’s capture, Thomas’s version is much more sympathetic than the original and an improvement over the character as a whole.
Captain Hollister and DSI
The overarching villain in King’s novel is The Shop, a shady government agency performing covert operations and experiments in the name of national security. Essentially a bureaucracy, it’s led by Captain “Cap” Hollister, a good-natured grandfather who’s friendly smile hides a cold-blooded strategist. He orders Rainbird to capture Andy and Charlie then organizes a series of tests to determine the extent of their respective powers. He is prepared to order their murders as well when Andy attempts an escape. Thomas’s version of the character is played by Gloria Reuben, a younger woman newly appointed to the position. She references a change in direction, though we never find out exactly what this means. No longer called the Shop, she heads DSI, a vaguely named organization that seemingly specializes in developing psychic abilities.
In a deviation from the original novel, there are apparently many more people who have taken a version of Lot 6 and the shop has been busy studying the resulting powers. These psychic abilities are apparently based on sight and DSI agents wear special contacts to protect themselves. This narrative choice is never fully explained and comes off as a bit silly. Rather than making DSI agents more powerful, it just adds a level of confusion to the action and dilutes Andy’s impressive power of mental domination. Cap is a similarly confusing character and it’s difficult to tell what her motives are. She claims that she simply wants to help Charlie develop her skills and that weaponizing her is out of the question but with no evidence to the contrary, it’s tempting to believe her.
Dr. Wanless and the Ricochet
King’s novel can be roughly divided into two halves. The first is essentially a road trip story with Andy and Charlie constantly fleeing for their lives. While preparing to confine them at the Shop, Cap is annoyed by Dr. Wanless’s incessant warnings about the dangers posed by Charlie. The scientist who developed Lot 6 recommends extreme sanction (code for execution) fearing that she may eventually be capable of worldwide destruction. Wanless provides important background information about Charlie and a prediction for how her powers may continue to grow. Unfortunately, his nagging leads to his own sanctioning and he is killed by Rainbird. Thomas’s version of the story does include a conversation between Cap and Wanless (Kurtwood Smith), now living in an assisted living facility. Though he makes the same recommendations, Wanless manages to survive the meeting unscathed and still breathing.
The second half of King’s original story takes place mainly at the Shop headquarters. Charlie and Andy are held in separate rooms and put through a series of tests, getting to know many doctors and scientists in their months of confinement. Though he briefly loses his ability to push, Andy eventually manipulates an escape route for himself and Charlie by pushing Cap and his primary doctor, Herman Pynchot. Both men suffer an unfortunate side effect of the push Andy calls a ricochet. A mundane thought becomes stuck in the person’s mind, growing in magnitude and importance until it spirals out of control, destroying their ability for rational thought.
Pynchot becomes obsessed with his garbage disposal, eventually killing himself by sticking his arm down into the blades. Thomas removes this story from his adaptation, though Andy expresses concern about the negative effects his push is causing in others. However Pynchot is a small presence in the story as the namesake of Dr. Wanless’s veterans hospital residence.
Charlie’s powers are another important source of change in the novel. King’s character carries the titular ability to start fires with her mind. This includes a mild bit of telekinesis, demonstrated by her ability to break open payphones to steal the change inside, and a heightened intuition and touch of precognition. But these abilities feel like byproducts of her primary power and are never fully explored. Thomas’s film gives a more definitive answer. His version of Charlie has explicitly inherited the abilities of both her parents and is capable of telepathy, precognition, telekinesis, and mental domination. While preparing to rescue her father, she commands three boys to give her a bike and gear. At the Manders farm, she has a mental conversation with a woman named Essi (Sheila Boyd). Charlie also has a telepathic connection with Andy and Rainbird, allowing the three to locate each other over long distances.
What is the Cost?
Another significant change lies in the way Andy and Vicky were selected for Lot 6. In King’s novel, they merely sign up for the experiment hoping to earn some quick money. But interviews during the opening credits show a different motivation. In Thomas’s story, Vicky and Andy appear to have been selected because of psychic powers they already possess. Vicky is reluctant to talk about hers, but Andy relates having a vision of the car crash that killed his parents a week before it happened. Andy suffers physical pain when using his ability. Not born with the talent, each push causes micro-tears on his brain. His eyes start to bleed and he likely only has a few more pushes available before he has a fatal aneurysm. Given this concern, he is also reluctant to use his powers and fears that Charlie will experience the same pain. But Thomas gives us another motive for discouraging Charlie using her gifts, setting up one of the larger themes of the film.
In King’s novel, Charlie is abducted as part of the operation that kills Vicki. Andy tracks her down and uses his push to maim the two agents that took her. In this adaptation, Charlies is abducted as a newborn after reports of her high body temperature attract DSI attention. Andy tracks them down in a parking lot and horrifically kills them via push. He is haunted by these murders and blames his anger and fear for the brutal response. He tells Charlie this story to explain the emotional cost of using her powers. He notes that these agents likely had families who loved them too and that he could have just pushed them to return his daughter. He asks Charlie to consider the cost of using her powers, not just to her but to everyone they will affect.
Irv Manders and Forgiveness
The incident at the Manders Farm is one of the most exciting sequences in King’s original novel. On the run from Shop agents, Andy and Charlie are picked up by a friendly man named Irv Manders. He takes them back to his farm for lunch and quickly learns about their predicament. Hot on their trail, Shop agents arrive and Charlie is forced to use her powers to defend herself. The results are explosive with many agents losing their lives to her fiery anger. Irv is shot in the confusion, but allows Andy to escape with his jeep along the woods road behind his property.
Though Thomas’s version of the story does include hitchhiking to the Manders farm, the events are significantly different. Having been invited to stay the night, Andy awakens to find his face plastered all over local news. He is the subject of a massive manhunt and accused of killing Vicki and the two agents who stole Charlie as a newborn. Irv (John Beasley) recognizes him and has called the police though he quickly regrets his decision when he learns why they are really wanted. The authorities that approach the house are not DSI agents but local police known to Irv. Charlie and Andy hide while Irv attempts to walk back his report that Andy is in the house. Unfortunately Rainbird is hiding in the nearby fields and shoots the police in an attempt to capture Charlie and her father. Andy is able to protect his daughter and allow her to escape, but both he and Rainbird are taken into custody when DSI agents finally arrive.
The new incident at the Manders farm establishes another of Thomas’s major themes: forgiveness. Before the situation escalates, Andy and Irv share a beer in his kitchen. Charlie stumbles into a room and finds herself in the presence of Irv’s wife Essi. She is nonverbal and confined to a hospital bed having been paralyzed years ago as the result of a car crash. Charlie is able to communicate with her and pass on a message of forgiveness to her husband. Irv caused the accident that injured her and killed their son by losing control of his truck during an argument. The incident is similar to Charlie’s loss of control that caused her to burn her mother. By passing on this forgiveness to Irv, Charlie is able to believe that her mother would forgive her as well. She releases some of her guilt and learns to control her powers with a clearer head.
Thomas’s conclusion plays out with significant changes as Charlie is not the only character in need of forgiveness. Rainbird regrets killing Vicky and offers himself to the girl as penance, though this turn happens abruptly and it’s never quite clear why he changes his mind. While attempting to burn down DSI headquarters, Charlie is stopped by men in fireproof suits. Rainbird rescues her by killing the men then kneeling in front of her waiting for her revenge. But before she can unleash the full force of her rage, Charlie catches a glimpse of herself in a window’s reflection. She doesn’t recognize the killer she’s become and walks away leaving Rainbird unburned. Having supposedly destroyed DSI, she walks to the nearby shore wondering what to do next. Rainbird approaches and the two seem to come to an uneasy peace. He picks the girl up and walks down the beach with her into the night.
This is a decidedly more positive ending to Rainbird’s story. In his novel, Charlie discovers his deception and burns him to death along with the rest of the shop. Charlie returns to the Manders farm to recover then prepares to share her story with the world. Though there are many issues with the new remake, mostly notably an undeveloped DSI and Rainbird’s abrupt turn from antagonist to ally, his more nuanced characterization is a bright spot in the updated story. Combined with the emphasis on Charlie’s emotional experience and more emphasis on her family life, Thomas injects humanity into what could be a straightforward story about psychic powers, making the young protagonist and her would-be killer more relatable than ever before.