Where There’s Smoke: Stephen King Revisits ‘Firestarter’

Stephen King can’t tell you how to actually start a fire. If lost in the woods, like a Jack London character craving light and heat, all the author could do to ignite a blaze is reach into his pockets and hope for the best. “I’d use a Bic lighter,” he jokes.

King gets much more flamboyant in his fiction, with characters who channel fear, anger, or sorrow into all-consuming infernos in everything from carrie to The Stand to his most iconic tale of pyrokinesis: Firestarter. That 1980 best seller, about an extraordinary little girl on the run from government agents who want to weaponize her, combined some of King’s favorite themes: a child learning to manage hidden strengths, a defiant mistrust of authority, and a twisted yearning to see the world burn. (Or, at least, to roast those who have it coming.)

A new film version of Firestarter debuts today in theaters and on the Peacock streaming service, with Ryan Kiera Armstrong as young Charlie McGee and Zack Efron as her protective father—whose own telepathic ability to “push” people into doing things is gradually killing him.

The film, produced by Blumhouse (the maker of Paranormal Activities, insidious, and get-out), often ventures astray from King’s novel, especially in Michael Greyeyes‘s role as John Rainbird, the black-ops agent tasked with hunting down the father and child. But that’s okay with King. Now that his stories about him are in a second or third generation of being adapted for the screen (like Item, Pet Sematary, The Stand, and the upcoming Salem’s Lot), the author says he’s more interested in remixes than fidelity. “I’m always curious about what people do with the basic materials that I’ve given them,” King says.

I spoke exclusively with Vanity Fair about the strange origins of firestarter, his complicated experience with the 1984 drew Barrymore version, and which parts of the new movie he wishes he’d thought of himself.

Vanity Fair: It’s now been 42 years since publication. What do you remember about the origins of Firestarter?

Stephen King: I was thinking about LSD. I did a lot of LSD in college, and I was thinking: what if there was some sort of hallucinogenic drug that was being tested that had these unusual results, causing psychological and paranormal reactions in people? And then I thought, well, what if that carried over to a kid? What I remember most clearly is that I wanted to have a young person [as the main character]. What if two people who had been in the test produced a kid who had this mutation, this ability to light fires?


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