Fire is defined as “combustion or burning, in which substances combine chemically with oxygen from the air and typically give out bright light, heat, and smoke.” It’s an object of warmth, a producer of light, a base of danger, and, most importantly, a source of survival. Though fire is a necessity of variety in reality, in film and literature it is just as volatile as an allegory. When looking at the film adaptations of Stephen King’s Carrie and Firestarter, the glowing combustion of fire is just as iconic as it is meaningful. Toying with morality, defying expectations, and empowering the vulnerable, both Carrie and Firestarter are valuable entries into the horror genre’s progressive oeuvre of womanhood. With one look in itself, from either of the films’ essential young women, an incredible spark is born and continues to catch fire.
Carrie is Stephen King’s first published novel, released to readers on April 5th 1974. King was not afraid to write in the female perspective at first, but slowly pulled away from his draft time and time again. Pressed to finish it thanks to the support of his wife, Tabitha, King told Carrie’s story epistolary style compiling letter entries, news clippings, and other secondary sources detailing the circumstances of an outcast teenage girl who develops the power to move things with her mind and subsequently destroys her classmates at prom following a nasty prank. He wanted to use this story to explore women finding and channeling their own power as well as what men fear about women and their sexuality. Brian De Palma (Phantom of The Paradise) adapted Carrie for the screen and it was released in theaters on November 3rd, 1976. With a screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen (Ghost Story) and starring Sissy Spacek (Missing), Piper Laurie (Twin Peaks), Amy Irving (The Fury), and John Travolta (Grease), Carrie still remains an iconic pop culture influence. Ethereal colors, a blast of tasteful gore, and its dreamy slow-burning terror has stood the test of time and cements Carrie in a league all her own.
“Toying with morality, defying expectations, and empowering the vulnerable, both Carrie and Firestarter are valuable entries into the horror genre’s progressive oeuvre of womanhood.“
Stephen King’s 6th published novel, titled Firestarter, was published on September 29th 1980. Though King feared it was too similar to Carrie, he pushed through the writing process and produced somewhat of a sister story to his first success. Replacing Carrie with a young female child and swapping cruel teenagers for government agencies and the evils of secretive subject testing, Firestarter was born. Directed by Mark L. Lester (Commando), the Firestarter film did not necessarily receive the same accolades that De Palma’s Carrie did, but it is one of the better King adaptations nonetheless.
Released May 11th, 1984, Firestarter starred Drew Barrymore (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), David Keith (An Officer And A Gentleman), George C. Scott (The Changeling), Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now), Art Carney (The Honeymooners), and Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and features some underrated 80’s style synth scoring by Tangerine Dream. Stanley Mann’s (Conan The Destroyer) screenplay provided more action to work with than Carrie, incorporating some fine early practical effects. Individually, Carrie and Firestarter are vastly different tales of strange adolescents with arcane abilities. However, when the two leading ladies travel side by side down a weary path lined with pain, complications, and countless villains, a distinctively joint trail of fire burns brightly behind them.
Fire Is The Most Tolerable Third Party
Setting people on fire is not exactly a positive action one would expect from the heroine of a story, but it is one that deems both Charlie and Carrie as one as well as what sets them apart. As characters, Carrie’s Carrie White and Firestarter’s Charlie McGee differ in many ways, setting the two films apart even though the two possess similar supernatural abilities. Even in their abilities themselves, they are different. Carrie is a 16-year old girl living in a quaint local town. Under the cast of her radically religious mother, Carrie suffers daily abuse from not only Margaret White, but from her classmates as well. Simple, painfully shy, and raised by a woman hell-bent on overly protecting her from the real world, she is an outcast with an internal fuse just waiting for that special strike. She is born with an unnaturally inherent trait and slowly trains herself to control her ability to move objects around her.
Living in a somewhat nuclear family flying under the radar and, later, on the run, 9-year old Charlie’s unique talent is the product of experimentation. Like Carrie, she is born with this gift as it is passed down from her parentage. Unlike Carrie, Charlie is raised by loving parents with her father, Andy, doing everything he can to protect her from true danger after her mother is killed. Firestarter’s villains are clear and present in the sinister agents of “The Shop” that seek Charlie out to use her power for grander purposes. The threats of Carrie are more grounded in reality through her mother and the other high school girls. As two separate parties fueled by a kindred fire come into their own, one confronts her enemies and the other escapes from them.
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“As two separate parties fueled by a kindred fire come into their own, one confronts her enemies and the other escapes from them.”
As young women pit against mass adversaries, Charlie and Carrie serve as empathetic vehicles of adolescence. Even though Carrie White is going from teenager to adult and Charlie McGee is going from child to adolescent, their confusing transition and the development of their sense-of-self is relatable to all viewers. Both characters are dangerous but underestimated because they are young and they are women. Their naivety allows them to be tricked by others and subsequently plays into their necessary maturity. Sissy Spacek and Drew Barrymore put on stellar performances as these sympathetic protagonists discover their ability to rise above their struggles, assisted by a tremendous spark of inner force. Acting as interpretive figures of female voice, importance, and equality, Carrie and Charlie measure a range of womanly evolution from birth to death… and beyond. The consistent push and pull of their power, the manipulation and application of fire, drives each narrative to nuanced levels of horror, drawing two unique young women in worlds of terror to be remedied by a blaze of glory.
But Anger Is Like Fire; It Burns It All Clean
What we see happen between these two different films, and portrayal of analogous abilities, is a constant contrast in the will to control great power. Carrie is often mistaken for being able to control fire as viewers associate the torching of her high school and everyone inside, but she is telekinetic while Charlie is pyrokentic. Charlie is able to manifest fire with a concentrated look while Carrie is able to use objects in her environment to make fire. In the Firestarter film, the child, though having difficulty controlling it, uses her pyrokinesis out of protection and to stop “The Shop” agents. Carrie, however, ignites a spectacular coed inferno out of retribution and enforces it out of punishment to those who bullied her.
Even though Carrie ultimately loosens her grip and unleashes a lifetime of pent up hate against her abusers and innocent casualties, viewers can’t help but cheer her on. When her father is killed because of “The Shop”, Charlie too allows her power to get the best of her as she destroys the facility and all the workers on the grounds. Again, the cheers are deserved. It’s an interesting standard when it comes to these two film narratives and the heroines’ final rampages. It’s understood, whether directly like it is in Carrie or inferred like it is in Firestarter, that if their power is abused it will negatively effect their personal character. However, when these two women find resolve in their purposeful talents and fire consumes the films’ villains, there is a forgivable justification for the cases of both young women. The tension and empathy in Carrie and Firestarter is gut-wrenching, yet relieving in the ways one wishes to watch victimizers become engulfed in a scorching end.
“Carrie and Firestarter strike a match against the constitution of a woman’s individuality and burn away the nefarious restrictions that bind their voice, their body, and their minds.“
The manipulation of fire is a brazen point of commonality between Charlie and Carrie and something that decorates the two films in style and substance. Puberty is the impetus of their powers, both becoming stronger and skilled in their practice as time goes on. The inclusion of fire in both films works well to provide an overall composition of horror, but it also stands for more feminist overtones. Breaking the mold of others’ expectations of them as harmless young women, Charlie being a young, sweet little girl and Carrie being a meek, quiet loner, the two use their miraculous faculties to perform some surprisingly horrendous chaos. Fire is used as a weapon of retaliation and therefore, a mechanism to disintegrate their childhood innocence and purity.
The poetic relationship that these two young women share with their power, with their physicality, and with their blossoming sexualities adds an internal layer of complexity to their films. As fundamental coming-of-age portraits, Carrie and Charlie both embody a burgeoning independence that was not necessarily granted to female roles in the 70’s and 80’s. As they use their composited anger and resentment to eliminate their threats and burn it all down, they come into an ambivalent sense of ownership. Carrie and Firestarter strike a match against the constitution of a woman’s individuality and burn away the nefarious restrictions that bind their voice, their body, and their minds.
What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through Fire
As both Charlie and Carrie are surrounded by the flames they’ve come to fan, the two respective films end on very different terms. Carrie uses her power to destroy herself by collapsing her home inward. Charlie dispels fireballs throughout the facility and gets herself to safety. The memory of Carrie haunts classmate Sue Snell, literally grabbing out for her from the grave while Charlie takes her story to the media in order to broadcast the wrongdoings of “The Shop”. De Palma’s Carrie finishes its fiery final act on a grim note, giving Carrie some semblance of peace and legacy in death.
Her death is brought on by the suppressed violence in her power, but ultimately frees her from a lifetime of torment and puts a stop to her vengeful reign as queen. Her taste for revenge is unstoppable, deadly to those who deserve it and even to those who do not. Carrie’s theatrical spiral and demise is purely cathartic despite her sympathetic characterization. The monster inside of Carrie White is born in the fire that claims her tormentors, but she takes charge in snuffing it out through her last moment of self destruction. Firestarter sees a more opposing ending with Charlie being reborn through her personal fire, choosing to shine a light on her forced destruction. She physically takes down the facility with her power and then exposes the ones responsible for her being. It’s her first mature experience, proving that she is capable of growth and control. Though neither Carrie nor Charlie receive a necessarily happy ending, the two mutually settle the score and end the films on their terms.
“They choose what to make of their abilities, how their story will be told, and how it will end.”
Themes of rage, revenge, and rebirth burn throughout the narratives of Carrie and Firestarter. Their underlying coming-of-age motifs craft two very different stories, but both are flaring with feminist empowerment and equality. Their powers, how they use them, and their fight against society manifests an unwritten sense of autonomy and strength. On the surface, Carrie is the girl that can move things and Charlie is the child that can heat things up. While extreme in nature, Carrie is able to turn the tables on the masses that needlessly caused her pain just as Charlie is able to bring down the authority that plans to dominate and use her.
When viewers look closer at their individual agencies as women with power, there is a more poignant effect to their smoldering liberations. The two films share a fluid theme of independence and freedom achieved by these two female characters through a horror genre perspective. They choose what to make of their abilities, how their story will be told, and how it will end. Do they put out the flame, tame the embers, or watch the world burn? For Carrie and Charlie, it’s their choice in the end. It’s their walk through the fire.
Are you a fan of Carrie? Are you a fan of Firestarter? Do you think these films’ share a relevant trail of fire? Who’s story speaks to you: Carrie’s or Charlie’s? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!