Stephen King is arguably the greatest horror writer ever. He's certainly the most popular, having sold more than 350 million books. It takes a lot of hubris to think that you can improve upon one of his stories, but that's just what the makers of Firestarter have disastrously done. Whatever you may think of the 1984 Drew Barrymore-led adaptation, it was at least faithful to the source material. This new one changes or leaves out key events and glosses over important sections. It's one of the worst movies ever made from a Stephen King novel.

Zac Efron stars as Andy McGee. He and wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) once took part in a government experiment that left them with special powers. Andy can psychically "push" people to do what he wants them to do. Their daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) was born with the power to set things on fire using her mind. She has no control over this, meaning that whenever she's scared or angry, something is going to go ablaze. Because of Charlie's power, the McGees have been in hiding for years. The leader of a shady government agency, Hollister (Gloria Reuben), gets wind of where they are and sends a Native American tracker/assassin named Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to hunt them down. Desperate to protect his daughter, Andy flees with Charlie. The journey takes them to a remote farm and, later, to a scary facility where bad things seem certain to happen.

Like the book, the '84 Firestarter begins with Andy and Charlie already on the run. That creates an immediate sense of danger, instantly gaining our attention. The remake depicts events that were merely implied, spending the entire first half-hour showing what happens to Vicky and how father and daughter begin their trek. This is a fundamental mistake. Instead of being plunged right into the action, as King intended, we have to sit through a lengthy, boring prologue that doesn't really have much bearing on anything else. It's exposition that the story needn't linger on.

That approach also takes time away from more important matters. Firestarter consistently rushes through sequences that are essential in building characterization and setting a tone. Take, for example, the section in which Andy and Charlie hitch a ride from a friendly farmer named Irv, played here by John Beasley. In the book and the previous film, Irv (played by Art Carney) takes them home, introduces them to his wife, and feeds them. He comes to suspect that Andy's story about a broken-down car isn't true. Andy eventually comes clean, confessing the reason they're on the run. Irv doesn't believe him until a bunch of hostile government agents show up at his door. At that point, he realizes Andy's story is legit and attempts to protect Charlie. It's great stuff that generates a sense of unease.

The new Firestarter zips through that, having Irv see a TV news report about Charlie being a fugitive. Charlie tells him it's not true, Irv accepts it, then tries to get the cops out front to leave. Huge different in impact there. Such shortcuts happen time and again. Everything that's supposed to infer the psychological toll of the ordeal Andy and Charlie face is watered down to the point of becoming meaningless.

An entire middle section where Rainbird pretends to be a benevolent figure to earn Charlie's trust is omitted entirely. He's nothing more than a generic assassin here. Sections showing the nervousness of the government officials are minimized too, leaving Hollister's motivations unclear and nonsensical. Firestarter even botches the ending. Without giving it away for those unfamiliar, it's intended to have an emotional punch, with Andy issuing Charlie a dire instruction that the little girl dutifully carries out. Stephen King designed that beat to convey Andy's belief that extreme measures are the only way to truly protect his daughter. Suck the feeling out of that – which is precisely what happens in this version – and the grand finale falls flat.

Even the horror sequences underwhelm. Firestarter uses a lot of CGI fire that doesn't look convincing and isn't as scary as real fire. Yes, director Keith Thomas (The Vigil) can create more elaborate pyrotechnics, but so what? Without emphasis on the human dynamic that King worked hard to create, none of it matters. At every turn, the filmmakers made the wrong choices, leading to a movie that seems rushed and slapped together. It is absolutely inconceivable that Thomas, the Blumhouse production company, and writer Scott Teems felt the need to alter a perfectly-calibrated story so substantially.

out of four

Firestarter is rated R for violent content. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.