Hard To Light Fire
Even the simplest tasks can prove all but impossible if it builds drama to delay their completion. Fleeing victims drop the keys to their intended shelter; cars that worked fine five minutes ago will perversely refuse to start; merely running across level ground will prove more than the pursued can handle. And fuses, trails of powder, bonfires or explosive gases never, ever light when you need them. Matches get dropped or blow out, and lighters spark in vain, their butane exhausted. An unprepared would-be pyro may even remember everything they need to start a blaze, except the means of ignition. Whether it's necessary to incinerate the monster, blow up the villains' Doomsday Device, kindle a campfire to avoid freezing to death, or even go out in a literal blaze of glory, no fire in fiction ignites easily if Rule of Drama is better served by it refusing to do so. Sister trope to Dangerous Key Fumble and My Car Hates Me. Cigar Fuse Lighting, Couldn't Find a Lighter, and Reusable Lighter Toss all subvert this trope via Rule of Cool. Played straight in many a Kids Wilderness Epic or Horrible Camping Trip.
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Anime and Manga
- In The Castle of Cagliostro, Lupin III is trying to light a rocket but has a lot of difficulty with his lighter. He eventually drops the rocket and has to long-jump over the towers manually.
Films — Animated
- Toy Story. When Woody and Buzz need to catch up with the truck carrying the other toys away, Woody pulls out a match to light the firework attached to Buzz's back. He lights the match - which is then blown out by a passing car. Luckily he discovers that Buzz's plastic helmet can act like a glass lens and concentrate sunlight to light the firework's fuse.
- In Disney's Mulan, during the battle with the Huns, Mulan is trying to light the last firework but her she drops her match. She eventually resorts to using Mushu's dragon breath to light it at the last second.
- Sid the sloth has mixed success in starting a fire in Ice Age. His first effort by rubbing sticks is pathetic. His second effort, rubbing flint against stone, produces sparks that ignite kindling. And his tail.
Films — Live-Action
- In Tremors, Val and Earl forget to bring the lighter when they run for the cliff with the last pipe-bomb, forcing Rhonda to join them in running for the edge.
- In The Fifth Element, the fate of Earth depends on lighting the last match the heroes have left. It's as dramatic as it sounds.
- At the beginning of Journey to the Center of the Earth (the 2008 movie), the adventurers accidentally ignite magnesium in a cave wall when lighting a flare next to it. At the end of the film, they try to trigger a magnesium explosion with flares, but it's harder because the wall is wet.
- The Expendables 2: Gunner tries to get around a cave-in by setting a phosphorus torch alight (he was a chemical engineer before he became a mercenary). However, the explosive fails, and Gunnar notes it must have been damp, just in time for Mauser to drill through the cave-in.
- Arguably the whole fire-making subplot in Cast Away. Here it's not so much that the fire would be hard to make, but the protagonist just has no implements to do so, meaning he has to figure out the secret of fire without modern inventions like matches or a lighter. When he finally manages it with the stone-age technique of rubbing two pieces of wood together until they heat up enough to create a flame, he creates a huge bonfire just for the sake of it, showing that he finally is becoming acquainted with his situation on the lonely island.
- In Skyline, one character turns on the gas in his kitchen, puts a cigarette to his lips, and prepares to blow up his apartment when the approaching alien Tanker reaches in through the window. However, when he actually tries to light it, his lighter fails. It does work after he's been stabbed by the Tanker, though.
- In Cowboys and Aliens, after climbing up a long way to an opening in the alien ship, they drop the matches with which they were supposed to light the fuse to the explosives. Fortunately one of the guys still had a lit cigar in his mouth.
- In Tomorrow: When the War Began, two girls place a petrol tanker under a bridge and lay a rope fuse with which to blow it up, then belatedly realize that each of them thought the other had brought the lighter.
- In The Last Winter, Hoffman has to make a fire to save Pollock, who has fallen into water in the middle of an Alaskan winter. Despite the danger, he carefully builds his fire and avoids panicking when the matches initially refuse to ignite.
- Double subverted in Feast, in which several characters are attacked by monsters before they can finish assembling and lighting a Molotov cocktail to defend themselves from said monsters. In the final fight, one character finally does manage to light the thing ... only for its wick to be extinguished when a monster rips open the neck of another character, sending blood spraying everywhere and dousing the flame.
- At the end of Mimic, the hero tries to set a gas main alight to blow up the Judas Breed bugs. His lighter (which had worked just fine earlier) first refuses to light and then falls through a grating, so he bashes metal pipes together until it strikes a spark.
- Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" (1908). A man in the Yukon tries to build a fire in -75 degree Fahrenheit weather. He fails, which eventually causes his death by freezing.
- The Mysterious Island: after the heroes are washed up on a desert island, one finds he has a still-dry match. He's afraid to use it, as he's certain he'll scratch it too hard, wasting it. Later they figure out how to light fires with a magnifying glass.
- The protagonist of John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice attempts this in "The Burning Bridge" on the titular structure, is successful but is captured and later enslaved by the Proud Warrior Race Guys.
- In the Earth's Children series both Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal people know how to make fire but it's a long, tedious process involving rubbing two sticks together. The Neanderthals find it easier to just carry a burning coal everywhere they go. Ayla discovers making sparks using flint & iron pyrite, which makes making fire magically easy.
- This comes up a few times in The Hobbit when Gandalf isn't around to help them (usually to help make it clear how uncomfortable Bilbo is). One of the dwarves is noted as being particularly good at lighting fires but still unable to succeed.
- Another case comes up on Caradhras in The Lord of the Rings. The major characters are attempting to build a fire in a snowstorm, but as might be expected in such a situation, it doesn't go well. It takes Gandalf using his wizard magic to get it to light. He's a bit annoyed, because:
"If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them. I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin."
- In Moving Pictures, Victor ties up one of the Dungeon Things in filmstrip and collects the rest of the octo-cellulose films in a pile around it, then realizes he doesn't have any matches to ignite the film with.
- Wilderness-survival programs like Dual Survival often play it for drama when their hosts' attempts to get a campfire started aren't immediately successful.
- Mythbusters has confronted this trope several times, when their attempts to light up a Powder Trail, pooled gasoline, methane-filled outhouse or the like have failed repeatedly. During the testing of one myth, the Build Team attempts to start a fire with the tried-and-true "rubbing two sticks together" method...and they fail miserably, almost leading them to declare it a myth that they've just busted.
Kari Byron: It is possible to start a fire this way; it's been documented over and over. We just really suck at it.
- Supernatural has both straight and meta-examples: As salting and burning the remains are their go-to method for getting rid of ghosts, most episodes have the heroes lighting at least one fire. It's usually easy, but in the episode at the Supernatural convention, cosplayers have to actually act as the ghost hunters they're dressed as. Among other problems, they have difficulty getting their lighter to light and comment that Dean never has this problem.
- Then in the outtakes, they use that scene to preface a whole lot of clips of Dean's actor failing to get his lighter to light.
- In the first Doctor Who serial "An Unearthly Child" the Doctor and his companions go back to One Million BC and visit a small tribe of cavemen. The leader of the tribe is the leader because he is the only one who knows how to make fire. Ian says that in his tribe (i.e. the Doctor and companions) the firemaker is the least important man.
- Arrow: In a scene taking place on the island, Oliver is being taught how to survive by Slade Wilson, who watches Oliver as he vainly rubs two sticks together. Oliver says (paraphrased) "if you're so great why don't you make the fire?!" So Wilson pulls out a zippo.
- In an episode of Gilligan's Island Gilligan has a very few waterproof matches, which will come in handy if they get waterlogged. But when time comes to build a fire he can't; Gilligan wasted all the matches on testing them.
- Played for Laughs in a Howie Mandel HBO special from the mid 1980s. The special is filmed in Chicago, so at one point he takes the viewer on a tour of the city. They got to Water Tower Place, which was one of the only (if not the only) edifice to survive the Great Chicago Fire. Howie demonstrates by trying to light it with a match but fails. "See? An asbestos building!"
- Lighting a fire is actually a minigame in the Lost in Blue series.
- Simply finding the materials to light a fire is a common challenge in many inventory-based casual games.
- Played for Laughs in an episode of Family Guy Cookie Monster is in rehab and the second he goes into a bathroom stall he pulls out cookie dough and screams '''light! light! light!" (While trying, and failing to bake them with a lighter).
- In the Looney Tunes short "The Stupor Salesman", Daffy Duck is a Traveling Salesman trying to sell to a crook. He tries to show a lighter by using it to light a gas oven, but the lighter won't spark. Eventually the crook throws Daffy out and tries the lighter himself, but by then the house is filled with gas, causing the home to explode.
- Lighting campfires can be difficult even with matches if the air is too humid, the wind too erratic, or the available tinder, too damp or inadequate. There's a reason why well-prepared campers bring along fire starters such as potassium permanganate and glycerin, not just something to make sparks.
- Lighting things on fire without matches is actually really hard, especially if one is just using the "rub two sticks together" trick.
- Not helped by the fact that very few people even know how to do this, any more - or even that it takes a bit more than just two sticks to do anywhere near efficiently.
- In the Boy Scouts, kids are taught the "rub pieces of wood together" method and similar methods as a distant last resort. If nothing else, it can help someone keep their body temperature up via repetitive movement. They're also taught that it's better to Be Prepared and bring proper firestarting gear.
- In Real Life, moors, marshes and other damp stretches of land are notoriously hard places in which to light fires, for obvious reasons. The trick is to split logs open and light the dry wood in the middle.
- Also, you can stack the wood up, with space between the logs, to get it off the ground and allow it to dry out. Thus, you'll have a ready supply of dry fuel after a few hours or a day. And don't forget that while a log is hard to light on fire, a pile of dry leaves or paper is not nearly so difficult. Light the leaves, use them to ignite some twigs, use those to get some sticks burning, and work your way up until you have a log burning.