Depending on your perspective, making a contemporary film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s book-burning classic Fahrenheit 451 in the era of Snapchat and Twitter, “fake news,” handheld devices and monster flat screens is either brilliance or insanity.
No one understands that better than filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who helms this month’s HBO modernization of the cautionary tale.
“I knew that once I got into it, there would be no way that I wouldn’t upset somebody who loved Bradbury’s work,” said Bahrani at a recent press event. “So, I tried to stay true to the themes. Even if I changed certain characters or plotlines [and he did so liberally], I wanted the themes to be there, to take them and modernize them. It wasn’t easy. At one point I asked my agent to call HBO and say I wanted to give them their money back.”
Lest you somehow escaped it in English class, Bradbury’s futuristic thriller depicted a world in which TV was king and books weren’t just banned but burned (yes, at precisely 451 degrees) by celebrated “firemen” in an attempt to homogenize and neutralize human thought and, thus, humanity. While reminding us of Bradbury’s foresight, Bahrani takes it a step further, keeping Bradbury’s firemen and book-loving rebels (called “eels” in this version), but placing them in a no-longer-far-off time in which an Alexa-like robo-butler called Yuxie rules everyone’s roost and “news” is delivered in splashy bytes and bits on the sides of buildings, where consumers can “like” and “comment” on an ultra-grand scale.
Get caught with a book, and not only will your stash be burned, but your very identity commandeered and your history wiped clean.
Only after an elderly reader opts to burn with her books does zealous fireman Montag (Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan, who also executive produces) start to question the motives of his commander and mentor Beatty (Michael Shannon, whose sharply carved features make him a dandy futuristic villain). And when Montag falls for a comely young blonde named Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), who informs for Beatty only to protect a group that preserves books by memorizing them, he fully understands how much he has both contributed to and sacrificed for an insidious and dehumanizing cause.
“That goes to one of the things in Bradbury’s novel that’s different from the Orwell classic 1984,” Bahrani offered. “Bradbury says, ‘We asked for this,’ which is a line that Clarisse gives Montag. … We’ve handed [control] over to Google, Facebook, the government. Hopefully a new generation is going to start to have a different opinion and, I hope, bring back what we’re willingly giving up.”
Regardless of your devotion to the Bradbury original, the message of Bahrani’s 451 is an intriguing one. “Between the technological advancements in the last 20 years and politics, Bradbury’s biggest concern about the erosion of culture is now,” Bahrani said. “And with the speed at which this is advancing, I am concerned — will we actually be able to get ahead of the dam, or is it just going to be a flood and it will be up to some other generation to bring back Bradbury’s heroes?”
Author: Ray Bradbury
Published: October 1953
Nine Days, Nine Dollars To 451
Motivated by the Cold War, TV’s rising popularity and his devotion to books and libraries, Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the UCLA library, completing his masterwork in just nine days on a typewriter he rented for 20 cents an hour. Total cost of creating his literary masterpiece: $9.80.
Fahrenheit 451 premieres Saturday, May 19 at 8/7c on HBO