Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” published in 1953, describes a dystopian future in which books have become illegal artifacts, and where a fireman’s job is not to put out fires but rather to start them, torching contraband novels wherever they might be hidden.
To read “Fahrenheit 451” the old-fashioned way — in its (flammable) paper form versus an online reader — is to feel as rebellious as its heroes, who break the rules simply by owning a book. But to watch it on television, as in Ramin Bahrani’s new adaptation for HBO, is a curious kind of paradox, and one that its director didn’t shy away from embracing.
“It seemed that technology not only caught up to what Bradbury was talking about but went past it,” says Bahrani of our post-print world, where Borders has gone out of business and old-school libraries have scaled back their hours of operation. After taking on the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis in his 2014 film “99 Homes,” co-starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, he found himself looking for the next cultural giant to tackle: “I wanted to explore what was happening with technology, the internet and social media.”
Bahrani, who is Iranian-American, had a different vision of how to populate the movie — both its characters and the books that would be featured. Instead of drawing from an all-white, all-Western roster, he cast “Black Panther” star Michael B. Jordan as the protagonist, Guy Montag, and Algerian actress Sofia Boutella as his love interest, Clarisse McClellan.
“I probably cast it the way I see the world, so it’s a mix of all kinds of people — which reminds me of myself and most of my friends,” says Bahrani, who also went out of his way to integrate works by Toni Morrison and Persian poet Hafez into the film.
That outlook makes the new “Fahrenheit 451” feel modern, and yet, Bahrani was hardly the obvious filmmaker to tackle such an ambitious adaptation — or the only one who tried. More than half a century earlier, in 1966, François Truffaut directed an ultra-stylized version starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie that made bold predictions about how the future might look. Three decades later, Mel Gibson wrestled to get a remake off the ground at Warner Bros. (Bradbury was quite vocally opposed) before abandoning the project in 1999.
In contrast, Bahrani is an art-house darling whose shoestring social-realist dramas — films such as “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo” — were the toast of the festival circuit but, until “99 Homes,” never grossed more than $1 million. Luckily for him, he had an admirer in HBO Films honcho Len Amato.
“I knew from Ramin’s previous films, which were very indie, that he had a unique point of view and knew how to express it,” Amato says. “And then when I saw ‘99 Homes,’ I saw these strong characters in a story that would have been appropriate for any studio or any network, with strong themes and a strong structure. It seemed like he was absolutely ready to do things that were less indie.”
After catching “99 Homes” at the Toronto Film Festival, Amato invited Bahrani in for a meeting; there the director floated the idea of remaking “Fahrenheit 451.” Amato was intrigued, but first, HBO would have to secure the rights to Bradbury’s novel — which took about six months, since they had only recently become available, and at least four other networks were interested.
|Ramin Bahrani directs Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon on the set of “Fahrenheit 451.” “We are not making a movie about the future,” Bahrani says. “We are making a movie about an alternate tomorrow.”
Also, there was the issue that Bradbury’s book-burning premise had become dated in the digital age. But Bahrani saw the paradox as an opportunity. “Today, I could storm into your home, burn every book you had, and you would just chuckle and pull out your iPhone and download them all again,” he says. “People don’t have physical things as much anymore. They live in the cloud.”
Even so, there remains something viscerally compelling about the sight of a fireman holding a flamethrower instead of a hose, burning objects that represent the collective wisdom of Western civilization. Anyone who has ever tried to throw away a book knows the feeling: Even if millions more of the same title still exist, to destroy one copy feels as if you are disrespecting the knowledge it contains, and the effort put into writing it.
For Bahrani, presenting an alternate reality where multiscreen interactive television and social-media-style distractions are designed to keep citizens happy — and the entire literary canon has been destroyed, kept alive only by hackers on the Dark Web — felt relevant. After all, although the contents of millions of books have seamlessly migrated to the cloud, stored in virtual libraries or scanned and made searchable by Google Books, who’s to say they are safe from censorship or available for the public to access?
“Then you start getting to how easy it is to alter the internet, the way that Google erased Palestine off the map for a couple of days, and then everybody protested and it came back, or the way Facebook censors the horrific Vietnam photo of the naked napalm girl running in the street — that image is in the film,” he says. “Eventually, people won’t complain. They won’t even notice anymore. There won’t be 100 companies; there’ll just be one. … And we’d be busy playing Candy Crush and wouldn’t notice. Or liking a photo of somebody’s meal.”
In updating the film for a contemporary audience, Bahrani drew elements from other dystopian novels — the Big Brother-like surveillance of “1984,” mind-numbing reality shows with the soma-like effect described in “Brave New World.” And he focused on several telling details that Bradbury had predicted, like a leader elected based on his looks, his name and how well he photographed on TV.
After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Bahrani says that HBO called to ask how he predicted the outcome. “I assumed he was going to win from the Republican primary, and I moved forward on the script with that assumption,” he says. “But it wouldn’t have been that different. He was just an exaggerated version of what was there before.”
While working on the script, Bahrani studied countries such as North Korea, China and Turkey, where citizens have surrendered their personal freedoms. And he started visualizing how to create a sufficiently intimidating totalitarian state on a limited budget (although it felt extravagant to the indie director, who estimates that “Fahrenheit 451” cost more than twice all his previous films combined).
Bahrani’s first rule: No flying cars. “Cars are very expensive in futuristic things,” he says, so he insisted that they be kept out of the frame. “I just thought of how Stanley Kubrick handled ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ The external world is very empty in that film.”
In contrast with Truffaut’s aggressively forward-looking adaptation, with its modernist architecture and flat-screen-dominated living rooms, Bahrani’s feels almost quaint, a throwback to a world in which books aren’t obsolete as much as endangered. As the director told his team, “We are not making a movie about the future. We are making a movie about an alternate tomorrow.”
Though Bahrani is now working on a film version of longtime friend Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel “The White Tiger” for Netflix, “Fahrenheit 451” was his first book adaptation. In the process, he realized he needed to make a number of significant changes: He eliminated the character of Montag’s wife, brought forward the rebel book-readers (or “Tomes”) whom Montag befriends, and completely reconceived the ending to fit the new digital world in which the story takes place.
“Eventually, people won’t complain. They won’t even notice anymore. There won’t be 100 companies; there’ll just be one. … And we will be busy playing Candy Crush.”
“I noticed that Bradbury himself had adapted his own novel a couple of times — as a play, as a musical — and he had changed his own work dramatically, even going so far as to let Clarisse McClellan live in the play. And he approved of Truffaut’s version,” says Bahrani. “So that gave me the confidence to do what I wanted while trying to stay true to the vision.”
Bahrani’s perfectionism was one reason Shannon agreed to play the fire chief and father figure to Jordan’s Montag. “Ramin is a relentless artist and his own worst critic. He goes over things a thousand times and doesn’t want to show the script to anyone until he’s sure he has something worthwhile,” says Shannon, who says he’s extremely selective about the directors he works with but didn’t hesitate to reteam with Bahrani after “99 Homes.” “No matter how much acclaim he gets, he’s constantly trying to push himself.”
Though it means sacrificing a traditional theatrical run, partnering with HBO on “Fahrenheit 451” and Netflix on “The White Tiger” positions those movies to reach Bahrani’s biggest audience yet.
“The reality is these are the companies that wanted to do these projects, and I’m not going to turn my back on somebody who wants to finance challenging work,” says Bahrani. “I think ‘Wizard of Lies’ was seen by 8 million people. That’s 100 times more than the number of people who saw ‘Goodbye Solo,’ and ‘Goodbye Solo’ won best film in Venice.”
Amato says that was Steven Soderbergh’s point of view, too, referring to the reason the “Ocean’s 11” director agreed to make “Behind the Candelabra” at HBO. “Filmmakers want eyeballs on their movies, and they want the movies to be handled right,” he says.
In a sign of respect for the final product, “Fahrenheit 451” was invited to screen at the Cannes Film Festival last week, where it was celebrated as the auteur work that it is. In 2004, when Bahrani shot his micro-budget feature “Man Push Cart” on high-def video, people questioned what he was thinking. But as “Fahrenheit 451” once again shows, he’s a filmmaker ahead of his time.