‘Like a fever dream’: the making of HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 – fascist-themed science fiction updated for the social media era
This is Ray Bradbury’s warning in a new way, says indie director Ramin Bahrani about made-for-TV adaptation of author’s 1953 novel set in an ‘alternate tomorrow’ in which books are banned
“I think most directors will work with anyone who gives them the money and enough freedom,” says Ramin Bahrani, when I meet him in Cannes’ Carlton Hotel. The director cut his teeth on independent cinema on films such as Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. But his latest project, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, is produced by HBO, the cable/satellite network behind Game of Thrones.
“I think they’re just risky and smart,” he says. “They think challenging people is good.” Taking on a provocative book like Bradbury’s does exactly that.
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Set in what Bahrani calls “an alternate tomorrow”, it’s a world where books are banned and any that are found are burned by so-called firemen, members of a fascistic police force.
“I wanted to know how you imagine those ideas with the internet, with social media, with modern technology,” he says. “What would that actually mean? And to try and figure that out I had to start writing.”
It’s not the first screen adaptation of Bradbury’s novel. François Truffaut took it on in 1966, in a film starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner. Bahrani “wanted to stick” to the author’s ideas, “but be a little bit free in changing the story and characters”.
Nonetheless, he keeps the basic plot intact as “fireman” Guy Montag (Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan) begins to doubt the wisdom of his leader, Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) and teams up with resistance fighter Clarisse (Sofia Boutella, from Star Trek Into Darkness).
The changes to which Bahrani refers come with the technology. Now there is a global communication system called the Nine; book burnings are live-streamed for entertainment, while hefty classics such as Moby Dick are hyper-condensed and sanitised into a string of Emoji characters (an apt choice, thinks Bahrani, as Bradbury was originally worried about the influence of Reader’s Digest).
The inference is that we’re already heading there with Facebook and Twitter news feeds. “Bradbury warned us in ’53 about social media,” says Bahrani.
Updating the story was necessary, says Shannon, with the suppression of books somewhat difficult in the digital age.
“Honestly I think there was more outrage about books earlier in our culture than perhaps now,” he adds. “I don’t see in American culture people being that offended by literature nowadays.”
Certainly it’s true that books don’t cause the same offence as they did in Bradbury’s era, when Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita became major scandals.
“The bottom line is [that] people can be offended by a great number of things,” Shannon says, “but there is more value in trying to understand. Being offended by things is a very surface, simplistic reaction.”
What Bahrani does well is shape Bradbury’s ideas for our time. Provocative lines like Captain Beatty’s ‘We were not born equal, we were made equal by the fire’ hint that multiculturalism is being eradicated in our society. When Clarisse notes that, of 6,000 languages, only 60 remain, this is no fanciful suggestion, says Bahrani.
“Right now as we’re talking, one language will die every 14 days. So 14 days from now there will be one less language. The universal language will become some Emoji on the internet.”
Making Fahrenheit 451 had a dizzying effect on its cast. “The whole thing was like a fever dream. It was a very surreal environment,” says Shannon, who previously starred in Bahrani’s 2014 movie about recession and repossession, 99 Homes.
He cites the scene where Beatty and Montag visit an old woman who sets herself on fire rather than be parted from her books – the moment where Montag begins to question everything. The actor says: “It was pretty arduous. I knew it was obviously an important part of the story; we had to do it. And I think it was done in a very powerful way.”
Boutella, who didn’t know the book before signing on to play Clarisse, was struck by how current the film feels, with the way we interact with our telephones and social media.
“Watching the movie brings awareness and the awareness is already the first step forward. I was not aware before. It’s very significant to me. I think I might get a flip phone and go back to writing mail,” she says.
She stops for a second, conflicted. “But I don’t know if it’s progressive to resist evolution.”
When it came to shooting the book burning scenes, Bahrani found it “a frightening thing to do”; the Iranian-American was raised by his parents to respect literature. “So initially watching them burn was very painful, but it did become weirdly seductive to watch them,” he says.
Then something strange happened: one book seen on screen burning is Bradbury’s own The Martian Chronicles. “It was the only book where the page kept curling over and over on his name: Bradbury, Bradbury, Bradbury. And I found myself hypnotised by it.”
Intriguingly, HBO and Bahrani have launched Fahrenheit 451 at the Cannes Film Festival in France, where it played out of competition at a midnight screening.
“I’m glad HBO had a different position than Netflix,” says Bahrani, a pointed reference to the streaming giant’s ongoing row with the Cannes organisers after the festival last year decreed that all films in the competition must get a theatrical release in France. Netflix pulled all its projects from Cannes this year as a result.
Bahrani, who is delighted to bring the film to Cannes, where it received a theatrical premiere, thinks he’s not betraying his author by taking this project to a television company.
“I know there was a lot of talk that it’s a TV movie. Was Bradbury against television? No! He was against stupid things. He was against commercials and quick images that have no meaning. He wrote The Ray Bradbury Theater [an anthology show that ran for two seasons] for HBO actually.”
What’s clear is that Fahrenheit 451 arrives at a time when there is a thirst for dystopian fiction, following the success of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s more essential than ever in the Trump-era of “fake news” and social media chaos.
“This is Bradbury’s warning in a new way,” says Bahrani. “I’m just a servant doing my humble best to bring Bradbury’s theme into the world. That’s all.”
Fahrenheit 451 streams on HBO Go (Now TV CH115) and on HBO On Demand from May 20