books to film

Book versus movie: Latest adaptation of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ goes heavy on the underlining

Far too much is going on in Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 novel.

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has a great opening sentence but isn’t a great book. Rather, it’s a book based on a great idea. Unfortunately, a recent film adaptation, co-written and directed by Ramin Bahrani and produced by HBO, takes the same idea and once again, falters.

The title of the book refers to the temperature at which paper ignites, according to Bradbury, who claimed that he called up his local fire department for the information. Published 65 years ago, Fahrenheit 451 is set in an unnamed American city in the not-too-distant future, one in which two atomic wars have already been waged. The firemen of this civilisation, of whom protagonist Guy Montag is one, perform the opposite of their traditional role: they set fire to physical books, those dangerous objects that could actually make people think for themselves. Montag, who begins to have second thoughts about his incendiary actions, surreptitiously procures some volumes to find out what the fuss is all about, and the rest of the plot concerns his awakening.

Some of the book’s characters, especially the women, are distressingly flat. The idealistic Clarisse, a 17-year-old girl who first awakens Montag’s conscience, for example, or his wife, who is too obviously Clarisse’s opposite in her hidebound and fatuous ways. Several other characters tend to be more representational than flesh-and-blood, put in place to pontificate instead of act.

What makes the book compelling then, and deservedly durable, are the symbols that Bradbury weaves into the narrative and the manner in which extreme censorship and manipulation are practised. (“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”)

A populace that’s only too willing to be distracted and yield agency to an authoritarian regime should sound familiar as one of today’s burning issues.

To say, then, that the book is alarmingly relevant would be an understatement. Yet, it’s in underlining this that the latest cinematic version becomes irksome. Bradbury, as with other writers of dystopian fiction such as George Orwell or Aldous Huxley, is wise enough to make the theme relevant, but not so much the particulars. The film, however, decides to give importance to both.

Fahrenheit 451 (2018).

It’s set in Cleveland, at a time after a so-called Second Civil War. The fire department is more of an all-purpose security apparatus, tasked with not just unearthing and destroying physical books, but also ferreting out subversives called Eels. The heavy-handedness is evident from the start: crowds of self-styled Natives chant, “It’s time to burn for America again,” while screens beam out Orwellian slogans such as “Happiness is truth. Freedom is choice. Self is strength.”

The departures from the book are several and significant. Not the least of these is that Montag (Michael B Jordan) is unmarried, and Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), initially an informant, plays an increasingly important role in his life.

Clarisse’s role was beefed up in Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film version too; interestingly, Julie Christie played both the younger woman and the wife.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

Creepy virtual assistants, social media-saturated giant screens, unlawful book digitisation, addictive virtual reality headsets, frozen digital identities (the stuff of Aadhar nightmares) and, as with the novel, memorising texts to make them endure: all this and more are shoehorned into the narrative. A little selectivity would have gone a long way. When, for example, echoing an idea from the book, Clarisse says, “We did it to ourselves. We demanded a world like this,” one wishes this motif had been explored further.

There’s too much else happening for that, however. Giant tech companies are revealed to be evil, and the plot coalesces into a McGuffin contained in a strand of DNA that the characters zero in on at the decidedly un-Bradbury climax.

There’s no denying that the film has its heart in the right place. This portrait of the artist as a young fireman comes in a dystopian colour palette with enough futuristic thingamabobs – not to mention unnerving scenes of physical books being reduced to ash – to make it glossy and watchable. Ironically, it’s the non-stop striving for contemporaneity that makes it conventional.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.