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.

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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.

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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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.