“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.
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.
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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