February 1, 2018

Just when I was ready to hate the upcoming HBO film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, turns out there’s hope it may be pretty good


I’m fully ready to hate the HBO adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, the sci-fi classic by legendary Martian Chronicler and Last Interview Series participant Ray Bradbury. The movie is slated for release later this year.

These adaptations have been a mixed bag in recent years, with roaring successes like Blade Runner 2049 taking their place alongside cataclysmically bad shit factories like The Giver (all offense intended to Taylor Swift for that one).

In fairness, it’s harder to adapt sci-fi than other genres. For starters, sci-fi fans will engross themselves in the universe of a book, inevitably burdening filmmakers to stay faithful to source material. The more dedicated among us pay homage to our favorite authors’ creations by dressing up as them at conventions and learning to speak their mystical languages. We are devotees à l’extrême. Cross us with great peril.

And as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale rocketed back to bestseller lists after last year’s Hulu adaptation, cultural critics impressed on everyone—as if it weren’t already super-duper obvious—that sci-fi stories are more relevant than ever. A Handmaid’s Tale adaptation had already been made in 1990 with Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway, but it flopped. In the nearly three decades that ensued, human beings continued to use religion to control women’s bodies in the most fucked-up of ways, but no one in Hollywood was tapping into that book as a way of making the point.

Today, a classic like Fahrenheit 451 postively leaps out for its moral acumen and social relevance. It was published in 1953, in an America reeling from World War II and gripped by McCarthyism — a country ready for the message that information is a form of power. It described a world in which books are a crime, truth an enemy. The main character feels conflicted about literally taking a flamethrower to books, even though the dystopia in which he lives is one where no one wants to read anyway.

French New Wave auteur François Truffaut adapted the book into a 1966 film (in English). What he produced had neither the New Wave aesthetic nor the emotional gravity one would hope for in a book about the end of intellectual freedom. It was cartoonish, almost Batman-y. In one scene, as stark string music dramatically highlights the discovery of a clandestine Don Quixote, the elegance of Bradbury’s writing is made a casualty to cinematic drama, inevitably reminding us that we’re in France in the sixties and not some perhaps-avoidable future. And watching it, one can’t help but feel the irony of the screen screen, the technology that in the novel portends our doom.

Irony aside, it’s not hard to make two skips and a jump to the alternative-fact purgatory in which we all now reside. We live in a nightmare where a three-day-old, orange-zest-muffin president delivers open threats against print media and eschews factuality itself.

So what should we expect from HBO’s upcoming film? Is it going to include reference after reference to pundits abhorring truth and disparaging the intelligentsia? Will Captain Beaty rattle off a dramatic “Make America Great Again” as he torches every book in sight?

Fortunately, there’s hope the adaptation won’t be mired in too much of this. Ramin Bahrani, the director and co-writer, is an ambitious and unique filmmaker. His first major work, Man Push Cart, follows a Pakistani food cart operator in Manhattan, nimbly portraying the dignity and struggle of an immigrant with nothing. His follow-up, Chop Shop, gives voice to an orphaned youth getting by in Queens selling scrap and pirated DVDs.

His artistic vision hasn’t been about special effects or extravagant, unrelatable stories. His specialty isn’t escapism, but a form of realism that encourages hope. He uses the camera grittily, in a way that fans of Fahrenheit 451 might ultimately find does justice to that book’s elegant but terrifying prose.

And while the trailer for the upcoming movie is, frankly, pretty unencouraging, one only has to look at Bahrani’s work in the video for Sigur Ros’s Eg Anda to see how beautiful his vision behind the camera can be.

Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.