Ramin Bahrani on Fahrenheit 451


Ramin Bahrani: Ray Bradbury's an icon of American literature and the book is about a future in America where fireman's job is not to put fires out but it is to start them by burning books; books are outlawed.

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Hector Elizondo: It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With a brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world … (fades out)

Bahrani: And if you have a book it would be burned and you would be in a lot of trouble. Free thinking is not something that is encouraged; it's a world where people should be happy at all times, where they should just be distracted by giant screens that they can stare at and interact with and just be happy. And have things in their ears called "Sea Shells." We have things called ear buds now. And this was written in 1953.

Adam Kampe: That’s director Ramin Bahrani on the eerie prescience of Fahrenheit 451, the timeless dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury about a world where fireman don’t put out fires; they start them. You also heard actor Hector Elizondo read the book’s opening lines recorded for one of the very first NEA Big Read audio documentaries in 2006. In that program, Bradbury explains his reverence for books and the generous buildings that let you check them out—public libraries. In fact, he liked to joke that he graduated from the library at age 27. And it was at his local library in California that he rented a typewriter with a bag of dimes to type out the manuscript for Fahrenheit 451 in the early 1950s.

Fast forward to today: book lover/filmmaker Ramin Bahrani decided to revisit this classic he discovered in high school. Bahrani co-wrote, produced, and directed the Fahrenheit 451 reboot for HBO which aired on May 19. His fifth film and first adaptation for the screen stars Michael B. Jordan as the novel’s conflicted fireman protagonist, Montag, and Michael Shannon as the troubled, imperious Captain Beatty. I spoke with Bahrani about the special challenge of adapting and updating such a beloved book for a very digital audience. Before we hear Bahrani in his own words, here’s the late Ray Bradbury himself on the what drove him to write this profound and prophetic love letter to words, books, and above all else, libraries.

Ray Bradbury: Well, Hitler of course, when I was 15, burned books on the streets of Berlin. And then along the way, I learned about the libraries of Alexandria burning 5,000 year ago. They burned two or three times—twice I believe by accident and once on purpose. And that grieved my soul. Because I’m self-educated that means that means my educators, the library, is in danger and my heroes would be killed. So therefore, the burnings of the past were a danger to my future.

Bahrani: He was writing it in a time of Mccarthyism, House Un-American Activities Committee and Post World War II and the introduction of seven inch black and white televisions into a handful of peoples’ homes. These were the anxieties he had at that time. Now we have our own technological and political anxieties that seemed right for reinterpretation. And I thought technology had caught up to Bradbury and in one critical way had kind of passed him by, which was the Internet. No one, no one predicted the Internet.

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So I might come to your office, burn all your books and you would just laugh at me and download everything again from the Cloud. So what would the fireman do then? And trying to figure that out was what made me excited to modernize it for current audience, an audience that has a cell phone, a supercomputer in their pocket at all times that has information, books, data, facts. And what are these facts? Can we trust in them anymore?

The firemen and the people who are part of the main city in Cleveland have something called "Yuxie," it's like Alexa or Siri, an advanced AI assistant. You can ask it things, it'll give you the answer if you want to know. Like in the book Montag asks Yuxie, did Ben Franklin start the first fire department? And the Internet shows you that yes, Ben Franklin did and he did it to burn books. And the Internet will prove it to you with drawings and facts. And Montag believes it because it's on the Internet.

It was a very difficult book to adapt and I never adapted a book. I've made five other films, they were all original stories. Adapting a famous book that people love, including myself, is not easy because if you change things people get upset, and I changed a lot of things. I wanted to stay true to the theme and the ideas that Bradbury had because they're so strong and I've maintained a lot of what he had. But I changed things and what gave me the courage to do it actually was Bradbury himself. He adapted "Fahrenheit 451" into a musical and a stage play. He adapted "Moby Dick" into a screenplay for John Houston to direct and changed a lot of things. So that that gave me the courage to be free.

AK: For example, Bahrani imagined a group of dissidents known as Eels. Working in the shadows, they gather and share digital files of literature and art on the internet, which is known as the 9.

Bahrani: If they're caught they're banished to Talay City, which is on the outskirts of Cleveland, a place that is run down, poor, there's no technology there. They have a hard time living and surviving without a digital fingerprint that offers them everything; identity, money, travel permits. Again, things that I think should be very relatable to contemporary audience.

AK: In this clip, Captain Beatty, played by Michael Shannon and Montag, played by Michael B. Jordan, confront an older “Eel” and two others working to counter the totalitarian regime bent on burning books and erasing history.

Beatty (Shannon): In your pathetic time, were people happy? No. There was so many millions of opinions that our company slid into a second civil war. 8 million dead, including my father.

Eel – Your father must’ve been old enough to remember a time when firemen put fires out instead of starting them.

(noise as the men tussle)

Montag: Just relax, alright.

Beatty: Benjamin Franklin, the founder of our first fire department, gave us the right to burn.

Eel. Those are lies. Ben Franklin did not do that.

Beatty: After the last of your generation dies, so will your words.

Bahrani: We're living in an age of post-truth and alternate facts and that's through the Internet. And we've chosen to give up our rights. We've chosen to give up our privacy. We've elected to try to be happy at all times and not read anything but a headline or an emoji. And these are modern interpretations of Bradbury's themes.

The concept of happiness was very important in Bradbury's novel and I've tried to highlight it here in the film and it seems very relevant to our society. We have the quote, "Pursuit of happiness," something I've never quite understood. Now we're so happy all the time because we're so distracted.

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We read only the headlines that we want to read. That keeps us happy. We can like things. That keeps us happy. We can play games on our phones and be distracted in order to stay happy. And Bradbury was really concerned about that. And we've tried to highlight that here in the film. Shannon's character talks about people not being born equal, but made equal by the fire. That we could eliminate all contradictory ideas, we could eliminate different viewpoints, we could eliminate different kinds of people, cultures, races in order for us to just be happy.

And that seems frighteningly true today.

AK: That was director, Ramin Bahrani, talking about his new film, an adaptation of one of the very first NEA Big Read novels, Fahrenheit 451. Special thanks to HBO, Ramin Bahrani, and Ray Bradbury. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Adam Kampe.


When I asked Ramin if he had any final thoughts, all he said were two words: READ BOOKS. This echoes the sentiments of Fahrenheit 451’s author. So here’s Ray Bradbury, with the last word.

Bradbury: If you can encourage people to fill themselves up with poetry, to fill themselves up with novels, to fill themselves up with films, to live in art galleries and discover the metaphors there. It’s the most important thing you can do. But find your love, eh. Go to the library. Maybe it’s waiting for you there.

Music Credits courtesy of WFMU’s Free Music Archive.

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