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‘Fahrenheit 451’ and the Problem With Trump-Era Dystopian Parables

Plus some other random thoughts about HBO’s remake of the Ray Bradbury classic

In the not-too-distant future, every movie and TV show will be about the Trump administration. Or maybe it just feels that way: On Saturday, HBO premieres Fahrenheit 451, the latest adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s visionary 1953 novel about a dystopian society where books have been outlawed and artistic expression squashed. But the movie, which stars Michael B. Jordan as “fireman” Guy Montag and Michael Shannon as his commanding officer in a brigade that burns books, is also very much meant to speak to The Way Things Are Now, portraying a frightening America where the country’s history has been rewritten to serve the government’s agenda and the populace is subservient to social media and technology.

For his part, Fahrenheit 451 director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani (who made the zeitgeist-y housing-bubble drama 99 Homes) has insisted that he doesn’t intend his film to just be seen as a Trump parable. “I don’t want to focus so much on him,” Bahrani said in January, “because I don’t want to excuse the 30, 40 years prior [to] that. He’s just an exaggeration of that now. And I don’t want us to forget what Bradbury said: ‘We asked for this.’”

There’s truth to Bahrani’s point: The original novel, written during the Cold War and the rise of McCarthyism, wanted to sound the alarm for a culture that had lost its love of literature in the face of mass media. And so, it’s pretty easy to connect Bradbury’s 65-year-old book to our easily-distracted modern age, in which we’ve turned away from sober contemplation and intellectual rigor to pursue the quick-fix entertainment we get on TV and the internet.

Still, it’s impossible not to watch this sleek, gloomy version of Fahrenheit 451 and not think of Trump and the world he benefited from — and, in some ways, exacerbated through his anti-intellectualism and cries of “fake news.” In fact, I’d argue that the chief reason the movie has been made now is because of the Trump parallels. (After all, the firemen’s slogan is “Time to burn for America again,” which wasn’t in the original book.) Ultimately, that’s what’s so deflating about the film — Bradbury’s dark prophecies have come true but, well, so what?

It’s not that Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t radiate a distinct chill as Bahrani and his cast explore a society in which contrarian thought and individuality are viewed as signs of insurgent behavior. The movie’s portrayal of book burning can be seen as a metaphor for homophobia, xenophobia or any other small-minded, bullying mentality. But beyond grafting Bradbury’s message onto our times, this new Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t really have much to say about how we got here or how we can change. It congratulates us for seeing the parallels, and that’s about it.

Maybe what also doesn’t work about Bahrani’s film is that it’s merely the latest preaching-to-the-choir missive on the Trump era. The most obvious precedent is the Emmy-winning The Handmaid’s Tale, in which Elisabeth Moss’ defiant June battles against Gilead’s totalitarian, misogynist religious government. It’s a stirring and engrossing series, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, about how women are treated as second-class citizens, but eventually, diminishing returns start to creep in. This show, too, sure feels like our world under Trump, doesn’t it? But once that’s established, fatigue sets in, numbing us to the repetitive but well-meaning points it’s trying to make.

To be clear: I’m not arguing that movies and TV series should just be happy, mindless, apolitical escapism. We need artists to take on our world. But it’s a bit depressing that, thus far, most of our response to Trump has been in the form of redoing older works, using them as ah-ha proof that their creators were prescient. Look no further than the long-delayed remake of George Orwell’s 1984, which has gained momentum since Trump’s election boosted sales of the 1949 novel. (Although, it’s worth pointing out that the anti-PC crowd have also embraced the book because of its warning of “thoughtcrime” being policed.) Rather than crafting new art to deal with today’s problems, we’re looking to the past, pleased with ourselves that we’re smart enough to recognize the similarities between those bygone eras and now. In Bradbury’s book, censorship was the enemy of thought. In Hollywood, it’s recycling.

Here are a few other takeaways from Fahrenheit 451. (And don’t worry: There are NO spoilers.)

#1. This isn’t the first time the book’s been turned into a movie — and the earlier version had maybe the greatest title sequence ever.

Bahrani’s film is far from the first adaptation of the Bradbury book. Fahrenheit 451 has been remade as a radio drama, a theater piece and even an incredibly nerdy video game in the 1980s.

But probably the best-known adaptation was the 1966 film, which was the only English-language movie that legendary French director Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) ever made. Not that the reviews were very good at the time. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther sniffed, “If Francois Truffaut were trying to make literature seem dull and the whole hideous practice of book-burning seem no more shocking than putting a blow-torch to a pile of leaves, he could not have accomplished his purpose much better than he unintentionally has.” But in later years, critics have come to appreciate the film’s intentionally chilly tone and Vertigo composer Bernard Herrmann’s lush, mournful score. And its opening credits remain one of the coolest things about it.

Rather than including credits on the screen at the start of the film — as what usually happens 99 percent of the time in movies — Truffaut went another way, using a narrator to speak them aloud to us. The unseen narrator, whose identity has been lost to the annals of time, has a prim, proper English voice, giving the proceedings a touch of class. As for the visuals, Truffaut just included a bunch of shots that zoom in on TV antennas, a nod to the story’s depiction of a future where television rules people’s lives. But the narrated credits have another thematic importance: If Fahrenheit 451 imagines a time when reading is banned, looking at screen credits would probably be a no-no, too.

More than 50 years later, these credits are still incredibly striking. I’m surprised no one’s tried to rip off Truffaut’s clever concept.

#2. If things had worked out differently, maybe Mel Gibson or Tom Hanks (or Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt) would have played Guy Montag.

Bradbury’s iconic hero Guy Montag, who comes to rebel against his job as a book-burning fireman, is played with steely, tormented cool by Michael B. Jordan. But while watching this Fahrenheit 451, I started thinking about the many years in which it seemed like Hollywood was going to make a movie out of the book, only for it to always (pardon the pun) flame out before going into production. It turns out that we missed out on a whole lot of possible alternate Guys.

In the 1990s, long before he was mired in controversy over his terrible personal behavior, Mel Gibson was set to play Montag. This was before Braveheart, which won him Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, but certainly during the height of his stardom. As producer Craig Zadan recalled in 2007, “We actually got involved with Fahrenheit 10 years ago… or more than that. We bought the rights to it and set it up at Warner Bros. with Mel Gibson originally starring in it, then he did Braveheart and he came back to us and said, ‘I think I should also direct it.’ We said fine, he had just won the Academy Award. Then he came back and said, ‘How about if I direct it and not star in it?’ Then it started to fall apart.”

After the Gibson-directed version fizzled out — the producers reportedly reached out to Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise to play the role, to no avail — filmmaker Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) came along in 2001 to rewrite the script and direct. Darabont spent about a decade trying to get the project off the ground, finally signing up his Green Mile star Tom Hanks in 2007. But then Hanks dropped out, leaving the film in limbo again.

“I’m out to somebody at the moment, fingers crossed, because, boy, do I want to make that movie,” Darabont declared in 2009. “I’m not giving up. I’ll die in the traces before I don’t make that movie. … I promised myself that it would at least go into production while Ray Bradbury [was] still with us. It’s not like I think he’s going to leave tomorrow, but he’s not getting any younger. So I have an emotional commitment to wanting to get the wheels well and truly in motion while he’s still here to enjoy that.”

It’s a promise Darabont couldn’t keep: Bradbury died in 2012 at the age of 91. In 2016, HBO won an auction over several rivals, including Hulu (which produces The Handmaid’s Tale), for the Fahrenheit 451 rights, finally putting the film into production. It’s a good reminder that seemingly classic material and a lot of big names can’t even always guarantee that a movie will ever actually get made.

#3. Do people care about physical books anymore?

It’s not just disturbing that Fahrenheit 451 paints a future world where books are banned — it’s also the idea that books themselves are burned. The very act of incinerating novels feels violent and hostile. But it’s now almost an antiquated notion, harking back to a time when human beings had to rely on physical media.

For generations, one of the ways to show displeasure toward an artist was to destroy their art. In the late 1970s, idiots demonstrated their distaste for disco by blowing up the genre’s records. (This didn’t always go well.) In 1966, the religious, angered at John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comment about the Beatles, organized the burning of the group’s albums. Even sports fans have gotten into the act, lighting jerseys of their favorite players on fire if they dared jump ship to another team.

Bradbury didn’t invent the idea of burning books — Germany, even before the Nazis, was big on the ritual — but the author understood what a provocative image it was and how it represented censorship and resistance to new ideas. What’s interesting about Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 is that, while it depicts the act, the firemen are more concerned about rebel groups, known as Eels, downloading books onto what’s called The Nine — the future’s version of the internet.

Which begs the question: Does Bradbury’s image of books aflame still carry the same punch today? We now live in a cloud-centric digital culture where we mostly have ditched physical media. Is the bookworm with a thousand hard covers on their shelves still a thing? And if it isn’t, has our relationship to books — the idea that we own them and are emotionally connected to them — changed?

Well, it turns out, readers have flirted with e-books and decided they like the real thing better.

In 2017, the Publishers Association reported that, in the previous year, “Sales of consumer e-books plunged 17 percent in the U.K. in 2016. … Sales of physical books and journals went up by 7 percent over the same period, while children’s books surged 16 percent.” The results in America were comparable: The Association of American Publishers found that “e-book sales declined 18.7 percent over the first nine months of 2016,” while “[p]aperback sales were up 7.5 percent over the same period, and hardback sales increased 4.1 percent.” And the Pew Research Center reported that 65 percent of Americans read at least one physical book in the previous 12 months, while only 28 percent read an e-book.

As a fan of physical media, I find those figures really heartening. Part of the pleasure of loving an album or book is being able to hold it and have that tactile connection to the work. As convenient as my Kindle or Spotify is, that part of that process can’t be duplicated. Still, that doesn’t excuse some people’s obsessive record-collection cataloging:

#4. Having to memorize a book sounds terrifying.

In Bradbury’s book — and in the two film versions — we meet a group of folks known as the “book people,” who are each assigned to memorize one classic novel. The idea is that, even if the firemen destroy every single copy of that book, that person will live on to preserve its contents. In essence, the individual becomes that book.

Ever since I read Fahrenheit 451 as a kid, I’ve been terrified of that element of the plot. There’s something about the enormity of the task — being responsible for memorizing every single word in a deathless masterpiece — that fills me with dread. It makes me think of childhood when I was in a Catholic grade school and had to recite lengthy prayers in class. The agony that my mind could fail me at any moment has always stayed with me. I’ve been in plays and musicals, which require knowing tons of lines, but having to be the sole person who has to embody The Grapes of Wrath? To have the entire essence of a novel reside in perpetuity inside your head? That’s too much for anybody.

I guess I’m saying, if we end up living in the dark dystopia that Bradbury depicts, I’d like a job other than as a member of the “book people.” I’m happy to be a lookout, a spy or whatever — hey, I’m down with the resistance. But the future’s gonna be bleak enough without me freaking out about forgetting a few paragraphs of Pride and Prejudice.