The late novelist Ray Bradbury championed freedom of thought and access to knowledge for all. As early as the dawn of the television age, the tales of this celebrated fantasy and sci-fi scribe echoed his warnings of authoritarian society distracted by broadcast media. One can only imagine the grin on his face the day he came up with the high-concept notion that firemen don't put out fires – they start them – to burn all the books as a means to control thought in society. Thus his 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, so aptly named for the temperature at which book paper catches fire – set the literary landscape ablaze.
Adaptations since then include a 1966 film by Francois Truffaut, a 1979 stage play by Bradbury, a 1982 BBC Radio drama, a 1984 interactive-fiction video game – and now, in a production that resonates with our era of "fake news" and media overload – a new HBO movie. "I have always loved Ray Bradbury's prophetic novel Fahrenheit 451," says Ramin Bahrani, the highly regarded Iranian-American director and screenwriter, known for Chop Shop and 99 Homes, who received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 2009.
“The concept is so provocative. Three years ago, I started to think about it again, because the world was frighteningly catching up to what he had envisioned. Bradbury said that we demanded, we elected, for the world to become this way. That’s different than having a totalitarian government take over. I found that to be true, because we have willingly given up our knowledge, identity, books, history, dreams, culture – everything – to tech companies, big business and politicians,”
Shot in Toronto, Bahrani's movie stars Michael B Jordan (The Wire, Black Panther, Creed, Fantastic Four, Hardball) as Montag, the conflicted and idealistic Cleveland fireman who lives in a future society where books are banned and burnt. When he starts to read in secret, he discovers an underground rebellion dedicated to protecting literature.
Montag soon finds himself butting heads with his mentor, Fire Captain Beatty, played with ominous relish by double Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, The Shape of Water, Man of Steel, Nocturnal Animals). Their co-stars include Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Star Trek Beyond, Atomic Blonde, The Mummy) as Clarisse, an informant caught between their competing interests, and media star Lilly Singh as Raven, a popular vlogger who spreads propaganda, broadcasts the firemen's book-burning raids and villainizes those who dare to defend books.
Of his character, Jordan says: “He’s the golden boy, you know? And with that type of pressure on him, there’s also a pressure to continue down that path – not to go back, not to turn left, not to make any mistakes. I think the message of the film and the book is very important today, when our freedom of choice and freedom of speech – our rights as human beings – are being tested.
“Don’t always do what you’re told. Do what you feel is right. That’s something my character Montag learns as he starts to question what the Ministry taught him and slowly but surely begins to think for himself. Know that you have freedom of choice. Don’t rely on someone else to tell you what is true or what your reality is.”
Shannon adds: "This is a good time for [this movie] to come out, because it seems like we are drifting away from pure information as a society. Everything now is more oriented to opinion and propaganda, and the technology that's available is allowing us to create a dangerous non-reality. "For my character Beatty, it's not even important whether something is a lie or the truth. That's an antiquated notion, and that's something we're seeing in our culture today. But my own personal mantra is 'pay attention' – we think we're getting all the information and facts, but often you can't rely on the validity of what you're reading or seeing these days."
Bradbury himself once reflected that at the time he wrote Fahrenheit 451, during the McCarthy era with its anti-Communist witch hunts, the threat of book-burning loomed particularly large in the United States.
In later years, before he passed away in 2012 at the age of 91, the man from Waukegan, Illinois – who also bestowed humanity with The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man – would describe his masterpiece as a commentary on how mass media deadens the desire to read literature: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."
Fahrenheit 451 is now available on HBO on demand