On May 19, HBO will release the Michael B. Jordan–starring movie that reimagines Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451.’
In these uncertain times, people are turning to fiction that challenges them rather than pure escapism. Last year George Orwell’s 1984 rose to the top of the Amazon best seller list, prompting a new printing of tens of thousands of copies. At the same time, TV shows like The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale, both based on dystopian novels, gained popularity.
Enter Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. Set in an unspecified time in the future, Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman who doesn’t put out fires — he sets them. All firemen do. They burn books, which ignite at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Bradbury’s future, books are outlawed. People stare at flat-screen TVs or listen to earbuds all day. They turn in their neighbors for possessing books, and firemen come and burn their neighbors’ houses down, with the books — and sometimes the neighbors — inside.
Book burning has been around since at least 700 BC, when according to the Hebrew Bible, Jehoiakim of Judah burned part of a scroll that Baruch ben Neriah had written based on the prophet Jeremiah’s dictation. Many other instances of book burning occurred over the years, often resulting in the loss of irreplaceable cultural artifacts, as was the case with the burning of the Library of Alexandria, a historical event that deeply affected Ray Bradbury, a lover of books and libraries from a young age.
In 1966 François Truffaut adapted Fahrenheit 451 into a haunting film, and now it’s time for an update. The HBO adaptation promises to emphasize the story’s grittier elements, ushering the classic story into a new era. Here’s what you’ll want to know before checking it out.
In 1944 Ray Bradbury read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a novel set during the Stalinist Great Purge in 1938. The book would inspire Bradbury to work for almost 10 years developing his own debut novel, Fahrenheit 451. Citing the writers of Brave New World and 1984, Bradbury recalled, “People have often asked me what effect Huxley and Orwell had on me,” but he explained that Darkness at Noon was the “true father, mother, and lunatic brother” of Fahrenheit 451.
Between 1947 and 1951, Bradbury wrote two short stories called “Bright Phoenix” and “The Pedestrian.” These stories were combined and expanded into a novella published in 1951 called “The Fireman” and later developed into “Long After Midnight.” Both “The Fireman” and “Long After Midnight” are earlier drafts of Fahrenheit 451. They are available (along with other related stories) in A Pleasure to Burn: Fahrenheit 451 Stories.
Like 1984, Fahrenheit 451 was written shortly after the end of World War II, when authors like George Orwell and Ray Bradbury, along with the rest of humanity, struggled to make sense of the horrors of totalitarianism. With the world still reeling, the Cold War began, and the perpetual threat of nuclear apocalypse hung like a mushroom cloud over the world.
Bradbury scholar Jonathan R. Eller explains the historical context in which Fahrenheit 451 was written and published: “In late October 1952, the United States proclaimed the successful test of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon far more destructive than the atomic bombs that had ended the war in the Pacific. Then in July 1953, the Soviet Union unexpectedly exploded its first hydrogen bomb, an ominous indicator that the West was no longer ahead of the Eastern Bloc superpower.”
Eller adds that, “The Doomsday Clock, a chilling metaphor whose image appears on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reached two minutes before midnight. The hands would not come as close to midnight again for the rest of the twentieth century.” It was during this intense historical period that Ray Bradbury unleashed his incendiary novel Fahrenheit 451 on the world.
Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 was censored by Bradbury’s publisher in the 1960s to increase the novel’s chances of being approved by school boards for use as a classroom text. According to Eller, the “Bal-Hi” edition, first printed in 1967, made nearly 100 changes to Bradbury’s text, mostly to remove profanity and references to sexuality, drinking, drug use and nudity.
Though it was not meant to replace the paperback edition, the censored version was accidentally transferred to later printings for the general public. For the next six years, no uncensored copies of the paperback were in circulation until the fall of 1978, when a group of Missouri high school students noted the differences when comparing their school texts to their teacher’s personal copy. The students wrote to Bradbury, who made sure subsequent printings used his restored text “with all the damns and hells back in place.” Bradbury later commented, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
In his introduction to the 60th Anniversary Edition of Fahrenheit 451, Neil Gaiman says that Bradbury’s tale is “a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted.” It has been 65 years since Fahrenheit 451 was published, and we still need the warning. And so the story lives on and continues to be adapted.
THE 1966 FILM
Directed by legendary French New Wave film director François Truffaut, Fahrenheit 451 is a beautifully unsettling movie featuring a nuanced performance by Julie Christie, who plays the dual roles of Montag’s radical neighbor, Clarisse, and his mainstream wife, Linda. From the opening credits (spoken because reading is forbidden) to the masterful score by Bernard Herrmann, who composed the music for Hitchcock’s Psycho, Truffaut’s film does Bradbury’s story justice.
There are several differences between the book and the film, including Clarisse’s fate (Bradbury loved Truffaut’s twist so much that he borrowed it for his own stage adaptation), but I don’t want to spoil the movie or the book for you here. My suggestion: read the book and watch the film.
Over the years Fahrenheit 451 has been adapted several times in a wide variety of formats.
In 1957 CBS broadcast a play called “A Sound of Different Drummers,” which combined plot elements from both Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. Bradbury successfully sued.
In the late ’70s, Bradbury adapted Fahrenheit 451 into a play, which had its world premiere in November 1988 at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre in Indiana. The play has been performed several times since in the UK and New York, and the script is available for purchase if you’re interested.
BBC Radio produced a dramatization of the novel in 1982. You can listen to the radio play here.
The book was adapted into a graphic novel in 2009 called Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation with an introduction written by Bradbury. Definitely check it out if you’re a fan of graphic novels.
On a related note, “The Pedestrian,” one of the stories that eventually grew into Fahrenheit 451, was adapted into an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater, an anthology show that aired from 1985 to 1992. Ray Bradbury wrote all 65 episodes, and each was based on one of his stories.
THE NEW HBO MOVIE
Neil Gaiman calls Fahrenheit 451 a “period piece.” In his view, “The world of fast-driving, crazy teenagers out for kicks, of an endless cold war that sometimes goes hot, of wives who appear to have no jobs or identities save for their husbands’, of bad men being chased by hounds (even mechanical hounds) is a world that feels like it has its roots firmly in the 1950s. A young reader finding this book today, or the day after tomorrow, is going to have to imagine first a past, and then a future that belongs to that past.” In other words, the book’s details are dated, but its themes are still pertinent, so it’s the perfect time for a modern version of Fahrenheit 451.
The new adaptation is helmed by acclaimed director Ramin Bahrani, whom in the 2000s Roger Ebert dubbed “the director of the decade,” and stars Michael B. Jordan. The trailer hints that the firemen will incinerate more than just books: “News, facts, memoirs, internet of old — burn it.”
In a recent press appearance, Bahrani stated that it was “daunting to take on Bradbury.” He said, “When you do an adaptation, you’re going to change things. I knew I would upset somebody. I tried to stay true to the themes, even if I changed certain characters and plotlines. To take them and modernize them. It wasn’t easy.”
Discussing the changes, Bahrani said his film is “not set in the distant future, like Bradbury’s novel, but an alternate tomorrow where technology is here right now — like Amazon’s Alexa.” He added, “There was no reason to put it in the future; it’s just a strange tomorrow.” I can’t wait to find out just how strange that tomorrow will appear under Bahrani’s direction.
IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN
In the introduction to a 1976 audio edition of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury said, “I’m a preventer of futures, I’m not a predictor of them.” It was in that spirit in the early ’50s that he’d holed himself up in the basement of the UCLA library with an old typewriter, which he rented for 20 cents an hour, and hammered out the preventive measures that would ultimately become Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury’s dystopian tale is as relevant now as it was 65 years ago, and it’s imperative that we continue updating and telling the story and others like it. Here’s hoping the HBO adaptation sparks a new generation’s interest in Ray Bradbury’s classic tale and an awareness of its stakes.