TCA 18: ‘Fahrenheit 451’ Lights Up HBO

fahrenheit bts bahrani jordan shannon

There’s no time better than the present for an updated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451. That notion seemed to be at the forefront of the conversation when writer/director Ramin Bahrani sat down with actress Sofia Boutella to discuss HBO’s upcoming film. Boutella portrays Clarisse, an informant who lives in a future ruled by the media where “firemen” Montag (Michael B. Jordan) and Beatty (Michael Shannon) set literary classics ablaze in an effort to destroy the spread of valuable ideas.

Not much is known yet about how Clarisse fits within the narrative of this adaptation—and it’s possible that she could have spoilery connections, so keeping the details sparse is probably for the best. The same could be said for the film itself, but Bahrani and Boutella were on hand to discuss some details and how their love of books became integral to the filmmaking process.

One of the things Bahrani found himself most conscious of was keeping to the core themes of Bradbury’s novel. In an information age where everything is digital, it makes sense for some of the aspects of the story to change in order to accommodate that. But this is still very much a future where people are reading.

“When I thought about if somebody were to show up and start burning a lot of books, all I’d have to do is say, well, I can read all of the books right here and every piece of information just in this super-computer in my pocket,” he explains. Dealing with that sort of change wasn’t easy. “But you start to get into how do you take Bradbury’s themes, his ideas, which some of them he was so prophetic in, is happening now, right, and adapt that. So it wouldn’t be very hard to start to manipulate and control what’s on the Internet if things got more and more centralized.”

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Bahrani further describes the journey from page to screen as a daunting process:

“It was just daunting to take on Bradbury because he’s such a genius and a legend, and me and so many people love his work, and when you do an adaptation, you’re going to change things. So I knew that once I got into it, there would be no way that I wouldn’t upset somebody who loved his work. So I try to stay true to the themes. Even if I change certain characters or plot lines, I wanted the themes to be there, to take them and modernize them.”

Despite any changes made, however, the themes present in Fahrenheit 451 are especially important and relevant in today’s political climate.

“Between the technological advancements in the last 20 years and politics, I think Bradbury’s biggest concern about the erosion of culture is now […] more than ever before. And the speed at which this is advancing, let’s say exponential…I am concerned will we actually be able to get ahead of the dam or is it just going to be a flood and it will be up to some other generation to bring back all of Bradbury’s heroes?”

Bahrani agrees that as both a writer and avid reader, the premise of the book is terrifying. And it’s not just the notion of book burning that strikes a horrifying chord, but also Bradbury’s concern about mass entertainment. “He was concerned about quick, short sound bytes. He thought all that was going to destroy the concepts of reading, of thinking, of knowledge, and of course, we see it now.”

“Bradbury says, ‘We asked for this,’ which is a line that Sofia is giving to [Michael B. Jordan]. ‘We asked things to become this way.’”

The novel Fahrenheit 451 deals with a future that is eerily similar to ours, where characters are surrounded by endless entertainment plastered on gigantic screens. While it’s exciting that Bradbury was able to make these predictions in the world of science fiction, it’s also just a little creepy. “The movie isn’t really set in the distant future of the way Bradbury had it. It’s just set in an alternative tomorrow where the technologies that he described, they’re right here, right now,” Bahrani explains.

Throughout the making of the film, books were, of course, a major inspiration. Both Bahrani and Boutella shared how their love of books enriched the process and helped them to flesh out characters and the world in which they live. “My parents are both fierce readers, and I was lucky to observe that growing up. But as a teenager, I did create a sort of detachment,” Boutella says. “And working with Ramin on this project was a delight because he fed me books all the time, and we talked about them, and it was just such a wakeup call for me.” She regards The Little Prince as her favorite book growing up, and says that reading was essential in fostering her imagination.

While in school in France, Boutella wasn’t exposed to Fahrenheit 451 until she began to prepare for her role as Clarisse. “Just reading it, I was so baffled because I think it’s a story that is so essential to be told now, and I was myself just glad to be reminded again the importance of it.”

It was especially interesting to Bahrani, who credits books as being among the “most important things” in his life, to incorporate scenes of book burning into the film. He even collected some of his favorite books to include in the shots. “I considered it would be like an honor if a book was burned in this movie because you could see it. You would recognize it. It would have a weight, and you would feel the pain of seeing it go away,” he explains. “[…] One of the joys was picking which books and where you would put them and how you would see them.”

And they did actually burn books.

“Of course it wasn’t easy to do, but as Bradbury says in the novel, he describes fire in many ways, and one of them is hypnotic. So there’s something hypnotic about the fire in the film, and then, of course, very painful. But picking the books still was very interesting. You know? Which book? I really wanted to burn Ferdowsi. It’s an Iranian epic poem. I had to have that. Or I really wanted Toni Morrison, because I love Toni Morrison. So she makes a presence in the film.

This part of it did have a joy to it. Or it’s not just books. Culture is in the process of [becoming] eroded in the film.”

Getting the rights to the cover art in the book burning scenes was a particular challenge, so when the rights weren’t available to them, a team of artists recreated the covers of classics for use on film. Luckily, some were able to be shot with their real cover art—including a cameo by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. (Bahrani says you’ll want to pay close attention to the burning scenes for a glimpse of the author’s name).

fahrenheit sofia boutella clarisse

Though there is a teaser trailer and new promo images to tide us over in the meantime, Boutella shed a little bit of light on her character. “Clarisse comes from a poorer background. I wanted to establish that her taste is very neat and clean, and she’s almost OCD about everything. […] It was important for me to have that balance for her,” she says. “Ramin gave me the ability to and the opportunity to develop the psychology of the character.”

And Bahrani had nothing but good things to say about Boutella and the rest of the cast:

“Her chemistry with Jordan is amazing, and then the two Mikes together, the good luck was they liked each other, and they were kind of brothers and mentor/apprentice in the film, and the movie focuses a lot on that relationship between those two men, and their chemistry is just incredible, the two of them.”

Fahrenheit 451 will air exclusively on HBO this spring.