Note: This is part one of a two-part article on adapting classic science fiction. Part 2, which deals with Amazon Video/Channel 4’s Electric Dreams will appear in this space next week.
Ray Bradbury once said, “There are worse crimes than burning books, one of them is not reading them.” Raman Bahrani’s new film adaptation (HBO) is an adaptation that will only appeal to those who have never read the original, or who are only familiar with the type of condensed, digested versions that Bradbury laments in the original novel. Those who have read and loved Fahrenheit 451 will find the Bahrani’s version disappointing, as it, to quote Hamlet, has “only got the tune of the time” (5.2.169) but not the timeless substance of the original.
Bahrani’s falls victim to one of the classic blunders in adapting classic fiction for contemporary audiences: He makes too many changes designed to beat the viewer over the head with the story’s relevance to the contemporary political and social situation, but, in doing so, he diminishes those aspects that made the original a timeless classic. This is shame, because there is a lot to like in this movie. It is well-acted and beautifully shot. Unfortunately, none of these makes up for messing with core aspects of Bradbury’s story.
Now, I recognize the need to adapt certain aspects of classic science fiction for a modern audience. Futuristic science fiction comes with a built in shelf life. Time stops for no one, and, therefore no matter how far distant the future seems at the time a piece is written, eventually history catches up and either the future will resemble the one that’s described in the sci-fi story, or it won’t. Either way, the writer’s world is left in an unenviable position. Rarely, the writer will prove correct, and the modern submarine will resemble—and even be inspired by The Nautilus—or a soda company will create a drink which is, literally, addictive–in which case, we’ll marvel briefly at the foresight a particular offer has displayed, before lamenting the loss of wonder that comes from reading the book, or watching the movie, that comes with the perspective of history. More often the particular history described in the work of fiction will bear little resemblance to reality once real history catches up. Some of the most successful words of science fiction are replete with anachronisms. Why are there no flat screens (or touch screens for that matter) aboard The Enterprise? Moreover, if an author hits on a particular prediction once, it doesn’t necessarily imply a particular skill at predicting the future. While the afore-referenced Jules Verne, by any measure one of the all-time greats, may have predicted the submarine in 2000 Leagues Under The Sea, many of his books, From Earth to the Moon and Around the World in 80 Days, for example seem dated today, because the things that have happened since the books were written make the feats described in these novels seem unimpressive by today’s standards.
Futurism, however, is not the main reason we return to classic sci-fi. Rather, the most successful science fiction speaks to universal themes and provides social criticism that is as relevant to today’s society as it was when it was written. It matters little that the world had not been taken over by Stalinist megapowers by the historical year 1984. The themes presented in the classic novel, from government surveillance, to groupthink, to the changing nature of language, are just as relevant today as they were when Orwell imagined his classic dystopia in 1948. If anything, the issues presented in his novel are even more prevalent today. The recent Facebook scandal recalls Orwell’s telescreen, and concepts like “fake news” and “alternate facts” remind us of doublethink and newspeak.
With this dilemma in mind, let’s return to Fahrenheit 451. There are many aspects of modern society that Bradbury’s novel correctly predicts, including the increasingly immersive, but, ultimately, vapid personal home entertainment market and the importance of optics over policy in politics, but there are many developments that it fails to predict, most prominently, the internet, which would have a major effect on the essential message of the novel. None of these matter in the grand scheme of things, because the central timeless issues of the book—censorship, free thought, and literacy—still speak to modern audiences just as loudly, or, in some cases, even more loudly than they did when the book was written.
Thus, when Bahrani’s version includes the effects of the internet on the preservation of knowledge, I’m basically ok with it. When social media plays a prominent role in his world, fine, I can see how that’s needed to build a believable future. But, eliminating characters such as Montag’s wife, and completely changing Clarice’s character from a purely innocent, but visionary child, to an adult, tortured double-agent fundamentally alter the original story in unforgivable and unnecessary ways. That doesn’t even get into the way that the HBO film changes the Montag and Beatty, the central characters in the story.
None of these changes, however, is as significant as the film’s emphasis on inclusion and exclusion of various groups in society. Bahrani’s film puts the question of EEL’s, shorthand (and heavy-handed) slang for illegals at the center of the film. These EEL’s actively work to thwart the government’s censorship not by hiding books, but rather by trying to upload full versions of classics to The Nine, the film’s version of the internet and are hunted down by the firemen, who seem to play the role of police or ICE operatives. The parallels to the current political situation are obvious, as is the message the film conveys. The problem is that while it is a relevant message, it is not Bradbury’s message. Shifting the focus away from what Bradbury wrote, makes the film a different type of dystopia, and the confused return to something more in line with the original plot in the second half of the movie confuses both messages so that neither one is fully developed.
The issue of oppression and insiders/outsiders in society is fine material for a dystopia. If Bahrani wanted to write and direct that movie, he should have made it, as an original story, not as Fahrenheit 451. Such a movie would have been timely. Time would tell whether it would have been timeless.
As an aside, it is counter-productive to message of inclusion and unity to assign the memorized books of the resistance to people of the same race as the authors of those books: The white woman memorizes Steinbeck; the black woman, Morrison; the black man, Baldwin; and the Chinese woman, Mao. The message would have been more effective if at least one of the characters memorized a book that wasn’t written by an author of the same cultural background as the memorizer.
The comparison between the two versions of the story can be seen by juxtaposing Beatty’s speeches in the book vs. those he gives in the movie. Early in the film, Beatty (Michael Shannon) and Montag (Michael B. Jordan) visit a school, give an anti-EEL speech, and then burn some mock books. The speech feels timely, as if they, despite the conceit of the far-distant future society, are speaking directly to America in 2018. However, because the allegory is so direct, it is unclear whether the message will last beyond the current moment. In contrast, Beatty’s speeches about history and education in the novel feel timeless in the same way that Dickens’ commentary on education in Hard Times are timeless. Years after the book was written, they feel just as fresh and relevant. Even Bradbury’s own understanding of the book’s meaning has developed over time because the text he wrote lends itself to multivariate meanings centered around a central theme.
Again, it’s a shame that this movie failed as an adaptation, since it does a really good job at building a believable future, it’s shot beautifully, and it is acted well, especially by the characters who play the central roles.
So, if HBO’s Fahrenheit is ultimately unsuccessful as an adaptation, what makes a successful one? Come back next week to read part 2 of this article, which will explore the different approaches to adaptation taken by the writers of Amazon/Channel 4’s Electric Dreams.
A. A. Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. His debut graphic novel will be released by Golden Bell Studios next year. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter as @thesurrealari .