Sunday, May 20, 2018

Fahrenheit 451's missing Millie

HBO's Fahrenheit 451 finally went to air last night, receiving some very mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes shows a surprisingly low score from critics, but a somewhat higher score from viewers.

One puzzle is: whatever happened to Millie, Montag's wife?

I'm on record as saying that I didn't miss her while I was watching the film, because some of the story function of Millie is instead transferred to Montag himself. But after the film I began to wonder whether she had been cut for time, or for some other reason. She certainly existed in earlier drafts of the script, and the role was certainly cast. Laura Harrier, the Millie who never was, says that she was cut because she would have made the film too long, and because Millie had no part in the story that director Ramin Bahrani was developing. What isn't clear is whether Millie was shot and left on the cutting-room floor, or whether she was cut from the script before shooting began.

Maybe she'll show up in a DVD extra some day.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

HBO's new Fahrenheit 451

I was given access to a preview screener of Fahrenheit 451, the new HBO film which premieres on 19th May. I'll be discussing it with Bruce Walker on the podcast Radio Free Acton (https://acton.org/audio/tech-work-israeli-innovation-upstream-hbos-fahrenheit-451 - the interview starts at 20:29).

My overall reaction after watching the film: relief.

Relief that they hadn't totally screwed up the adaptation.

This is probably quite a common reaction to seeing a beloved book adapted to the screen, but is particularly important to me for any Bradbury adaptation - because too many previous adaptations of his work have totally missed the point. Classic examples of missing the point include The Illustrated Man (1969), Picasso Summer (also 1969 - not a good year for Bradbury, evidently) and A Sound of Thunder (2005).

This doesn't mean that I'm a stickler for "fidelity" in adaptation; far from it, I enjoy seeing film-makers wrestle with adaptational strategies, especially when they can shine new light on the book they are taking as inspiration. But there is something peculiar about Bradbury's writing - its pictorial vividness combined with its poetic non-literalness - which seems to attract film-makers of limited vision.

I find that Ramin Bahrani, the director and co-writer of the new HBO Fahrenheit 451, is far from being in this camp. The new Fahrenheit does take many liberties with Bradbury's story (what, no Millie? Clarisse as a police informant?), but it knows what it's doing. Specifically, it knows what Guy Montag has to learn, and what he has to become; and it knows what Beatty is in relation to Montag. Most importantly, it knows how to show the relevance of Fahrenheit to today's world of sound bites, clickbait headlines and fake news. Bradbury said that you don't have to burn books to destroy a culture; you just have to get people to stop reading. And that's exactly the world Bahrani has created here.

The film has one annoying addition, a bizarre and unnecessary science-fictional twist to do with DNA (I'll say no more, because spoilers) which suggests the film-makers' lack of confidence in the strength of Bradbury's original ending. But, like Francois Truffaut - and Bradbury himself in his stage play version of F451 - Bahrani has dropped the idea of an atomic war as a dramatic conclusion and perhaps felt the need to add something else of symbolic value to close the story.

Overall, the film has a good look to it, sitting somewhere between Blade Runner, Nineteen Eighty-Four (the 1984 film version) and Gattaca, but occasionally revealing its presumably low budget. It has a fine pace. It does some lovely things with Beatty, the fire chief who represents one possible life-outcome for Montag. It has some strong performances, with Michael B. Jordan the standout as Montag, and Michael Shannon as Beatty mostly managing to control his histrionics.

My only disappointment is with the old woman who sets fire to herself and her books. This pivotal scene in the book is inherently cinematic and dramatic, and really needs little adjustment for screen, as Truffaut proved back in 1966 (with Bea Duffell entrancing as the martyr). Bahrani's version of the scene misses the tension, and has a central image which is unfortunately comical. A shame, because the immediately preceding scene where Beatty shows Montag the old woman's attic full of books is done extremely well, and updates Bradbury's explication of how the world of Fahrenheit came to be.

While not a masterpiece, this new take on Fahrenheit 451 is possibly the best feature-length adaptation of a Bradbury work to date, and is worth a look.



Update,17 May 2018:

I've added the link to the Acton Institute interview above.

Since writing the above review, I've remembered a few additional points about the new film which I just wanted to capture:

'Colour blind' casting and the question of race - Going into the film, I was very happy that Montag is played by a black actor. A fine example of colour-blind casting, I thought. And Michael B. Jordan is certainly up to the job. But then comes one brief scene whether the question of race arises, and it's in Beatty's account of how the world of F451 came into existence. It becomes apparent that Montag has no knowledge of black history, and suddenly we get it: these characters have no knowledge of their own history. This is one of Bradbury's themes in the novel, as Montag struggles to even remember where he first met his wife. The moment in the film works precisely because Montag is black, and makes for probably the most profound insight the film has to offer.

The book people - I may have drifted off for a while, but the film seems to introduce the book people (outcasts from society who memorise books to preserve the texts for future generations) without much of an explanation, and without any sense of surprise from Montag. He should be surprised. This is one area where the new film is not as strong as Truffaut's film. Truffaut makes light of the apparent absurdity of the idea, but then demonstrates in a series of brief scenes, how it would work - even showing how mistakes will be made and corrected, and how the knowledge will be passed down the generations.

Generation gap - it is implied that it is mainly the older generation who cling to their books, while the younger people are just hooked on social media. There's a nice scene early on with Keir Dullea which captures this idea. It's also a fair reflection of real life. But it also helps explain why there are still caches of books to be found.

The guy who looks after the bird - I won't give any spoiler about the bird or its function in the film, but the guy who is responsible for that whole project is presented as having some kind of savant syndrome (think Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man). The character is there only briefly, and serves as an extreme model of how rote-memorisation of books can work. I think this is a smart move in helping to establish the plausibility of the memorisation take, and it is very  understated. It's a shame, then, that the story with the bird is allowed to overshadow this character.

One last missed opportunity - the firemen are shown several times chanting their firemen's song, a bit like a football or rugby crowd getting carried away with their chanting. It's a primitive but effective way for human beings to commit a text to memory. And yet the film does nothing with it. I was reminded of David Calcutt's radio play version of F451 which carefully builds nursery rhymes and oral tradition into the background of Montag's world, except that Calcutt does it for a purpose and ties this idea tightly to Bradbury's story. The new film makes it a throwaway.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Countdown to FAHRENHEIT 451


HBO's new film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is due to air on 19th May, so my friends in the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies have begun a countdown. Every day, they are posting the opening line of the novel in a different language, taken from the many foreign-language editions held in the Center's archive.


You can find these posts all over social media, including the following:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/BradburyCenter
Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/bradburycenter

The countdown has begun!


Saturday, April 28, 2018

RIP Michael Anderson (1920-2018)

Martian Chronicles director Michael Anderson has passed away, at the ripe old age of 98.

Anderson's long career in film included a number of landmark works: The Dam Busters, 1984, Around the World in Eighty Days and Logan's Run among them.

When Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles was being adapted for TV in the late 1970s, Bradbury provided the producers with his list of preferred directors. Anderson was on the list, but according to Bradbury was a long way down the list. Unfortunately, Anderson's direction of the eventual miniseries was not stellar, and certainly not consistent with his reputation for helming complex spectacle. On the contrary, The Martian Chronicles was visually pedestrian, and the performances lacking in dramatic impact. Ray Bradbury famously described the miniseries as "boring".

It is proper, therefore, to remember Anderson primarily for those earlier works. The Dam Busters is a British classic, and is close to the heart of many British viewers, both the older generation who saw it on first release, and younger generations who have seen its many appearances on TV. Around the World in Eighty Days, for which Anderson received an Oscar nomination, remains a colourful spectacle, despite its flaws. And while 1984 isn't a patch on the BBC TV production by Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier, it's still a bold early attempt at dystopia, paving the way for Anderson's later box office success with the dystopic Logan's Run.

Having said that, The Martian Chronicles is set for a BluRay debut later this year, which will no doubt draw fresh critical attention to it.

Read more about Michael Anderson's career here: http://deadline.com/2018/04/michael-anderson-dies-oscar-nominated-film-director-was-98-1202378772/

Bradbury's 'The Veldt' influences new arena venues


Ray Bradbury's classic tale 'The Veldt' - one of the most influential early virtual reality stories - continues to impact on real life. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Madison Square Garden Company is planning two new 'sphere arenas' in Las Vegas and London. Chairman James L. Dolan publicly referenced the Bradbury story in a presentation about the planned entertainment venues, which will feature the equivalent of 42 IMAX screens linked together, forming the most colossal display screens in the world.

I have blogged about 'The Veldt' many times over the years (click here!), since it is one of the most frequently adapted of Bradbury's stories. I find it curious that it can both inspire real-world creative technologies and serve as a warning about such technologies.

The LA Times report is here: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-msg-sphere-arena-las-vegas-20180427-story.html

Many thanks to Steven Paul Leiva for drawing this article to my attention.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

BluRay Bradbury: Martian Chronicles reissue

Kino Lorber have announced that the 1980 miniseries adaptation of The Martian Chronicles is set for a BluRay release on 26th June. The series - scripted by Richard Matheson and starring Rock Hudson - has been released on DVD before, but is new to the HD format.

Ray Bradbury had little direct involvement with the miniseries. He had spend a couple of decades trying to get the Chronicles on screen, writing several screenplays in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Matheson teleplay that was eventually used is pretty good, but the miniseries suffers from lacklustre direction from Michael Anderson (whose previous films include The Dam Busters, 1984, and Logan's Run. At the time of the original TV broadcast, Bradbury went on record as saying that the miniseries was 'boring'... which earned him a reprimand from the producers and the network.

The last time I watched any of the series, I was struck by the slow pace of the first episode, and the appallingly cheap special effects. For a post-Star Wars production, this is unforgivable. It does have some good sections, however: I've always liked the treatment of 'The Martian', the episode where a shape-shifting Martian is able to take on the appearance of any human's loved one. The adaptation incorporates elements from a non-Chronicles Bradbury story, 'The Messiah' - and idea which came from Bradbury himself.

I don't know that there's much to be gained from a BluRay treatment. The miniseries was shot and edited on 35mm film, so there is a theoretical improvement in an HD scan. But I fear BluRay will just make the FX strings more visible than ever...

There's nothing on the Kino Lorber website just yet, but the Facebook announcement is here: https://www.facebook.com/KinoLorberStudioClassics/photos/a.683404775049766.1073741828.682934655096778/1744016005655299/?type=3&theater

Monday, April 09, 2018

Center for Bradbury Studies receives major grant

Congratulations to my friends and colleagues at the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies who were today awarded $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The grant is for the preservation of the Center's extensive collection of Bradbury papers and memorabilia - materials which have been invaluable in my research, and will continue to be of interest to Bradbury scholars in the future. The project lead is Prof Jonathan R. Eller, author of Becoming Ray Bradbury and Ray Bradbury Unbound.

The announcement from the NEH mentions the Bradbury project in the same paragraph as an unrelated project on Mae West, an amusing juxtaposition:  https://www.neh.gov/news/press-release/2018-04-09

Friday, April 06, 2018

HBO Fahrenheit - New Trailer

As the air date of HBO's new adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 approaches, a second trailer has been released. This one shows us much more of Montag's world: a clear distinction between text in electronic media and text in printed books; something of Beatty and his motivations; and a hint of the underground which Montag becomes a part of. There are strong hints of Nineteen Eighty-Four and a touch of Blade Runner. And, as always, the footage of books burning looks astonishing - just as Truffaut found in his 1966 film, the horror of book burning is paradoxically beautiful to watch.

Fahnrenheit 451 is due to premiere on 19th May 2018.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

LeVar Burton Reads... Bradbury

LeVar Burton - Emmy and Grammy Award-Winning actor-director, and star of Star Trek - has a weekly podcast where he reads selected short stories. Think of it as PBS' Reading Rainbow for adults! The most recent episode is a full reading of Ray Bradbury's "The Great Wide World Over There".

The production values are high in this series. Not just a straight reading of the story, the episode includes subtle sound effects and almost subliminal music cues. Burton performs each character distinctly - and the sound design separates the characters out from the narration, so that it almost sounds like a full cast dramatisation, but the cast is just LeVar alone.

Burton's evident interest in literacy (he hosted and produced Reading Rainbow for twenty-three seasons; there's commitment for you) make this story a natural choice. "The Great Wide World" concerns Cora, an adult living in backwoods Missouri who has never learned to read or write, and indeed has never left the valley she was born in. When she is helped by her nephew, she begins replying to the ads in the back of a pulp magazine - and in return receives her first ever items of mail: free samples of sunflower seeds, pamphlets from the Rosicrucians, and free diet plans. In the internet age this sounds like spam hell, but in simpler times (the story was first published in Maclean’s in August 1952), it's easy to imagine that such junk mail would be a wonder. There's no SF or fantasy in this story, by the way. It's one of Bradbury's realist tales, perhaps echoing Dandelion Wine more than any other of Bradbury's major works, but set in a different locale.

Below is a direct link to the episode - but you can also pick up the series on any decent podcast app by searching for "LeVar Burton". The website for the series can be found here.



Friday, January 12, 2018

Breaking the silence on FAHRENHEIT 451

It's no secret that HBO are producing a feature-length adaptation of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, but there has been very little public information about the production, beyond the casting announcements last year. On Thursday, things changed, when HBO opened up to the press.

Writer-director Ramin Bahrani, as quoted in the Hollywood Reporter, admits to some trepidation about making the film - at least in part because of his awareness that someone is bound to be upset by any adaptation of such a well-known and beloved novel. But he seems to have been bold enough to make changes where dramatically necessary. The good news is that he seems to have a grasp on what the book is really about:

"I don't want to focus so much on [Trump] because I don't want to excuse the 30 to 40 years prior to that; he's just an exaggeration of it now," he said. "I don't want us to forget what Bradbury said — that we asked for this. We elected [politicians] over many decades, we're electing this thing in my pocket [pulls out his cellphone]. Between the technological advancements in the last 20 years and politics, Bradbury's biggest concern about the erosion of culture is now."
The full Reporter article is here.

HBO has also released this teaser trailer for the film, which is (vaguely) scheduled for "spring 2018".