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 ( - 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:


The countdown has begun!