How Director Ramin Bahrani Fought to Bring 'Fahrenheit 451' Adaptation to Screen
The director of the HBO film reveals that it took the network several months to get the rights to the story and it took him a year to write the screenplay, a task he found daunting, having never adapted a book before.
Ray Bradbury's 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 is set in a distant future where all books are verboten and troops of firemen keep the peace by burning literature on sight.
Writer-director Ramin Bahrani's 2018 HBO film rebooted this grim allegory with Michael B. Jordan cast as Guy Montag, a fireman who slowly begins to question the system, and Michael Shannon as the ironfisted Captain Beatty, who struggles to keep his young protege in line.
Adapting a beloved classic comes with its own unique set of challenges, including the danger of angering fans of the book. Bahrani made several changes, such as setting his adaptation in an alternate version of the 2018 present, rather than Bradbury's distant future. There are no flying cars, high-tech houses or other similar sci-fi tropes. There is, however, Yuxie, an omnipresent Alexa-like virtual assistant that monitors all.
"I really wanted a teenager to like this film," Bahrani says. "I wanted it to have some of that energy and momentum and movement that matches at least my feelings as a kid, when you want things to move."
Bahrani first pitched the idea of revisiting Bradbury's story in a 2015 meeting with HBO. The timing, to him, seemed uncanny.
"As Bradbury had thought, we're becoming addicted to screens that have mindless content, and I thought how easily this content could be controlled, manipulated, rewritten, erased. Things that he'd written in the novel seemed to be happening right now or on the edge of happening in a new way."
It took the network several months to get the rights to the story and Bahrani a year to write the screenplay, a task he found daunting, having never adapted a book before.
The film was shot on location in Toronto over 43 days. Though the novel had no fixed geography, Bahrani opted for Cleveland as his setting, reasoning that the Ohio city is similar to the Illinois town in which Bradbury spent his early childhood. Most scenes occur at night, when the firemen's flamethrowers could create the brightest spectacles.
Bahrani suggested Jordan for the lead after seeing him in Fruitvale Station years earlier. "I thought he had the perfect quality for Montag, which was brute physical force and then something very internal, sympathetic, compassionate," he says.
Instead of the novel's everyday working man, Jordan's Montag is revered as a social media sensation. When he goes on graffiti raids, his exploits stream live, projected on the sides of skyscrapers so his admirers can shower him with emojis of approval.
Once his taste for fame and for burning sours, he aligns himself with a group that has hatched a Hail Mary plot to salvage the knowledge of the past. The penultimate scene delivers one last epic firefight between Montag and Beatty.
"I'd never done a film with visual effects or special effects," Bahrani says. "This is my sixth film, but it was probably twice the budget of all my films combined."
Another key book-to-screen difference was the subject matter being set ablaze. The original focused on white male writers, while the update widened its cultural scope. In designer Kyle Cooper's flame-filled title sequence and in scenes throughout the film, works by the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Wright and more added diversity to the ranks of classic — and therefore doomed — texts.
"Picking the books was one of the most exciting and most challenging parts," Bahrani said. "I wanted to use so many more books in the movie than there was room to put them. It was a very difficult and enjoyable process."
Bahrani has had to weather a backlash from the novel's loyal fans. The book touched generations of readers, many of whom bristled at the notion of characters and key plot points being changed or written out all together.
The director wasn't the first to rework Fahrenheit 451 for the screen; famed French director Francois Truffaut released a feature film in 1966. "Both my version and the Truffaut version seemed to have angered everybody in the world because neither have the Mechanical Hound in them," he says, referring to the menacing robotic attack dog the firemen used in the novel. "The same people who said, 'Where's the Mechanical Hound?!' also said, 'Why's there so much action in this film?!'"
Perhaps the film's Emmy nomination for outstanding made-for-television movie validates Bahrani's interpretation in the face of its traditionalist naysayers. Says the helmer, "I'll let time determine that."
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.