Lately it seems that every other work of pop culture is dystopian. Teen girl battles fights her peers to the death in a televised gladiatorial event. Teen boy runs through apocalyptic mazes. Grown ass women lose their right to act freely and are employed as baby-making handmaids. All of these works (The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Handmaid’s Tale, if you didn’t know) are adapted from books. But there are still some classic literary dystopias that have yet to get a modern film or TV update – where’s my Brave New World? My 1984?
At least we can check one adaptation off the list. One of the greatest literary dystopias ever is being adapted to a movie for the first time since 1966. On May 18, a movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 premieres on HBO.
In many respects, this won’t be the Fahrenheit 451 you remember from high school English class. From the looks of the cyberpunk-tinged trailer, the movie adaptation of Bradbury’s classic 1953 novel will feature some modern updates. Namely, it will feature computers, social media, holograms, and Michael B. Jordan as the story’s protagonist (yippee).
All special effects aside, the plot fundamentals will remain consistent between book and movie. And what are those plot fundamentals? Fear not. We’ll give you the update on Fahrenheit 451 you forgot you needed.
The original Fahrenheit 451 envisions a 24th century America in which books are illegal. And by books we mean all books, from the Bible to, say, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to the oft-banned Harry Potter series. Personally, we’d rather be imprisoned in the library of the Beast’s castle than live in this reality, but no one asked us. Instead of reading, people participate in interactive shows on massive, wall-sized TV screens, and listen to the radio with earbuds (imagined 60 years before Apple's EarPods, they're shaped like seashells) that practically never leave their ears.
Banning books is just one manifestation of this future society’s governing principles. Books represent freedom and independent thought — which are exactly what the powers that be discourage. Citizens are lulled into complacency through fast cars and cheap entertainment.
Because this authoritarian regime takes the book ban so seriously, "firemen" in this society actually start fires. Workers like Guy Montag, the book's protagonist played here by Jordan, spend their days burning books. The book’s name derives from the temperature at which books burn.
Montag doesn’t consider the implications of his job until he meets a 17-year-old girl named Clarisse McClellan (Sofia Boutella). Clarisse does something that no one ever has for Montag – certainly not his wife, Mildred, or his boss, Beatty (Michael Shannon). She makes him think. Clarisse, who is inquisitive and kind, asks Montag about the nature of his job. Essentially, she wants to know: What’s in the books? And soon, he wants to know, too. As Montag discovers from his interaction with Clarisse, this thirst for knowledge is a very dangerous thing. Once his curiosity grows, he sees the world around him in all its monstrousness. Instead of burning books, he starts to read them — and finds other people who are reading, too.
In the novel, Bradbury suggests that the books were banned due to a combination of two factors. First, people were overstimulated by other forms of entertainment, and lost the ability to concentrate on books. Then, as Beatty explains, books were eliminated to help people feel more equal. In the past, books had associated with snobbery. As society's priorities shifted to value visual media over verbal, Beatty explained, “the word 'intellectual' became the swear word it deserved to be.” Firemen are, as Beatty says, “custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior.”
HBO's Fahrenheit 451 has taken additional liberties with the original text: Mildred, Guy's wife, is not a character in the novel; nor is a "hacker" character played by YouTuber Lilly Singh. (Hackers didn't exist when Bradbury wrote his masterpiece.) Hopefully, the movie can still transmit and make fresh meaning out of the book's message — though, given the general disdain for TV he displays in the book, we're sure Bradbury have mixed feelings about the adaption airing on the small screen.