Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Fire Next Time: Fahrenheit 451

When bestselling author Susan Orlean decided to burn a book, she settled on a copy of a Ray Bradbury classic, Fahrenheit 451. Orlean, not normally a pyromaniac (or a book-burner), performed this stunt as part of her research for The Library Book, chronicling the Great Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986, in which 400,000 books were destroyed. Arson may, nor may not, have sparked the cataclysm. When she set Bradbury’s work aflame, Orlean discovered in herself “elation at the fluid beauty of fire, and a terrible fright at the seductiveness of it and the realization of how fast a thing full of human stories can be made to disappear.”  Her choice of Fahrenheit 451 for this experiment was apt: Bradbury’s novella, of course, predicts a future society in which books are illegal and must be burned to a crisp. (I’ll be leading a discussion comparing Orlean’s and Bradbury’s works tomorrow evening, as part of Santa Monica Public Library’s annual Santa Monica Reads program. Over Zoom, needless to say. Y’all come!) 

Bradbury wrote his novella early in his much-storied career, in 1953. It helped make him famous worldwide. In 1966, during an era of widespread youthful rebellion against the status quo, the story was filmed by François Truffaut, making his only foray into English-language cinema. Truffaut remained largely faithful to the Bradbury text, leading up to the shivery conclusion in which bands of rebels who have committed to memory the great texts of the past wander out into the snowy landscape that is a far cry from the decadent, book-free city. His one big change (intensely disliked by Bradbury) involved the casting of It-girl Julie Christie as both of the book’s two key female characters. At the center of Bradbury’s novel is a fireman, Montag, who discovers in himself the urge to read books instead of burning them. (The movie, much more European than American in feel, casts Oskar Werner in that role.) Early on, Montag finds inspiration in Clarisse, an ethereal neighbor with a great forbidden love for nature and the written word. She’s his dream-girl, but his wife Mildred is a down-to-earth harridan with a closed mind. Mildred feels enthusiasm only for the kitschy mass media doled out by the repressive society in which they make their home. (Apart from the otherworldly Clarisse, women don’t come off well in Bradbury’s novella, serving mostly as mindless shrews and pawns, not as authors or as the quiet rebels memorizing otherwise lost literary works. This is one of many ways in which Bradbury’s sometimes prescient Fahrenheit 451 is also pure 1950s in its mindset.)

Feeling that Truffaut had not had the last word about Bradbury’s novella, writer-director Rahmin Bahrani made it a passion project, which he brought to HBO in 2018. In part, his revisiting of the Fahrenheit 451 material is a triumph: his visuals of a nighttime city dominated by neon and huge public video screens smartly brings the Bradbury world into the 21st century. He has cut some the sillier aspects of Bradbury’s novella (the hideous wife, the lethal mechanical hound who pursues our hero), and his images of fire lapping at the pages of famous books (including recent titles by female authors like Toni Morrison) are hard to shake. Unfortunately, his grasp of his characters is less commendable. The crucial relationship between Montag (Michael P. Jordan) and his captain (Michael Shannon) remains ill-defined. And Bahrani feels compelled to introduce as a McGuffin a mysterious device called an “omnis” that provides a hopeful but unlikely ending. Too bad he got fired up but then lost his way. 

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