Ray Bradbury on Fire

Rumor has it that Hollywood is planning to remake Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, perhaps as early as 2007. Truth is, this is nothing new. According to the IMDb website, Mel Gibson was originally going to star in a revamp a few years back (he would have also directed), but has now passed on the project. Additionally, Brad Pit was once considered for the lead role of Guy Montag. I can just see it now: Mel and Co. getting into hot water again for turning the tale into some manner of offensive social statement — or worse, Brandjolina and kids flying in from (pick your third world country) so that ‘daddy’ can film a few scenes before jetting off again to save the world with Angie. Thankfully neither one of these debacles will take place.

Fahrenheit 451 was helmed for the first (and so far, only) time in 1966 by French director François Truffaut, who became obsessed with making the film after reading the book. Apparently it took a bit of convincing to get author Ray Bradbury to give him the rights; Bradbury wanted his collection The Martian Chronicles to be made, instead (also alleged to be coming sometime in the near future). When Truffaut couldn’t find enough financial backing to support the project in his native France, he went to the big American studios for the money. The result was his one and only Hollywood production. Naturally, there was considerable interference by ‘the suits’ and in the end, the experience was so bad that Truffaut is said to have wanted to forget it altogether.

As a film, Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 is not horrible. I rather enjoyed it, in spite of the slow pace. The cinematography is impressive in its depth and detail: the society in which the characters live is depicted as lackluster (everyone is anesthetized by pills and television), but scattered within are a few colorful details, like the central image of brilliant red fire engines. Oddly, there are no splashy special effects. Instead, Truffaut concentrated his narrative efforts on getting across the political message of the book. Bradbury was impressed. After seeing it, he said that Truffaut had “captured the soul and essence” of the novel.

I’m surprised then that, as a project, a Fahrenheit remake hasn’t been batted about sooner, especially in light of all the dystopian films made in the last 30 years (A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Escape from New York, Brazil, just to name a few.) It’s funny to imagine mainstream Hollywood taking on this subject matter, since it grapples with the dumbing-down of society via the media. In fact, the underlying message is that we need to be reading books rather than wasting our brains on simplistic entertainment offerings. Talk about irony.

For anyone unfamiliar with the novel (first published in 1953) Fahrenheit 451 takes place in the future where all literature is banned. Books, which the government believes will promote free thinking, are burned by “firefighters” who light blazes instead of putting them out. One such firefighter is Guy Montag (played in the Truffaut film by Jules et Jim‘s Oskar Werner), who begins reading and hoarding the books he’s supposed to burn. As a result, he faces severe consequences from the social structure he was originally hired to protect.

It’s said that Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 partly in reaction to the paranoia besieging the United States during the ’50s, when McCarthyism took hold. The book also makes obvious allusions to the book burnings in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s witch hunt of writers in the Soviet Union around the same time. No doubt censorship and the loss of privacy were the book’s main themes, and when reading it now, these subjects are still relevant. With recent developments like the Patriot Act and the ridiculously high FCC fines that caused Howard Stern to finally throw in the towel on public radio, the novel seems almost new.

Truffaut was equally intrigued by the book’s subject matter, yet by the time he made the film, another added dimension developed. The United States was bracing itself for race riots inspired by the Civil Rights movement. Consequently the striking images of ‘fire enveloping ideas’ as presented in the film were powerful and prophetic. Fahrenheit 451 also addressed the ’50s and ’60s social class of non-working women. It was a depressing vision of housewives numbed themselves with sleeping pills and television as the high velocity of everyday life chugged along inside suburbia. Despite the number of years that have passed since the time the book was written and the film made, the ideas expressed are still pertinent. Women may be a major part of the workforce now, but society has sped up and replaced individual thought and reflection with a frantic rat race and a wide array of mindless mass media. It looks like, either way, no one wins.

In a Wired Magazine interview, Bradbury said, “Almost everything in Fahrenheit 451 has come about, one way or the other — the influence of television, the rise of local TV news, the neglect of education. As a result, one area of our society is brainless. But I utilized those things in the novel because I was trying to prevent a future, not predict one.”

Which makes a remake all the more interesting, especially now. Despite all the people who read nothing but cereal boxes, books have been hot news lately. There’s been The Da Vinci Code plagiarism trial, Oprah reaming James Frey on national television for not living up to “truthiness”, and most recently, the chick lit thief Kaavya Viswanathan apologizing on The Today Show for unconsciously stealing prose originally written by Megan McCafferty. It seems that every time you turn on the news lately, an author is being interviewed about their most recent literary scandal.

Bradbury has been a hot commodity as of late. Last year, a film adaptation of his short story, “A Sound of Thunder” was released. Sadly, it met with dismal reviews. He’s also adapted his short story collection, The Illustrated Man for the Sci-Fi Channel. It all comes on the heels of the news regarding The Martian Chronicles (said to be in development by Universal) and the Fahrenheit 451 redux. Supposedly slated for release next year (2007), it will be helmed by Frank Darabont, writer/director of The Shawshank Redemption, so perhaps there’s hope for the project, after all.

Despite being a big motion picture fan (he’s a member of the Academy), Bradbury is skeptical about recent mainstream Hollywood. During a writer’s colony talk at a Barnes and Noble in 2002, Bradbury said, “Film studio executives are too young — learning to write requires decades of practice” and “Hollywood has sacrificed storytelling on the altar of special effects.” While discussing Hollywood’s habit of relying on big explosions and pyrotechnics, Bradbury said this to a panel of Tinsel Town F/X experts:

“You do fireworks. And I love fireworks. I love to be in Paris on Bastille night by the Eiffel Tower, with all the fireworks going off, celebrating the failed French revolution. But when the wind blows, the sky is empty. All that lovely fire, all those lovely cathedral patterns, blown away in the wind. That’s you.

“That’s what’s wrong with so many American films. For Christsake’s, get someone with a brain to put in the center of the fireworks so that when the wind blows the fireworks away, the idea’s still there. I don’t ask for a high and mighty subject. Just give me a little idea. A tiny one.”

Nicely put, Mr. Bradbury. You took the words right out of my mouth.