Directed by Ramin Bahrani from a screenplay by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, the drama Fahrenheit 451, based on the classic Ray Bradbury novel of the same name, follows Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan), the most popular fireman in his district, whose job it is to achieve happiness and social harmony by burning books and ridding the world of art, photos and facts, in favor of emojis. While public burnings are broadcast to the city on giant screens on buildings, Montag begins to question his beliefs, as he becomes more and more intrigued by the written words that he’s supposed to wipe from existence. The film also stars Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella, Lilly Singh, Khandi Alexander, Martin Donovan and Dylan Taylor.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani talked about how he came to write and direct this adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, why HBO was the right home, how daunting it was to take on the work of Ray Bradbury, the changes made to the story, developing the look, collaborating with Michael B. Jordan and the cast, and his next project, The White Tiger. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: I’m such a huge fan of this book, and I really enjoyed this adaptation. It was a book that deeply affected me growing up because my father was a fireman until he retired, and I just couldn’t understand how the world would get to a place where it would twist everything so drastically. You’ve done some really interesting and different things with this adaptation. How did you end up writing and directing this?
RAMIN BAHRANI: Well, I’m glad you liked it because I was so worried. I changed so many things from the book that, from the second that I started writing it, I knew I was gonna anger a lot of people. I encountered the book in high school, in ninth grade, and it hits you hard when you read it. There’s something very scary about it, about the ideas in it, and about the character of Montag, and it always stayed with me. In 2015, I started thinking about the book again. I read it again, and was thinking that it seemed oddly and frighteningly relevant. So, I approached HBO about securing the rights to the book, and they managed to get them. I started writing the script in 2016. The concept of the internet, technology and social media were the things that I thought to be the real challenge, and they provided an opportunity to re-imagine it, change it, and make it relevant to a new generation. It was the first time, making a movie, where I was consciously thinking, “Would a teenager like this movie?,” and was hoping an adult would, too.
How much did you struggle with whether to change things or not?
BAHRANI: I had to change things. There are things in the novel that I love, that didn’t seem to work in a dramatic format, one of them being that Montag kills Beatty and there’s still a third of the novel left. I was like, “What am I gonna do? The climax has happened, and there’s still a third of the book.” There were real challenges, and I didn’t know what to do. I started to research a lot and discovered that Bradbury had adapted his own novel a few times, as a play and as a musical, and he changed things. He let Clarisse McClellan live. That was also an area in the novel that I was struggling with in the script. I thought, “Well, he let her live. He approved it in those versions, where he made changes.” That gave me some courage to change things and try to stay true to themes while making it relevant to a new generation.
It seems as though we’re in a world now where you’d almost have to make this as a period piece, if you were to adapt the story directly. It seems like there are certain things that have to be changed now, in order to make it relevant.
BAHRANI: Yes, because if I go to your house and burn all of your physical books, you would become upset, but you could download them again. And then, if I smashed your iPhone, you would just get another one and download them again, or you would go to someone’s house and download them again. So, I had to deal with that. I had to make other changes, too, just to match current times. I had to change some of the books to make them not just similar to the books that I read, but that a new generation and a new culture, are interested in.
Why was it HBO that you went to? What made you think they would be the right home for this?
BAHRANI: It was actually by chance. They had asked to meet me because of 99 Homes. We were just talking and I said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this book,” and their eyes lit up. It just happened that way. If I had been sitting down with somebody else that day, it could have been a different company, but I like them, I respect them and I like their work. I had head they were very artist friendly and idea friendly, and that they like to have controversial ideas or ideas that make you think, talk and engage. So, it worked and was fortuitous.
How daunting is it to take on the words and the world of Ray Bradbury, and how did you get past that, to do what you needed to do with the film?
BAHRANI: At a certain point, I did try to return the money and say, “Forget it!,” but my agent told me to just go back and just keep working. I had never adapted any book. This was my sixth movie, but my other five were completely original. It was already very difficult, but maybe a year or so in, the press leaked that I was working on this and I foolishly did what I should not have done, which is that I read comments. I realized that I should never do that again, and I’ve stopped reading. Please don’t be upset at me for saying this, but I haven’t read a review of my work since Roger Ebert died. I just stopped reading them, at that point. But I stupidly read the comments, and people were already angry that I was gonna change things. There were upset that they were not going to get a robotic dog, and that Clarisse McClellan was gonna live. They were already predicting things and were angry about them. I didn’t know what to do, but I just keep working. They can make comments. It’s okay, they can comment like they do in the film.