When I ask Ramin Bahrani, writer and director of HBO’s new TV movie Fahrenheit 451, why he thought the world needed another adaptation of the Ray Bradbury sci-fi dystopian classic when there’s already a François Truffaut version from 1966, he points to my iPhone and says, “This thing.”
Bradbury’s original 1953 novel imagined a United States that has outlawed books, which are referred to as “graffiti”; teams of “firemen” are tasked with burning them to suppress the dangerous ideas contained within. But two years ago, when Bahrani showed an early outline of his screenplay to a friend, the friend said, “I read this on my tablet, which has a million books on it — why do I care about burning paper books?” “It hit me: I have to answer this guy,” Bahrani says. “I threw that outline away.”
In the finished film, Americans have surrendered control of all information to the government and tech companies, and “graffiti” includes anything that might be preserved in a library, the cloud, or personal device — books above all, but also art, music, history, and the archived internet. The only media allowed is a social-network–slash–online-store called “The 9” — an endless, ubiquitous feed that disappears as soon as it passes, faster than an Instagram story. Also, citizens are monitored by a virtual assistant named Yuxie, who’s always watching and listening, and the firemen are social-media celebrities. (Guy Montag, who begins to question his work, is played by Michael B. Jordan, and Beatty, his boss, who has conflicts of his own, by Michael Shannon.) Inevitably, our president was an influence, too. Bahrani says that after Trump won the New Hampshire primary, he started “layering things into the script assuming he would win” the election, including fake news and raids on noncitizens.
Bahrani has a way with grim material — his 2005 debut, Man Push Cart, is about a former Pakistani rock star who sells bagels out of a Manhattan street cart and whose fortunes plummet from there, and his other films center on homeless orphans (Chop Shop), suicide (Goodbye Solo), and home foreclosure (99 Homes) — so I suppose I expected him to be a gloomy mope trailed by a personal rain cloud. But when he arrived to meet me on a recent Tuesday afternoon at Williamsburg’s Martha’s Country Bakery, the staff all seemed to light up at the sight of him. Two waiters came over to shake his hand, even though he’d just been there that morning, as he is most mornings, at 6 a.m., to write and eat cookies. “There’s one cookie I need after two hours to have energy to go two more hours,” Bahrani says. “It’s the powdered one with the pistachio inside.”
So maybe it’s just his entire worldview that’s gloomy. “My parents are from Iran,” he says by way of explanation. “It’s a tragic culture. Maybe too much so.” I ask if, in making Fahrenheit 451, Bahrani had been thinking about isis or the Taliban and their destruction of antiquities. “No,” he says. “We don’t need a Taliban regime or a Hitler regime. We are asking for these things on our own. I find this much more frightening.” Or, as one character in the novel puts it: The firemen are rarely necessary. “We voted for certain people to take control of our politics, of our economy, of our society, of our laws,” says Bahrani. “We ask not to have privacy. We ask to give all our information away. We ask to read only the headlines. We ask to respond with just a ‘like,’ and that’s our protest … ‘We’re the happiness boys, you and I,’ Beatty says to Montag [in the book]. They’re burning stuff to keep people happy.”
“There’s a lot of stuff we had in the script that unfolded [in real life] while we were shooting it,” Jordan told me when I met him on the film’s set back in September. “It’s fucking crazy.” They were on location in a postindustrial suburb of Toronto, which was doubling for a postindustrial suburb of Cleveland; to make it look more like America, they had to spread trash on the ground. On the concrete waterfront of Lake Ontario, doubling for Lake Erie, Jordan was using a lighter to examine a flame-singed copy of Notes From the Underground, the first book his character has ever opened. He said he clicked more quickly with Bahrani than with any director besides Ryan Coogler, with whom he’s made three films. Bahrani “did his research on me,” said Jordan. When they first met, “he told me about all the interviews I’ve ever done. I was like, That’s cool. And a little weird.”
Jordan said working with pyrotechnics was fun and likens his flamethrower to “a very dangerous Super Soaker.” But he was haunted by the scene in which a woman sets herself on fire to burn along with her beloved library. “It reminded me of the burning monk,” he said, referring to Thích Quang Duc, who set himself on fire in Vietnam in 1963, ten years after Fahrenheit 451 was published. “It made me want to believe in something that wholeheartedly. Could I ever be so mentally tough to do something like that?” (In an odd echo, the civil-rights lawyer David Buckel died by self-immolation in Prospect Park on April 14, to draw attention, he said, to environmental crises.)
“For Ramin, the engine of the story was the relationship between Beatty and Montag,” says Shannon, who played a real-estate eviction agent in Bahrani’s 99 Homes. “It’s what made it alive instead of just some stiff pedantic rabble-rouser.” Bahrani wrote his version of Beatty for Shannon, and he’s a more complicated character than the one in the novel — somehow assertively ambivalent, in the way that only Shannon can pull off. “Ramin has a lot of trust in me,” Shannon says. “It’s kind of remarkable considering the amount of time he puts into preparing a project, the amount of time he spends writing it, how willing he is to let it go.”
Bradbury has a loyal fan base that Bahrani hopes not to run afoul of, but the director did tweak his source material. When the trailer for Bahrani’s version appeared on YouTube, many comments amounted to: “I’ll be okay with this, as long as they don’t screw up the Mechanical Hound” — Montag’s robot nemesis for the second half of the novel. Well, there is no Mechanical Hound in Bahrani’s movie (as there wasn’t in Truffaut’s). Montag’s intellectual guide, Faber, is gone, as is Montag’s wife. In Bradbury’s novel, the character Clarisse is an innocent teenager who helps sow Montag’s doubts about his work and disappears soon after; in Bahrani’s film she’s an adult, played by Sofia Boutella, and a sort of double agent. “I think Bradbury allows that,” Bahrani says. (Bradbury himself wrote a stage adaptation of the book that revised the character of Clarisse and even collaborated on a video-game sequel to Fahrenheit 451 that was released in 1984.)
Bahrani was faithful where it counts, though: He torched lots of books, many more than made the movie’s final cut. Some books burned because they’d been burned in real life: Harry Potter, for example, because people threatened to light their copies on fire after J. K. Rowling started criticizing Trump. Other books had personal significance to Bahrani, like Persian poetry books by Hafez and Ferdowsi. “I was trying to burn books that I love and that are important, but you also have to sneak in, you know, a diet book, or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — that has to be saved, too, right? If you’re gonna save Camus, you have to save The Art of the Deal. Or we have Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book — I thought that would be good because Chairman Mao killed a lot of people, but that book should be saved too.”
Bahrani couldn’t get the rights to the artwork for most of the books he wanted to burn, so he hired designers to make new covers, and it nags him that he couldn’t show them all. “There should be a director’s cut,” he says, “where it’s all burning books.”
Fahrenheit 451 debuts May 19 on HBO.
*This article appears in the May 14, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!