Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani first read Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury's classic dystopian drama set in a future where history is banned and books are publicly incinerated – when he was a high school student.

But in his own life, like many of us, he has lived through he kind of technological revolution that would seem to confirm that books, in their digital form at least, will last forever.

Keir Dullea and Michael B Jordan in Fahrenheit 451.

Photo: Hooman Bahrani

"Fahrenheit 451 is a book you would get a lot in high school and college as required reading and when I thought about if somebody were to show up and start burning a lot of books, all I'd have to do is say, well, I can read all of the books right here and every piece of information just in this super-computer in my pocket," he says, pulling out his smartphone.

"But you start to get into how do you take Bradbury's themes, his ideas – which some of them he was so prophetic in – is happening now, and adapt that," Bahrani adds. "So it wouldn't be very hard to start to manipulate and control what's on the internet if things got more and more centralised."

Ray Bradbury's classic dystopian drama set in a future where books are outlawed.


Bahrani has now brought Bradbury's book to the screen, commissioned by HBO Films to write and direct a fresh adaptation of it.

Bradbury's own inspiration for the story came from stories of ancient libraries in Alexandria, Egypt, burning thousands of years ago, and from history's more recent, darker chapters, notably the book burning in Berlin under the reign of dictator Adolf Hitler.

"That grieved my soul," Bradbury once said. "Since I'm self-educated, that means my educators, the libraries, are in danger, and if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed."

And far from losing its relevance as a story of the burning of paper books in the age of the eBook, Bahrani says the themes of Fahrenheit 451 have only continued to grow in resonance.

Bradbury, he notes, was not just concerned about the burning of books. "He was very concerned about mass entertainment, he was concerned about Reader's Digest, he was concerned about quick, short sound bytes," Bahrani says.

"He thought all that was going to destroy the concepts of reading, of thinking, of knowledge, and of course, we see it now," he says. "I just have to pull out this super-computer again, and we can get into tweets and Wiki entries, which are basically even shorter versions of Reader's Digest."

We are all, Bahrani says, guilty of the thing Bradbury feared the most: just "reading the headlines". Worse, we have actually surrender control of the mechanisms which once existed to serve as checks and balances on the system in which we live.

"We've turned them all over, we've handed them over to Google, Facebook, the government," he says. "We have decided we don't want to have any participation in that. We're willingly giving it up."

That ominous observation – made doubly relevant in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandals – comes with one hopeful caveat. "I think hopefully a new generation is going to start to have a different opinion and I hope can bring those back," he says.

One of the most significant changes in the new film, Bahrani says, is that Bradbury's notion of the distant future is no longer that, but rather an "alternative tomorrow where the technologies that he described, they're right here, right now. There are AI super-computers that you can talk to … Alexa, or whatever the device is.

"So the movie isn't really set in the distant future of the way Bradbury had [seen] it. He was predicting things like people have screens on their wall or screens that you could interact with. Again, social media; again, super-computer in my phone. Those things are real now."

And the toughest part of the shoot? Actually burning books, he says.

"It wasn't easy to do," he says. "But as Bradbury says in the novel, he describes fire in many ways, and one of them is hypnotic. So there's something hypnotic about the fire in the film, and then, of course, very painful."

Picking the books to burn was equally tough, though he admits it was as much about choosing titles he loved as those he did not – as a strange homage.

"But picking the books still was very interesting," he says. "You know … I really wanted to burn Ferdowsi. [Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, the "Book of Kings".] It's an Iranian epic poem. I had to have that. Or I really wanted Toni Morrison, because I love Toni Morrison. So she makes a presence in the film."

There is even a cameo by Bradbury's own Martian Chronicles on one of the film's numerous pyres.

Because of copyright on a book's cover, many of the books burned, though real, had to have new cover artwork produced in order to be used. And pressed on whether the actual books burned were "good books" or less worthy pulp literature, Bahrani is coy.

"We shouldn't distinguish between good and bad books because if we're going to save the good ones, we should save the bad ones, and that's a very subjective question," he says, noting that The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – a self-help tome from Stephen Covey – is one of the most successful in literary history.

"If we tried to burn books all over the world, John Grisham, or Danielle Steel, some of those best sellers, you can't get rid of them. There are so many of them."

WHAT: Fahrenheit 451

WHEN: Monday May 28, Showcase, 9.30pm

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Michael Idato

Michael Idato is a Senior Writer based in Los Angeles for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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