Burn, baby, burn!
So I did a lot of flying around the last few weeks, and I had the chance to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which was phenomenal. I loved it! When I’m involved in a big project, as I was last month, I’m riddled with ADD. It’s a struggle to focus on anything other than the project, but F451 held my attention from beginning to end, an amazing feat. It’s actually quite short, about 173 pages. One could easily get through it in one sitting (or a long flight). Then I watched the 1966 film adaptation by Francois Truffaut, which I’ll cover in a bit. You can also see the film instantly on Netflix. After that, I sat down to read Frank Darabont’s September, 2005, screenplay adaptation.
A FIERY BOOK ON BOOK-BURNING
There are many aspects about the book that I loved. In fact, it evoked a wide range of screenwriting thoughts.
You can get a summary of the story here.
First, I loved Ray Bradbury’s style. Wherever the story took him, he always capitalized on the heightened emotions of the moment, which is what we do, too. Consider these opening paragraphs:
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.
He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.
Here’s another aspect I loved – the protagonist. Did Bradbury tell his story from the perspective of a sad, sympathetic victim who had all of his (or her) books burnt by the firemen? No. Bradbury gave us Guy Montag, a man who on the surface is very unsympathetic in his actions because he’s one of the bad guys! He’s a fireman who burns books!
But by giving us Montag, Bradbury cuts deeper into the heart. While Montag puts on a strong façade with his concentrated vigor about his job and seemingly unwavering belief in what he does, Bradbury carefully charts his inner turmoil and feelings of despair and need for something more out of life. That is the great power and glory of literature, and that is what’s at the heart of F451, the loss without books, the lack of creativity, imagination, free thinking, intellectual satisfaction, a sense of higher purpose and meaning to life.
This is also the very reason F451 would be a difficult book to adapt for the big screen because what makes the book so powerful is the inner turmoil of Montag which cannot so easily be seen on the surface.
So let me ask a question – is Guy Montag empathetic or sympathetic? Do I feel sorry for the fireman who burns books? Nope. At least, not until I understand him and his little world and the feelings he’s feelings. Only then can I appreciate the point of Bradbury’s tale, and root for Montag’s transformation. But that’s the essence of a transformational arc, isn’t it? One must be unsympathetic to a large degree before one can transform, am I wrong? Let me ask another question: is Guy Montag “like me?” No, not at all. Have I ever been in his shoes? Nope. I can’t say I’ve ever burned books or been part of an evil force like the firemen. But can I put myself in his shoes and understand his feelings? Yes. THAT is the power of great writing.
Another aspect I loved – elements of visual storytelling. In the opening, Montag walks home, encounters little Clarisse, a neighbor and teenager, who challenges his thinking about life, about burning books, and asks him the all-important question, “Are you happy?” Montag goes home, which is dark and dreary, to find his wife nearly-dead after taking too many pills. The medics revive her. As she’s resting peacefully, Montag looks out his window and sees Clarisse’s home. I loved the visual contrast between his home and hers:
Laughter blew across the moon-colored lawn from the house of Clarisse and her father and mother and the uncle who smiled so quietly and so earnestly. Above all, their laughter was relaxed and hearty and not forced in any way, coming from the house that was so brightly lit this late at night while all the other houses were kept to themselves in the darkness. Montag heard voices talking, talking, talking, giving, talking, weaving, reweaving their hypnotic web.
Another visual aspect that cannot go un-mentioned is what saves Montag toward the end. When he falls under the spell of books, when Captain Beatty catches him, when all hell breaks loose, when Montag finds himself on the run, the whole city looking for him, and the mechanical hounds are hot on his trail, what saves Montag? Water. The river. The antithesis of fire. Montag’s visual baptism of renewal.
Another aspect I loved – the subtext in the dialogue. Bradbury didn’t write heaping volumes, but careful consideration went into the few scenes he gave us. There were quiet moments of subtext, more specifically, denial about the emptiness they’re feeling, like the conversation Montag had with his wife, Mildred, the morning after her near-death experience from taking too many pills.
She watched his lips casually. “What about last night?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“What? Did we have a wild party or something? Feel like I’ve a hangover. God, I’m hungry. Who was here?”
“A few people,” he said.
Their lives were a lie. He was feeding the lie. She was ingesting the lie and embracing status quo. And when, toward the end of part one, Montag sought to address their emptiness by reading books, Bradbury gives us a scene between Montag and Mildred of heart-wrenching high drama where Montag tries to convince her to go on this journey with him to read books and figure out for themselves if they’re evil.
Mildred backed away as if she were suddenly confronted by a pack of mice that had come up out of the floor. He could hear her breathing rapidly and her face was paled out and her eyes were fastened wide. She said his name over, twice, three times. Then, moaning, she ran forward, seized a book, and ran toward the kitchen incinerator.
He caught her, shrieking. He held her and she tried to fight away from him, scratching.
“No, Millie, no! Wait! Stop it, will you? You don’t know… stop it!” He slapped her face, grabbed her again and shook her.
She said his name and began to cry.
“Millie!” he said. “Listen. Give me a second, will you? We can’t do anything. We can’t burn these. I want to look at them, at least look at them once. Then if what the Captain says is true, we’ll burn them together. You must help me.” He looked down into her face and took hold of her chin and held her firmly. He was looking not only at her, but for himself and what he must do, in her face. “Whether we like this or not, we’re in it. I’ve never asked for much from you in all these years, but I ask it now, I plead for it. We’ve got to start somewhere here, figuring out why we’re in such a mess, you and the medicine nights, and the car, and me and my work. We’re heading right for the cliff, Millie. God, I don’t want to go over…”
Three other aspects of the book that I must praise:
1) You had a great and powerful antagonist in Captain Beatty. Let me hearken back to the words of Hitchcock, a story is only as good as its villain, and Beatty is one of the best. He was not simply a man of power, a man who could burn you out and send you to jail, but he was also an intellectual force to be reckoned with on the topic of book-burning, which Montag was ill-equipped to debate. Beatty had seen a few books in his time and read a few and could so easily quote the books he condemned so fervently as leader of the firemen. There was also in Captain Beatty the subtle, yet fascinating, element of self-destruction that was evident in so many other book-lovers. The quotations from books was a clue to his own need for books. Interestingly, a few years after F451 was released, there was a theatrical play, and Bradbury wrote a new scene where Captain Beatty invites Montag to his house and he shows him walls of books.
2) High tension. This single factor alone kept me glued to the book and one cannot over-emphasize the value of great tension in a story. Montag was doing something illegal. You had the nearness of the powerful antagonist, and the immediate, constant threat of being caught. Their very lives were at stake. Their very souls were at stake. You can’t raise the stakes higher than that.
3) Quality treatment of exposition. Do you remember the section in the Raiders Story Conference in which we talked about exposition? Indy was in Cairo with his friend. We're at a scene that we know will be full of exposition, that is, the Staff of Ra was too long for the Germans and they’re digging in the wrong place. So the question was, "what are we going to do to make the scene interesting so the audience doesn’t fall asleep?" And the idea was presented that this exposition could be done over dinner that’s been poisoned. Remember that? I’ve said this repeatedly: great exposition is always spoon-fed to the audience in the context of something else. Well, I couldn’t help but notice that this is exactly what Bradbury did in his book. Brilliantly, in fact. In a scene in which Beatty explains why they burn books, Bradbury feeds the exposition in the context of Montag at home, pretending to be sick in bed but in reality spending the day reading books. He has Captain Beatty visit Montag at home under the pretense of the concerned Captain for his sick fireman but in reality suspicious that Montag is reading books. Montag keeps a book hidden under his pillow, which Mildred finds in front of Beatty and almost reveals as the Captain explains why they burn books. Like the way The Raiders scene kept us on the edge of our seats, this scene was likewise as tense because everything was so close to being taken away from them as we get the exposition fed to us. I loved it!
THE 1966 FILM
To be polite, Francois Truffaut’s 1966 F451 adaptation, his first in English and in color, has not aged well. At times, the film is unintentionally hilarious. The set designs are quite amusing. Ultimately, Truffaut was weak in so many areas that were the strengths of the book – he had lack of tension, poor exposition, no subtext, light drama, weak antagonist, and worst of all, Montag’s inner turmoil was poorly expressed in the film. You never got that sense that he was struggling. Thus, his transformation to read books felt so sudden as to be just a plot device because it didn’t feel rooted in his character.
Clarisse, Montag’s neighbor, was transformed into a middle-aged women and played by Julie Christie, who also played his wife. Truffaut tried to turn Clarisse into a love triangle, as if this quirky, bookish, intellectual women is the one Montag truly loves and needs compared to the beautiful yet empty wife. This didn’t really work for me. Very little in the film worked for me, actually, with the exception of the ending, and there were two aspects I truly loved:
1) At the end as in the book, Montag finds himself in the woods with a group of people who wander around reciting books in order to remember them until the time comes that the ban is lifted. What Truffaut did was bring back a lot of characters from earlier in the story into this group of wandering book people, particularly Clarisse and the apple-eating man who was the first burn victim. In the book, Clarisse goes missing, perhaps dead under mysterious circumstances. Bradbury was said to have been pleased with this change.
2) I didn’t think that people wandering in the woods reciting books would play well as an ending, but, especially during the final shot of the film, I must confess – Truffaut made that moment very touching.
THE FUTURE FILM & DARABONT’S 2005 SCRIPT
This film has been in the works for many years, and you can get a breakdown of its long history here. Mel Gibson was involved for years to play Montag and then to be director. Scripts were written by Ray Bradbury, Tony Puryear, and Terry Hayes.
We even have some concept art available (above and below). That fire truck looks like a salamander, doesn’t it? I love it!
Let me just say that this is easily the best script I’ve read so far this year. The handling of the story is right down the line everything I would’ve done had I landed this assignment. It’s everything I would want to see in an adaptation of the book. Every strength in the book that I listed at the beginning of the article is evident in the script:
– The emphasis on the inner turmoil of Montag. Here, the filmmakers trust the face and take the time to show us Montag’s feelings.
– The powerful antagonist. In fact, Captain Beatty’s role is so juicy, it has the potential to give a lucky actor an Oscar nomination. Consider the fact that he’s the leader, the force pushing the fireman, while also being a secret lover of books, and one who wishes for his own self destruction. Imagine conveying those subtleties in the dialogue.
– The thick tension. The stakes are as high as humanly possible. Lives are at risk. In fact, the scenes I shared from the book, the ones with subtext and high drama, are in the script. Not only that, I want to mention that the tense scene of exposition in Montag’s bedroom in which Captain Beatty explains why they burn books is also in the script. However, the scene brilliantly moves from the Bedroom to the Parlor (with the three walls of huge TV screens) to be given the most visual treatment imaginable alongside Beatty’s monologue.
– The setups and payoffs were carefully constructed, such as the mechanical hound, who appears in the opening burn sequence in the film, sniffs out Montag’s hidden book in the middle of Act Two, and plays a big role during the chase sequence in the Act Two climax. You have to establish how scary the mechanical hound is first before you can deliver an effectively tense chase sequence. There was also the crucial self destructiveness of the book-lovers which leads to the death of Captain Beatty as well as the destruction of the city.
– True to form, the script opens with a big bang, a big Hollywood treatment of firemen responding to an alarm and burning out another citizen who has been harboring books. But as I mentioned many times before, my “Big Bang Theory” of screenwriting says that any film that opens with a big bang must close with an even bigger bang. There’s no question this script lives up to its promise of a big ending.
– Like Truffaut’s adaptation, many key characters are seen again when Montag joins the book-reciting wanderers in the woods.
– The dialogue’s fun. Here are some words from the opening sequence on the Salamander as they go to burn someone out.
CAPTAIN BEATTY: Good for you, Montag!
MONTAG: What, sir?
CAPTAIN BEATTY: That grin! The fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame!
MONTAG: I love it, sir!
CAPTAIN BEATTY: I know you do, son.
– It’s a very high energy script. Just feel the vigor in this passage:
Captain Beatty sees the husband and wife in custody. His attention goes to the children, staring at the flames with tear-streaked faces. He crouches, gentle:
Here’s a good lesson for you
children. You’ll remember this.
(brushes little girl’s cheek)
Be good citizens.
Here’s a good lesson for you
children. You’ll remember this.
(brushes little girl’s cheek)
Be good citizens.
turn to the house. Montag takes lead position, fires a flamethrower blast through the front door.
INT. HOUSE – NIGHT
There’s an awesome beat as the kerosene fumes ignite, the very air itself catching fire… followed by a stunning SERIES OF BOOMING DETONATIONS hurtling down hallways and through rooms, funnels of flame ROARING like living things, shattering glass and peeling walls, eating piles of books.
EXT. HOUSE – NIGHT
The living room EXPLODES, blowing the windows out into the street, staggering Montag back on a concussion wave of heat.
The other firemen join in, hosing the house with flame from all directions. EXPLOSIONS punch through the roof, blow out the walls, hurl enormous BALLS OF FLAME into the night sky.
backs away with the others, seared by the heat.
CAMERA CLOSES IN on him as he snaps his protective faceplate up and wrenches his breather mask aside, wanting to feel the heat on his goddamn face. Exhilarated. Worshipping the flame…
MM’S THREE SUGGESTIONS
1) Millie’s betrayal. In the book and in this script, I always felt that Millie’s betrayal was never given its due. This has the potential to have a much bigger, stronger, emotional impact than it does. I think that the key is how Montag reacts to her betrayal. If he feels absolutely devastated, so will the audience.
2) I never for a minute believed that a) sirens would’ve gone off in the event of an attack in the city, which is inconsistent with the theme of keeping the citizens in intellectual darkness or b) that Millie would’ve gone to the window to see what’s going on before the missiles hit the city. She would’ve been glued to her TV screen, and that makes a bigger statement, I think, about not seeing the coming dangers. Montag’s firemen, though, would’ve watched the missiles coming.
3) The final shot, which were the reflections of the nuclear holocaust in a tight closeup of Montag’s eye, was never earned in the narrative. I think you have to set that up first. In fact, you need a shot in the opening, perhaps reflections of a house burning on Montag’s mask, to mirror the shot in the closing. At first, he saw the world through his mask, and in the end, he was seeing the world through HIS EYES.