Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Titan Week - "Fahrenheit 451"


We're 4 days into the Titan Theme Week. We started with Shane Black. Moved on to Amanda Peet's husband, David Benioff. Then we tackled the dynamo writing duo of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. And today, we're reading ourselves some Darabont.

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: In a dystopian future, Firefighters start fires instead of put them out.
About: I don’t think there’s any question that Darabont is a true titan in this business. The Shawshank Redemption is one of those examples of screenwriting perfection. It does a lot of things most writers would tell you not to do. Its tone is depressing, it’s long and drawn out, probably has too many characters, depends too much on voice over, and doesn’t have a female lead. Yet it’s pure unadulterated awesomeness, and while credit obviously goes to Steven King, what Darabont did by taking one of King’s most unmarketable ideas and turning into an Oscar-nominated screenplay was pretty amazing. Darabont is easily one of the most respected writers in town. If a script needs fixing – not pampering or gloss, but actual fixing – this is the man that will come in and do it. – This particular script, Farenheit 451, has been in development for something like 25 years. Darabont’s adaptation of the material is believed to be one of the best unmade screenplays in Hollywood.
Writer: Frank Darabont (based on the novel by Ray Bradbury)
Details: 121 pages (September 2005 draft)

I have a secret.

I’ve tried to read Farenheit 451 on three separate occasions and couldn’t get past the first 10 pages. I’m sure you want to know why, so I’ll just come out and say it.

Robot dogs.

I’m sorry but I just can’t wrap my head around robot dogs. And I’m a sci-fi geek! Why would robot dogs ever need to exist?? If you need something that only dogs can do, why not get a real dog? But if something is so complicated as to require a robotic equivalent and you have the technology to create that robot equivalent, why not just create a robotic human instead? Doesn’t it make more sense in the context of what the human robot would be able to do? I understand this was part of the original novel, but in a post-Transformers world, robot dogs sound kinda lame.

The truth is, I chose this theme week specifically for this script, as I've wanted to read it for a long time, despite the robot dog issue. Lots of people who I’ve talked to love it, and I really wanted to at least say that I’d read the thing. So here goes.

Guy Montag is a fireman. But not the kind of fireman you and I know. Montag likes to start fires, not end them. In fact, all the fire departments we depend on when we accidentally throw a Wendy’s Chicken Club with the tin foil wrapper still attached into the microwave, have no interest in putting out fires anymore. Their purpose is to find people who still like to read a good John Grisham novel, and BURN THEIR HOUSE DOWN.

Cause in this future, the government hates books. Thinks they corrupt us. Brings out impulses we wouldn’t otherwise have. Man, if only these guys would’ve come around before Peter Jackson read The Lovely Bones.

Firefighters in this far off future, which by now is probably the far off past, since Bradbury wrote the novel back in the 1600s, are basically militarized. Their operation is honed and disciplined to take down offenders quickly, and to evoke a sense of fear in the community. We watch as they storm into houses, tear down walls and burst through ceilings to find these compilations of devil paper. And then burn them! If you don’t like it, you’ve got an angry robot dog to deal with.

Eventually Montag gets curious what all the fuss is about and sneaks home a copy of Lord Of The Flies. Even though he watches Lost every Tuesday at 9, the book is a revelation to him, and it feeds his curiosity for more. So now when Montag goes in with the crew to burn a house down, he stashes more books down his pants than The Situation stashes phone numbers. And the more he reads, the more enlightened he becomes.

Unfortunately, the Firefighter Chief starts getting suspicious of Montag, whose book reading has brought about a moodiness that didn’t before exist. People Montag has conspired with start getting caught, their houses burned and their families taken away. Montag’s wife pleads with him to get rid of the books, but he refuses. Eventually, Montag can't run anymore, and must face the consequences for his actions.

The problem with Fahrenheit is that the world has changed so much since 1953. As I listen to these characters confide in each other about how important or how scary books are, their plight doesn’t resonate on any level. I suppose there are some places in the world where Fahrenheit’s themes are actually still relevant, but America isn’t into burning books anymore and hasn’t been for a long time.

I’m not saying this couldn’t have been fascinating 50 years ago when people rode around on chariots. But today? The internet is essentially one giant book that we have access to 24/7. If Iran can’t keep its citizens from using Twitter, we ain’t going to be able to stop people from ordering the latest Dan Brown novel on Amazon. Not to mention Facebook! Can you imagine the outrage from the community if we destroyed Facebook?? The implications of a world without Farmville are too much to bear. The day I don’t know when my friend Alandra just planted a patch of strawberries is the day that civilization is dead my friend. The day it is dead.

But seriously, it’s an issue. Darabont doesn’t even mention the internet here, which implies we’re observing this through some sort of alternate future. And from what I understand, this is why lead actors like Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks keep dropping out. Trying to imagine a future without internet is like trying to imagine a future without cars and airplanes. How do you make that leap? This is not to mention music, TV and movies, which essentially pose the same problem as books, and yet for whatever reason aren’t held to the same standards.

Despite that, there’s still a lot of care that went into this script, a lot of love. And you can feel it on the page. The prose and the attention to detail are all top notch, and as a result, you’re able to ignore some of the problems. But in the end, the logistical issues run too deep, and I can’t see this being made without a major rewrite.

How would you rewrite it? I think you’d have to embrace technology instead of ignore it, and probably focus the script on the government wanting to destroy our access to all information, from the internet all the way on down to the written word, a true modern-day telling of the story. That could be interesting. Just please, for my sake, don’t include any robot dogs. :)

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: What I like about Darabont is he doesn’t write to impress you. He writes to tell the story, yet ends up impressing you in the process. So whereas a lesser writer might over-write their descriptions to try and impress the reader, Darabont makes sure that everything he describes is motivated. For example, here, he describes the fire truck starting: “The ENGINES START, a turbine WHINE exploding to a DEEP BASSO ROAR. Like a dragon waking up. Ready to breathe flame.” So descriptive. But not gratuitous. Remember, descriptions don’t sell screenplays. Concept, story, characters, and plot do. So resist that 8 line poetic description of how your character walks from his house to his car, and just tell the story instead.