With an ostentatiously anti-intellectual president in the White House, and a not too dissimilar motivation having driven the Brexit result, Ray Bradbury’s most celebrated novel – despite now being 64 years of age – has never been more pertinent. As part of its Dangerous Visions series, comprising adaptations of established dystopian future fiction alongside two brand new plays, Radio 4 are presenting Fahrenheit 451, a straight reading of the work abridged by Sara Davies into ten quarter-hour instalments.
It is, quite simply, terrific. The story of a near-future America massaged into an apathetic existence by suffocatingly anodyne home entertainment, and where reading has fallen out of fashion to the extent that it is now seen as inimical to the “happiness” of society, Guy Montag is a fireman – employed in the lighting of fires rather than the extinguishing of them – whose job it is to ensure that literature of any kind is kept out of the hands and minds of a listless population. But Montag is suffering a dissatisfaction with the emptiness of living with his abstractedly suicidal wife Mildred, brought sharply into focus by a “chance” encounter with his new teenage neighbour, the unorthodox Clarisse McClellan. When one of the victims of his fire-starting chooses to die with her books, Montag can’t help himself bringing his work home with him, an act that precipitates the unravelling of his dreary existence.
Davies’ invisible adapting of Bradbury’s prose punches the important beats of the story into largely self-contained chapters, creating a naturally episodic rhythm that constitutes a very easy listen. But it’s Alex Jennings’ narration that holds the attention, his non-native western drawl measured and hypnotic, a perfect fit for the material. It’s a choice that draws out the innate melancholy of Montag’s dawning self-discovery, and makes sense of Bradbury’s often lyrical word choices and unorthodox syntax in a way a full-cast adaptation would have missed. Instead we are invited into Montag’s consciousness, an initially almost empty place that fills as we listen, and as we learn about and understand the world he inhabits. Jennings casually defines each of the characters – including Beatty, Montag’s boss at the fire station and the nearest thing the story has to a villain – in a way that emphasises their superficiality, whether deliberate or unintentional, and quickly becomes compelling.
Davies and Jennings also pull out the ironies of Bradbury’s novel, happily self-referencing their own collusion in the building of a universe of sound-bite comprehension and snap endings, and are content to allow the bittersweet conclusion to draw its own parallels with our current reality. Fahrenheit 451 will be available on the iPlayer for about a month; we strongly suggest you seek it out, and re-engage with this classic made fresh.
DANGEROUS VISIONS: FAHRENHEIT 451 / PUBLISHER: BBC RADIO 4 / ABRIDGED BY: SARA DAVIES / READ BY: ALEX JENNINGS / BROADCAST: 3RD – 14TH JULY ON RADIO 4 FM, AVAILABLE ON BBC IPLAYER RADIO FOR 30 DAYS THEREAFTER