Spoilers ahead. The HBO adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 arrives to the site on May 19, starring Michael B. Jordan as protagonist Montag. The film retains the book’s original message but tweaks the story to present a dystopian future that is, unfortunately, closer to our current society. In this take on Fahrenheit, the difference between those who follow the government’s anti-literature rules and those who rebel against them is more apparent, with the rebels in HBO's Fahrenheit 451 being called “Eels.”
In the movie, the symbolism of eels carries a negative connotation. Eels are meant to be seen as sneaky, slimy, and disgraceful causers of chaos — think Flotsam and Jetsam in The Little Mermaid. In the book, a similar symbol is used for the firemen instead of the rebellious literature lovers, likening the firemen to snakes. Bradbury wanted readers to make sure they knew that the firemen were the bad guys, sneakily manipulating society into believing literature is bad. The firemen weren’t directly referred to as snakes, but donned a snake in their fire suits, with Montag also describing the fire hose as a “spitting python.”
For the HBO film, director and writer Ramin Bahrani gets rid of the snake symbolism, making it less obvious how evil the firemen are. Instead, viewers are supposed to decide on their own who they root for: the firemen, who hold all the power and think they’re helping society, or the Eels, who are fighting against the system. By giving the rebels a name that is associated with something considered disgusting, like eels, this becomes a bigger metaphor for any marginalized group.
The Fahrenheit movie sees Montag having to decide whether he wants to remain in power by being part of the firemen, or challenge the power structure by joining the marginalized group that holds very little authority. The Eels play a larger role in this story than in the book, impacting Montag’s process of realizing the importance of literature. Instead of portraying Clarisse as an opinionated teenager like in the novel, for instance, the film presents her as a former Eel who becomes an informant.
When Montag reaches out to her for help explaining his first physical book, she returns to her Eel roots, bonding with Montag over literature. She then connects him with a group of rebel eels who have been exiled. Each Eel has memorized a book with cultural significance, as a way of preserving literature even when the firemen have stripped them off their literary rights. The Eels also prove to be a lot more powerful than believed to be, by being in possession of OMNIS, holding all literature and history in a strand of DNA.
Through his interactions with the group, Montag learns that they are not the gruesome outcasts his mentor Beatty made him believe they were. Instead, they’re kind, welcoming people who have found a way to preserve the things that matter to them the most and created their own community. Montag also ends up seeing that they’re more accepting and open-minded than his workmates, with the shared goal of creating a better future where everyone is free to have their own opinions. Once Montag has realized the power of literature, he decides to join the Eels. With his newfound appreciation for literature, he decides to do everything in his power to protect OMNIS —even if it costs him his life.
By referring to the group as Eels, the film shows how harshly they’re viewed by their society, a world where firemen get to be viewed as heroes. It might just make you root for the outcasts.