There is a conversation near the end of Ray Bradbury’s original Fahrenheit 451 novel in which two characters discuss the quality of mankind through history. In essence, they ponder whether we, as a species, are like the famed Phoenix of myth—a legendary beast who will go through the cycle of self-immolation, destruction, and rebirth. Tyranny and ignorance giving away to enlightenment and reconstruction.
This faintly hopeful ribbon on an otherwise bleakly inescapable vision of dystopia is not repeated in HBO and Ramin Bahrani’s radically reimagined adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, but I suspect it was on Bahrani’s mind all the same. Because this film is most certainly an attempted restaging of that 1953 book’s timeless warning of a world without knowledge for a 2018 land ruled by the Know Nothingness of Donald Trump; a reborn vision of illiteracy in a time when knowledge is more accessible than ever, and yet “alternative facts” and “fake news” makes our society more distracted and ignorant.
When working in this wheelhouse, Fahrenheit 451 is a chilling and thought-provoking retelling for peak TV premium cable, even if as a film, it never quite flies as high as a Phoenix should.
In the movie, Bradbury’s future is reinvented as firemen are sent to start fires as opposed to end them. But in this new 21st century take on firefighters breaking bad, the career path has been turned into a lurid spectacle on “the Nine,” a state/Silicon Valley sanctioned version of the internet that allows a chosen few books to exist (namely Moby Dick, To the Lighthouse, and The Bible), and then elects to have all others burned for entertainment. Firefighters are the new reality TV stars of their day—public figures and media celebrities.
None are better at getting these books burned though than Michael Shannon as Capt. Beatty and Michael B. Jordan as Guy Montag, Beatty’s protégé and surrogate son. Together they spend most of their time burning computers and hard drives storing works as varied as Jane Austen and Vladimir Nabokov. That is until they find an actual honest to God book collection. Despite being practically raised by Beatty, Montag, who is every bit as introspective and anti-social as the good captain, has never seen a physical book when they discover the library of an elderly woman living outside their base city of Cleveland. Beatty marvels, “Take one last look. Your grandchildren aren’t going to even understand what a book is.”
But as the bonfire starts, and the woman whose collection is the kindling chooses to burn with her world of words, something snaps in Montag and he steals a copy of Notes from Underground. Haunted by his inability to understand it, he even turns to a comely “eel” (a book lover who’s been cast out of society) named Clarisse (Sofia Boutella). Clarisse warily helps Montag understand the book he was supposed to have burned, and aids his discovery of an underground community that is trying to find a way to save knowledge. Their solution, for now, is the stuff of sci-fi, but its appeal is real enough that Beatty will stop at nothing to burn them… even if his protégé becomes their de facto protector from the firefighter community.
This Fahrenheit 451 is again a very different animal. HBO and Bahrani’s story is smaller, and at times too small. Montag’s wife is excised from the telling, as are many of its subplots, but the sheer paranoia and indignation of a future distracted from reality is as potent as ever. In some ways more so, as much of Bradbury’s vision has already come to pass with the internet and social media literally killing the print industry.
In this vein, the film has some clever alterations that may imply all of our culture’s virtual obliviousness bears some responsibility for the death of thought. In one of Beatty’s many mesmerizing soliloquies, Shannon asserts that in a digital landscape with too many opinions, too many thoughts, and too many opposing ideas, everyone agreed after the Second Civil War there should be only one option. Or none. While the visage of artwork engulfed in flames is obviously informed by the nightmares of Nazis and the far-right nationalism of the 20th century, the fear of challenging ideas and the desire to silence anything potentially offensive or “triggering” has led to a Devil’s bargain between authoritarianism and social consciousness, creating a future where everyone’s agreed to simply lose themselves to technology.
2018’s Fahrenheit 451 works better when it’s looking at this bigger picture of our fall than when it is constructing a parable about a possible redemption. Narratively dense and textually heavy, the film nevertheless runs at a far too-brisk 100 minutes, not so much exploring plot points as plowing past them. In this way, the growing rift between Montag and Beatty practically manifests off-screen. The third act revelation of a “resistance” is, meanwhile, especially clunky in its introduction and exposition, suggesting either the screenwriter or HBO insisted on a conciseness that when finished now plays like a first draft. Similarly, certain intriguing elements Bahrani introduces to Bradbury’s world, like “the Nine” watching the fires, or the punishment of the arrested “eels,” feel as much of an afterthought as Montag and Clarisse’s romance.
But even if the grounds on which elements (mostly in the third act) are built feel rickety and flammable, the threat of fiery collapse is averted by two fantastic leading performances from Jordan and Shannon. As the center of the film, Jordan continues to persuasively argue he is one of the actors to watch in his generation. For even when the screenplay fails to adequately convey why Montag might hesitate, the actor’s effect never wavers. He carries us, sometimes seemingly single-handedly, through Montag’s journey, conveying his self-doubt and burgeoning intellectual curiosity in the face of constant demands of social fealty.
And as the face calling on this, Shannon is once again hypnotically captivating. After already playing Bahrani’s ugly countenance of capitalism in 99 Homes, Shannon’s Beatty gets a much beefier and intriguing part than that in the book. It is easy to imagine in another life, Shannon’s Beatty would have been an author or poet himself, and while constantly demanding Montag’s loyalty, he’s also curiously baiting him to give in to the lure of literature. Shannon’s self-loathing turn suggests he long ago indulged in many a book, which makes his hypocrisy toward eels and “son” alike peculiarly human.
There is an intelligence in how Fahrenheit 451 partners Jordan and Shannon, as well as an implicit subtext of a white man compelling the subservience of a black son, and all others who don’t fit a supposedly “great” American canvas, like the French-Algerian Boutella. Similarly, the choice of literature showcased, such as existentialism instead of the Bible being what reclaims Montag’s mind, leads to an open question about the role of knowledge in the modern world (and a notable broadside against religion since the Bible is one of the few books not banned here). This modern re-contextualization of Bradbury’s story is one of the many savvy choices that make HBO’s 21st century Fahrenheit a worthwhile one.
It is too easy to observe the irony that the film does not live up to the mastery of the literature-loving book on which it’s based. But for any missteps, Fahrenheit 451 rekindles the flame of eternal horror of a society that would sooner burn books than read them. Or just elect to ignore them altogether. By recasting the hue of its glow to a time when folks would rather not be bothered by facts at all, and truth is burning sans the flamethrowers, Fahrenheit 451 circa 2018 looks into the flames and sees us. By forcing viewers to concede this reflection, the story remains ever so hot to the touch.