Burn Before Reading.
Fahrenheit 451, starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon, airs Saturday, May 19th on HBO. This is a non-spoiler review.
Based on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from 1953 – a classic dystopian-ception novel about a future society that burns books and culture akin to…well, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – this new souped-up HBO adaptation from writer/director Ramin Bahrani strains under the effort to make it fit neatly into our current political and societal strife.
Collapsing in its back half, this 2.0 version of Fahrenheit features Michael B. Jordan as Guy Montag, a future-era “Fireman” charged with tracking down books, or “graffiti,” within Cleveland and publicly burning them on a live broadcast feed for all to see – and rate. Like in the book, Montag begins to doubt the singular hardline “truths” he’s told by his superior, Beatty (a very Michael Shannon role, filled by Michael Shannon), because of a free-spirited young woman named Clarice (The Mummy’s Sofia Boutella). It leads him down a dangerous path of active rebellion in a society that has, more or less, self-chosen to be sheep devoid of opinions and, more importantly, ideological debate.
That’s almost where the true similarities to the book end, not that it’s important to have a page-by-page adaptation, but it’s because of the reworking here, the efforts made to sync this very basic, gimmicky, and important sci-fi story up with our current 2018 issues, that it borders on collapsing into overwrought nonsense.
Michael B. Jordan provides a potent, smoldering earnestness as Montag, who goes from a thought police thug to a curious crusader for free and abstract musings, but there’s something missing in the transition. Maybe it’s because you can see the wires pulling, and strings tugging, too hard. Montag is given trope-y flashbacks to ponder and they just don’t fully feel like enough to make him turn this huge corner. When his most noble first-step defiances get relegated to, basically, a montage, you realize this movie has more than a few script issues and that it really has no idea how the Montag from the start of the story connects to the Montag at the end.
Visually, the lustful lean into fire, paired with the stark dark uniforms of the Firemen, helps the film pop. In particular, in the third act, when it seems like most everything is ablaze, it nicely represents a society deathly afraid of returning to the days of differing opinions, counterpoints, and philosophical ponderings. Unfortunately, the glory and gusto of the fire shines an even brighter light on the hollowness of the story and the ineffective arc of Montag.
Bringing Fahrenheit 451 back, in 2018, seems righteous and right, especially given the success of horror show The Handmaid’s Tale (and even Children of Men from 2006), but the execution here proves to be as blunt as the Fireman tasked with burning Dostaevsky and Steinbeck.
The film’s almost too glossy for its own good, much like some of Netflix’s recent run of original sci-fi that provides lush visuals caked over rather empty cores. The choice to revamp this story, which was written well before computers and the internet, into something modernly relevant doesn’t gel. You get a lot of casual sci-fi chatter like “Stay Vivid on the Nine” and other notable future slang, but all that just works to make this story feel rather humdrum. The government targeting physical books as something evil and nefarious, which was a rather revolutionary premise when the story was written almost 70 years ago, feels goofy and clunky now.