Media and entertainment have been stripped of thought and reduced to quick dopamine hits. Societal norms—whether that means popular thought or preferred means of communication—have been siloed in order to eventually be streamlined. And ever-present government surveillance watches over all of it, ensuring any resistance or counter-initiatives get ignored, eventually squashed, and ultimately presented to the public as another flawless victory.
No, technically that doesn’t describe America 2018. But the world of HBO’s new Fahrenheit 451 film adaptation (debuting this Saturday, May 19) doesn’t look unrecognizable. Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel has become a staple in grade school English curriculums for its futuristic yet timeless portrayal of things like government overreach, censorship, and the importance of diverse culture and thought. So adding details like ever-present interactive screens or bot voice assistants to both the real world and this fictional one only heightens this story’s inherent sense of relevance.
Unfortunately for anyone looking for a truly moving message warning against today’s darkest possible timeline, you may still need to head to Amazon (or better yet, Bradbury would likely argue, your local bookstore). Despite the high-profile casting of Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon and the obvious filmmaking prowess (and budget) on display visually, this made-for-TV film still feels like a made-for-TV film: at times cheesy and at times a bit on the nose with only a few truly gripping performances and moments sprinkled throughout.
Familiar story, shiny new accents
The new film’s setup should still be familiar to anyone who once even glanced at Fahrenheit 451 SparkNotes. Firefighter Guy Montag (Jordan) works for a local department with a very different purpose in this dystopian society. The federal government has instituted a policy banning various forms of culture—most prominently, books and the printed word, but film and music don’t seem welcome, either—and firefighters bear the responsibility for seeking out this “graffiti” contraband and eliminating it via flamethrower.
Happy citizens instead get all their information from The Nine, a government-controlled platform that mashes together several real-world inspirations (streaming video-ready social platforms, the Internet, communal media storage, chat and messenger apps). The Nine can be accessed on screens everywhere—the sides of skyscrapers, walls in the subway or your living room, personal devices. The platform even has a few (government approved) ebooks; hope you like The Bible and Moby Dick! When combined with Yuxie, an equally everywhere voice-assistant platform, those who follow the government can get what they want, when they want, wherever they want.
Not everyone loves being so constantly plugged in, however. This society sprang from a civil war over information, and those rogue individuals still trying to preserve diverse forms of media are called “Eels.” Obviously slippery, they operate in the shadows to disseminate “graffiti” amongst each other in the hopes of preserving it for now (even if it means hiding in Canada) and hopefully redistributing it within a more friendly future society.
Montag works for a true believer in the cause, Captain Beatty (Shannon). He has seen books before; he knows the danger. “The Eels want to measure their place in the universe, so they try these novels about non-existent people, or worse philosophers—one expert screaming down another expert’s throat, ‘We have free will; no, everything is predetermined,’” he lectures to Montag before one burn mission. “A man walks away lost, feeling more bestial and lost than before.”
And given his devotion, Beatty happily pushes the boundaries of protocol in order to achieve the ultimate mission of destroying all books. He uses an Eel named Clarisse (Sofia Boutella from The Mummy) as an informant, promising to reduce her sentence (your digital ID gets wiped completely, denying you a lot of access, if caught with graffiti) in order to learn where the next stash house may be.
One Clarisse tip eventually leads Beatty, Montag, and the team to a mother lode score, an older woman hoarding an entire library (“This is going to be the most important burn the country’s ever seen…” as Beatty puts it). But before springing into the flamethrower routine, Beatty goads Montag into touching and flipping through a book. And the woman seems oddly stoic, escalating her peaceful protest routine. Montag’s suddenly simple life may be about to encounter a true moment of complexity.
Making chicken salad out of…
Just re-reading that basic plot, the potential in any Fahrenheit 451 movie should be obvious. And HBO did well to not shortchange its chances of success. In addition to Jordan and Shannon, acclaimed indie director Ramin Bahrani helmed everything, and no budget seemed to be spared in bringing Bradbury’s world to life. You can nitpick this as yet another future dystopia where no one seems to ever turn on the lights, but this looks like a damn well-executed version of that vision. The sparse lighting choices always seem to pop, Zel Gel must be everywhere with the various live burn sequences, and the handful of hyper-techy set locations look believable throughout.
Where HBO runs into trouble mostly comes down to the script. Shannon has been on a hot-streak as of late with meaty roles in the TV series Waco or as the main baddie in The Shape of Water, but Beatty feels a little thin in comparison. And some excellent familiar HBO faces from the David Simon-verse show up later in the film, but they ultimately get very little to do in a comparably tiny amount of screen time.
But worst of all, the script even shortchanges Jordan at times. He has undeniably become one of the best actors of his generation, and there are sequences where the on-screen sentiment and sensation seem to live up to the original text’s stakes (a late sequence where Eels have Montag and tentatively bring him into communal space comes to mind). But there are just as many moments where the internal struggle his character supposedly endures feels like it happens in a hard-to-believe fast-forward. After tailing Clarisse back to her apartment to obtain some information, for instance, all it takes to make Montag question his beliefs and moral code is… some time with a harmonica and a well-put stump speech? ”After the civil war, the tech companies could predict our thoughts, then they sold them to us, which The Nine gives us in spades,” Clarisse says. “The ministry didn’t do this to us, we did this to ourselves. We demanded a world like this.” (That’s some Stay Puft Marshmallow Man ish, folks.) And if the Internet doesn’t turn Jordan’s ultra-serious delivery of “She lit herself on fire for books… why?” into a meme within the next week, our real-world version of The Nine hivemind has slipped.
Some of this adaptation’s changes also feel hollow, or less-than, in retrospect. Guy Montag (book) comes to several important realizations through interactions with his wife, Mildred, but she doesn’t exist here. If we need to fast-forward his emotional evolutions, doing so through his wife as a deus ex machina feels more believable than through this Eel he just met. The book world unfolds in a time period leading up to warfare and nuclear devastation, but the film takes place in the aftermath of a second civil war after which the regime currently in power took over and implemented its information-hostile platform. This leads to two seemingly major changes to the climax, which together kinda flip the tone of the story’s conclusion. (“The book is better” folks, brace for it. In this case, it may be hard to argue with that mindset.)
Back in the 1940s and 50s, Bradbury first wrote a short story and eventually the full Fahrenheit 451 in an admittedly different world: the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fresh on the mind, new government overreach in the form of McCarthyism, and memories of his own overzealous police encounter. Modern day, however, has eerily started resembling such an experience. Nuclear threats (and a mass society downfall) feel real again. We continue to live in the shadow of surveillance, the Snowden revelations from five years ago combining with an increased understanding about how much seemingly every tech and Web company knows about us. And government overreach or overzealous law enforcement has become the stuff of weekly news notifications.
HBO wisely chose to make Fahrenheit 451 now, formally agreeing to the production within a year of the 2016 election. It just didn’t make a version that merits attention as viewers navigate a signal and noise reality Bradbury himself would have likely deemed fiction.