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Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 seemed ripe for an updated adaptation, as a story about a futuristic American government that says knowledge—not provided by the authoritarian regime itself—is contraband, and declares the acquisition of such information treasonous. In this Ramin Bahrani-directed take, viewers are thrust into a social media-driven near-future where so-called “firemen” led by Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) and his young successor Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) burn all unapproved art.
It seems straightforward enough for the HBO film, even without having read the novel, (unscientifically) named by “the temperature at which book-paper catches fire, and burns.”
While you’d like Fahrenheit 451 to shine through its problems, the film is ultimately fraught with unnecessary jumps, conclusions, and reaches—which become hard to ignore and downright comical. Behind the beautifully shot veneer and potential lies a half-baked plot that makes radical departures from the novel, and even the tangible chemistry between Jordan and Shannon can’t save it.
First, the destruction of books is worrisome as a plot device. The firemen are called out to destroy books with high-tech flamethrowers. Wouldn’t just rounding up the books, art, and other materials for mass incineration be the obvious course of action for extensive destruction? While understood that there’s a shaming action with public erasure, it remains a gigantic waste of film time.
The bizarre, semi-omnipotent state apparatus—it’s revealed entirely too late into the film—was established following an unseen second civil war, hastened by the nebulous human difference of opinion, which is determined to be the principal enemy of the state. We’re asked to believe the public asked for censorship laws and state violence against unregulated dissent, accepting the words of a renegade who befriends the truth-seeking Montag.
Though smart cameras with ultra-high-end deductive capabilities watch from everywhere, Montag gets around with relative ease—there are even unexplainable jumps in time where he’s magically in another location, or inexplicably ahead in time. Even the use of social media is a clinky tie-in. The Nine is the state’s Twitter and 24-hour news channel aggregate, providing a real-time annotation to what the drugged-out viewer is seeing. (Apparently, this is a future where eye drops, with a combination sedative and obedience-inducing compound, are taken by the public.)
The most significant issue proves to be a suspicious lack of proper motivation for Montag. The reveal of his father’s backstory, along with his wildly spotty read of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, supposedly put Montag in place to dump his career within a few days. Suddenly, he’s ready to execute a fellow fireman to prove his hasty allegiance to the rebellion.
Shannon’s talent can’t save Beatty’s character, for whom there’s nothing to attribute his hard and fast neuroses involving power and loyalty to. Although his lies and racial false equivalence could be clues, he doesn’t work as a credible villain.
Fahrenheit 451 features Bahrani failing to suitably prop up the source material with subtlety, ham-fisting it toward a self-righteous warning to the viewer about the rise of authoritarianism in the West. As a result, the book’s allegorical energy falls into the void.
Kahron Spearman is a music and film critic whose work can also regularly be regularly found in the Austin Chronicle.