I was ecstatic when I heard about this adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon. The novel is a classic and its message is significant to today’s world. Also, both men are phenomenal actors, and I was eager to see them join forces on such great source material. Writer and director Ramin Bahrami intended to bring this story into the modern internet age. I am a fan of modernized classics, so this further piqued my interest.
The movie takes place in a dystopian future where the government has outlawed books, movies, and other works of art, calling them graffiti. The internet does exist in the form of The 9 – a platform where information is only temporary. This world has an Orwellian tinge where Big Brother is always watching. All homes contain an Alexa-like device called Yuxie that is always on, recording video and audio. Firefighters enforce the ban on books and other graffiti by destroying anything they can find. Taking a further step away from the source material, there is an underground movement the government calls the Eels. The Eels’ task is to thwart the government and to bring the real information back to the masses.
This film owes a lot to the 1980s Blade Runner aesthetic. The cityscape is not as elaborate as Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, but it is definitely inspired by it. The buildings become public screens, displaying ads and other media. The seamless incorporation of The 9 into the homes of the citizens was a smart update to the concept of “The Parlor,” the wall-sized TV screens that dominate peoples’ lives in Ray Bradbury’s novel. Instead of focusing on mind-numbing “Family” sitcoms, The 9 seems to be a cross between Facebook Live and Periscope. Comments and symbols fly up the screen during every broadcast. These segments are where Michael B. Jordan shines as Montag. Montag is a social media star reveling in the notoriety he receives by waxing fanatical about burning graffiti. The film also made an interesting stylistic choice by showing the mindset of average citizens. Whenever Montag was on their screen, love and adoration poured out for him. The decision to light the interiors with neon was a great aesthetic choice as well. It felt futuristic, but also almost sickly with the yellow hues in the Fire Station or the sinister reds that lit Beatty’s office.
Michael Shannon was born to play Beatty. He might want a new challenge because he often plays this type of character, the authoritarian government type, but why mess with a good thing? Beatty is prone to impassioned yet ironic speeches. The subtle anger in Shannon’s eyes adds a layer of conflict to this character. It’s clear that he has taken a peek at the books he’s responsible for destroying. The film pushes this narrative further as Beatty writes down scraps of famous quotes on cigarette paper and then burns them. Shannon embodies the dichotomy of Beatty, a character with the tyrannical passion to burn and the simultaneous desire to maintain the status quo.
As mentioned, this HBO movie is a notable departure from Ray Bradbury’s 1953 work. Some of the changes make sense because our world has changed since the 1950s. It would upset citizens today if books were burned en masse, but they would still have the internet, films, and television. In the digital age, the destruction and censorship would need to be more widespread. But other decisions seem like senseless creative license intended to make the movie friendlier to a mainstream audience. Some characters from the original novel are missing, and they’ve changed other characters to add a semi-romantic subplot. The romance was unnecessary in this movie. It never felt crucial to the story the filmmakers were trying to tell.
There were also noticeable plot holes in the movie. Whether they were edits that Bahrami made to the source material or general screenwriting errors, I don’t know. The script assumes that you know the Eels are the counter-culture resistance group, but it doesn’t explain them very well. The Eels’ plan is to make information available to the masses again, but their plan doesn’t make any sense. When we’re introduced to them they seem to be uploading a bunch of e-books to The 9. The upload cuts off before it’s complete, then we learn about their ultimate plan later in the movie. This plan to spread information relies on information and location-embedded DNA. They entrust this to a bird who I presume should disseminate it to more birds? How is that supposed to bring knowledge back to the masses? The Eels’ plan is on par with something that Doctor Evil would cook up on a bad day.
The movie’s themes are relevant to the current cultural climate, but fans of the book will find little to like in this modernized adaptation. The ending of this movie is unsatisfying, even when you don’t consider the departures from the book. The wrong people die. The film tries to end on an uplifting note but leaves you feeling uncertain instead. It is entertaining to see the elements unfold but it doesn’t live up to the source material. Fahrenheit 451 is stunning and well-acted, but it leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.
2.5 / 5