Why is HBO's Fahrenheit 451 so bad?
Fahrenheit 451 should’ve been a home run.
The HBO film (airing Saturday at 8 p.m. ET) has great source material, adapted from Ray Bradbury’s anti-intellectual dystopian classic. It’s written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, the essential American indie filmmaker behind Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. The leading man is Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan, one of Hollywood’s most exciting actors, the kind of fiery presence who can steal a superhero movie from its superhero (or a Rocky movie from Rocky.) He’s surrounded by a fine cast: Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella, Khandi Alexander.
Even the best people make bad films, but what’s disappointing is that such a coalition of talent has produced a film this inconsequential.
Certainly, the basic concept remains important 65 years after the book’s publication. In a dark future, a man named Guy Montag (Jordan) is employed as a “fireman.” But he’s fanning, not extinguishing. The central government has declared books illegal. The printed page is now “graffiti,” and owning any book is a capital offense. Guy and Captain Beatty (Shannon) stormtroop their way through a futuristic Cleveland, gleefully incinerating every book they find.
One obvious foundational problem comes to mind: Bradbury wrote his book when the printed page was still sacred, a lost world before computers and e-books. In his adaptation, Bahrani has tried hard to modernize Fahrenheit, but every element of this modernization is unconvincing to the point of ruin. In the film, society obsesses over a version of the internet called “The Nine,” and Guy is a kind of fascist YouTuber, livestreaming the bookburnings for the greater glory of likes.
This could be darkly funny, since “burning great works of literature in a giant bonfire” seems like something Logan Paul would do on a Tuesday.
But you can’t just add social media to Fahrenheit 451 and assume the main point still stands. And the version of the internet Bahrani renders here is beyond goofy.
There are multiple sequences where we cut back to an extreme wide shot of Cleveland, and see Guy and the Captain’s faces are broadcast live onto skyscrapers. It’s one of many goofy visual ideas that makes this future feel punishingly familiar: Aiming for Blade Runner 2049, they landed on Total Recall 2070.
From what we can see, people in the future do nothing but watch what Michael B. Jordan is doing, which sounds less dystopic than aspirational. Even the worst Black Mirror understands how people use the internet, extrapolating our contemporary relationship with digitality forward. By comparison, Fahrenheit 451 vacillates between being dangerously old-fashioned and witlessly ranty—half ode to print, half SnapChat screed.
Jordan has a couple nice moments early in the film, leading his fireman pals in squad songs, that old Friday Night Lights sensitive-jock charisma curdling into something sinister. But the story lobotomizes Montag into a passive observer, every so gradually starting to realize that there might be something wrong with bookburning. (He also has multiple flashbacks to some trauma involving his father, an odd Batman-ification of the book’s character.)
Meanwhile, Shannon looms like it’s going out of style. Every one of his lines is a speech. “After the last of your generation dies, so will your words, your memories, and the burden of your fake past!” he’ll say, or “How can we see anything but the fire’s shadow in the cave, if we’re never allowed to move our heads?” Yes, yes, how indeed, how indeed.
You recall how, in The Shape of Water, Shannon shaded his big bad with so many unexpected emotions—cowardice, weakness, desperation, straight-up stupidity, none of it making him less threatening but all of it making his monster more human. By comparison, his Fahrenheit 451 performance feels plastic, halfway to Zod. Can’t Hollywood give this man something new to do?
Halfway through Fahrenheit, bored to daydreaming, I started imagining how wonderful it would be for Michael Shannon to play an architect in a rom-com, or perhaps a lonely single dad in a children’s film about the redemptive power of rescue puppies.
Anyone who loves books will get a minor contact high from all the literary shoutouts. Walking through a large library, Guy grabs a random book. Of course it’s a Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, because it wouldn’t be important if he just grabbed a Clive Cussler romp. At one point, a rebel reveals that she has a James Joyce book tied to her stomach like a suicide vest. Alexander pops up as a renegade whose compatriots have memorized the great works of literature: Van Gogh’s letters, Charles Darwin’s science, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. One person knows every word to Anna Karenina, and a much cooler person knows every line of White Teeth.
You get the picture: The film’s painfully sincere, worried all this tweeting will create a species of illiterates repeating history without ever learning it. Fair point. No doubt, this world would be better if everyone read Ulysses. (Heck, the world would be better if everyone just strapped Ulysses to their stomach: What an ab workout!) But the thudding execution of this idea dulls the point to absurdity. I started to feel bad for the internet. Some of the adaptation choices are strange beyond reason. Bahrani has gotten rid of a vast nuclear subplot—ironically, one element from Bradbury’s book that suddenly hasn’t aged a day—and added in a plot contrivance that involves injections of literary DNA and a very important bird. If that sounds silly, is it ever.
By the end, this version of Fahrenheit is reduced to an outline of an allegory. Shannon swans around in Alexander McQueen-ish leather. Jordan’s reduced to carrying a flamethrower while everyone else says big important things. The dialogue sounds tin, near-parodic. “Next time I tell you to follow someone,” Shannon screams at an underling, “You crawl into their a–hole, you hear me?” Fahrenheit 451 has it heart in the right place, but its head sure crawled up somewhere.