Review: Ambitious 'FAHRENHEIT 451' takes new liberties, but comes up short
Courtesy of HBO Films
Living in the current political climate, one can see why remaking Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451” would be a good idea. A dystopian society where the internet is king, people tune into headlines without any facts, and fireman don't put out fires, they start them. The iconic piece of literature predicted where the world seemed to be heading (Bradbury wrote the novel as a charge on television - which, at the time, TV sets were only in a number of homes - not they’re everywhere) and books were to become a thing of the past.
Equal parts “1984” and “The Hunger Games” HBO’s remake from director Ramin Bahrani wants to say a thing or two about the confines of social media, and reading - but struggles to give its characters depth and realization. They seem to be carbon copies on a moving screen, and while the irony of the plot still seems to be intact, “Fahrenheit 451” fails to dig into the deeper cusps of what Bradbury was trying to say back in the ‘50s.
Serving as an executive producer and lead star Michael B Jordan is Guy Montag, one of those “fireman” who serves his country by destroying words on the page. In this newly updated version, they don’t just sear books, but VHS tapes, sheet music, and celluloid. Illegal migration has spiked to an all-time high as “eels” flock to other countries, and every second the world is tuned into “the Nine” which is a constant stream used as propaganda to brainwash citizens.
Montag is a top performer who is the perfect candidate for his job. Why? Because he doesn’t ask questions. He’s the pupil for the sniveling Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon in a role all too familiar) who has raised Montag as a firefighter ever since he was 16 years old. Bahrani deviates from the book in these early scenes, as Montag’s fragile wife Mildred is nowhere to be found and the young Clarisse (played by Sofia Boutella) is all grown up and serving as an informant for the fire department and one of the leaders of an underground book club. But if you remember the book, Mildred was an integral part of it and so omitting her never seemed like the right choice, and Boutella, while a great performer, isn’t given an arch worth believing. We’re just supposed to sit around and wait for a forced romance to blossom between her and Montag.
No doubt, the film has its heart in the right place and Bahrani stokes his fire with enough literary references to make any bookworm get a contact high. And arguably the most important shift in the book remains: that is when Montag and Beatty infiltrate a treasure trove of books, only to watch a poor woman go down in flames with them. We get a closeup of Jordan’s face (we get ALOT of dramatic slow-motion close-ups of his face) and it’s the most poetic scene in the film. Likely because it’s also the truest to the source material, and gives us a brief insight into the vulnerability of Montag and his desire to free his mind.
Unfortunately, none of the films sparks that kind of magic again and slugs down a mindless rabbit hole that struggles to reach the surface. Another new addition is the inclusion of “OMNIS” a DNA strand that can unleash hundreds of pieces of literature into the world. A plague that Beatty describes as “Mosquitoes releasing malaria” and now the fire department is on the hunt, and Montag is having flashes of a life he used to live (he's stopped taking prescription eye drops and seems to be more level-headed.) He also has stashed a book on his person (of course it's a copy of “Notes from the Underground”) and before we know it, he seems to be on the path of redemption.
“Fahrenheit 451” points out that while the government passed the censorship laws, it was the people who clamored for them to be passed. This is an idea the film never discusses, as the general public is merely represented by emojis on a live stream. And if you go back and read Bradbury’s novel you’ll know the basis for his inspiration also started with the lack of representation for minorities and woman. Captain Beatty briefly alludes to this in a scene where he spouts the N-word while explaining why people complained about a particular book (think “Huckleberry Finn.”) This premise is sharp and one that could sustain the entire leg of the film but fails to produce so much as a silver of ingenuity.
As for the actors, Shannon is well cast here. As we saw in “The Shape of Water” he’s intimidating when he can bark orders and deliver a cascade of fierce dialogue (even if some of them range between over the top and silly) while Jordan, despite his top billing, can’t seem to muster any creative juices for Montag. That’s not his fault, the script would rather have him stand by and look sad than to do anything, we never really feel his dilemma or trauma (the less said about the romance between him and Clarisse, the better.)
I remember reading the book during my days in 10th grade English, and truly being taken with it. You’d hope when viewing a movie based on a book, that it can invite those feelings back into your body. For brief instances, “Fahrenheit 451” seems to do just that, but far too often it left me unsatisfied, including an ending that promises something to be desired. In other words, this version of “Fahrenheit 451” lacks the political commentary that would justify why the filmmakers needed to revisit this property in the first place.