REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451 – Visually Stunning, But No Spark

fahrenheit montag beatty promo

In our current political climate, Ray Bradbury’s poetic cautionary tale about media censorship and the destruction of knowledge in favor of ignorance could not be any timelier. HBO had plenty to work with when adapting the classic dystopian novel for the small screen, but the end result pales in comparison to Bradbury’s work. While it’s true that adaptations don’t need to strictly adhere to their source material, HBO’s version of Fahrenheit 451 warps the narrative to the point where it’s nearly unrecognizable, and what we’re left with is a generic, forgettable dystopian film.

Disappointing, to say the least.

There’s possibly a good movie in here somewhere, if you squint. The basic premise is still the same: Michael B. Jordan plays Guy Montag, a “fireman” in an elite paramilitary force that starts fires with kerosene hoses instead of putting them out. The government has tasked them with eliminating the spread of ideas and knowledge by burning books.

Director/screenwriter Ramin Bahrani introduces some new terminology and adjustments in an attempt to modernize the source material to reflect a future from our current society. A handful of classic books—namely Moby Dick and The Bible—have been reduced to emojis, while the rest has been deemed “graffiti” and outlawed.

fahrenheit montag beatty

“Stay vivid on The Nine,” a reporter dutifully commands, her image plastered across gigantic screens on the skyscrapers of downtown Cleveland. “The Nine,” it’s revealed, is essentially a future iteration of the Internet; a network that fills up people’s homes and minds, projected everywhere 24/7. Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) and his elite Salamanders are in pursuit of anyone who dares to upload illegal books, music, art, or films onto The Nine. These “eels,” if caught, are stripped of their identities and have their fingerprints torched.

It seems like these new terms exist only for the purpose of trying to sound like every other dystopian movie from the past decade. It provokes more than a few eye rolls and does nothing but cheapen the tone of the story. Arguably, it would have been more effective if Fahrenheit 451 didn’t work so hard to distance itself from our current timeline by using silly pseudo-futuristic phrases. We already live in a world that almost mirrors Bradbury’s in terms of technology, which is why there’s such an ominous feeling when it comes to the relevancy of his text decades later. It’s not just that this story is timely as hell, it’s needed.

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And that’s the biggest problem with Fahrenheit 451. It spends so much time bashing us over the head with its social media relevancy and allusions to Drumpf’s America—at one point, a fireman yells, “Time to make America burn again!”—that it never really delves deeper into the social commentary. It’s all surface level, skirting past issues that could be more meaningful if it bothered to linger on them. They’re literally burning away knowledge and claiming it’s being done to preserve happiness, but we never get a sense of urgency or fear that this causes. And whatever else it does with the themes, the film isn’t subtle at all. Fahrenheit 451 becomes a watered-down version of its source material, and the nuances of what effects this type of society has on its people and Montag’s conflicted journey gets lost in this adaptation.

The world building, instead, is unconvincing and plays a big part in Fahrenheit 451’s heavy-handed execution. There’s a lot to cover in the first half, so everything becomes weighed down by clunky dialogue. The dialogue is at points terrible and melodramatic throughout the film, to be honest, but the exposition in particular is handled poorly. We have to explain society rules so of course let’s have a school assembly! Oh, and here’s some Important Backstory about a vague Second Civil War while we interrogate some “eels,” too! In this version, Montag and his squad have become something of a social media sensation, their book burnings televised on The Nine so that their obsessed fans can litter the streams with upvotes and hearts and other emojis. It just comes off as silly, and while it tries too hard to emulate what we know, it doesn’t do anything to help this story feel real or threatening. It’s cringey and doesn’t instill the fear that book burning should. It’s probably due to the film’s shift on the degradation of free thought from the effects of buzzworthy social media rather than the elimination of books and ideas.

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And that might be due, at least in part, to the absence of Montag’s wife. Millie was cut from the film to make Montag single…and add an unnecessary romance (if we can even call it that) between him and Clarisse that came out of nowhere. In the book, Montag’s wife helps him see the ugly side of their society, so even if they didn’t want him married, they really needed a character who was similar. We see people hooked up to virtual reality, we see Montag and others taking eye drops to suppress their memories and talking to an Alexa-like device called Yuxie. But what does this sort of lifestyle do to them? Millie represented the effects of overstimulation, the horrible toll it took on her mental health. With their society built on the phrase “ignorance is bliss,” Millie suffered loneliness and depression because of her dependency on VR and the suppression of her own feelings. One of her friends openly weeps and nearly goes into hysterics after Montag reads her poetry. These people have no outlet for their feelings, no way to cope without seeing what they feel reflected elsewhere. They’re numb, mindless drones placated by state-controlled media and propaganda, shielded from knowledge and ideas thought to be detrimental to their happiness.

None of that tension or numbness comes through in HBO’s Fahrenheit 451. We’re told a lot of things, there’s a lot of flashy quotes being tossed around on screen, but there’s no substance to any of it. The premise never feels as menacing as it should be. How is book burning supposed to elicit any fear if the narrative doesn’t do its job to back that up? Instead of a society full of mindless drones, we get hordes of people cheering on the book burnings with fiery rage. The underground resistance never feels desperate or important enough, the stakes not fully fleshed out to make us care if they succeed. As Montag begins to question his job and the society around him, the narrative twists into a big departure from the novel that includes a ridiculous use of “literary DNA” stored inside a bird.

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Fahrenheit 451 really could have benefited from a miniseries run rather than a film; its breakneck pace at a meager 100 minutes leaves it racing to cram in whatever it can, which makes the plot device shoehorned into the last half even more unsatisfying. We needed more time inside this world before Montag decides to rebel, and we needed to spend more screen time devoted to the parts of this film that could have been better if they decided to explore them at a more complex, nuanced level. There are glimpses of cleverness and poignant moments buried in this film, if you try hard to look for them.

Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Montag is easily the best thing about Fahrenheit 451 (he was perfectly cast), and one wonders what else he could’ve brought to the role if given a meatier script. He infuses Montag with a quiet, pained conflict, a genuine wonder at the printed word and art and music, and an emotional bond to his mentor. He balances the duality of Montag’s showmanship and ego with his secretive struggle for knowledge. Unfortunately, the story never quite manages Montag’s character arc. But Jordan makes us care about Montag, anyway, and it’s proof of his talent. He’s charismatic, the comradery and respect among his fellow Salamanders on display when they enthusiastically sing a drinking song. This was a nice addition, and it would’ve been interesting to spend a little more time establishing the dynamics and brotherhood inherent in a squad like this.

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The adaptation also expands Montag’s relationship with Captain Beatty, and the two share a surrogate father/son bond that works overtime to hold the film together. The strain in their relationship seems to replace what would have been the divide between Millie and Montag, and it’s one of the few elements that actually lands with an emotional impact. Shannon is a fantastic actor, and he imbues Beatty with an internal conflict that almost parallels Montag’s. He, too, holds a certain curiosity about the pursuit of knowledge and is shown scribbling down thoughts on real paper with a real pen in the quiet of his office. We get a thin sense of his humanity beyond the confines of his job, even if there are moments where Shannon’s Beatty sounds wooden or two steps shy of a mustache-twirling villain.

There’re a few well-placed moments that pack an emotional punch, too: Montag tries to spare the lives of a father and his child during a raid; later on, he’s reluctant to take away braille books from the blind. The scene that serves as a major turning point for Montag has him witness the self-immolation of an elderly woman who chooses to die with her books rather than live without them. (She wears a suicide vest made of books, which…is a little much.) Days afterward, he tells Clarisse, “I can still smell her burning.” It’s definitely one of the most striking lines of the film, and Jordan’s delivery is haunting.

Sofia Boutella’s talents are underutilized here, too. Clarisse’s screen time is fleeting, which is a shame because the underground that she inhabits and her own double agent role could have been more fascinating. She exists solely to further the plot with little else to do. Her world feels closest to what we know (she lives in a rundown apartment with actual lamps), and that should strike some kind of chord against the neon, sterile aesthetic the rest of society basks in, but the narrative doesn’t dwell on it. We should know more about the “eels” and the historic books they’ve literally become, memorizing the pages so they aren’t lost to the fire. But they’re an afterthought in the last act, and Montag never feels fully involved in their rebellion.

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This makes the ending—a confused, rushed try at symbolism and completely different from the novel—feel like it hasn’t been properly earned. The impact it attempts to make isn’t as powerful as it thinks it might be, though we can clearly see what they were aiming for. A plot contrivance that makes no actual sense the longer you think about it…doesn’t really inspire the same hope that Bradbury’s ending does.

With little else to recommend it, at least HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 is visually stunning. It’s gorgeous to look at: the aesthetic of the firemen and their weaponry are rendered with a sleek style that evokes the firefighters we know and gives their uniforms a sinister flare. The book burning scenes are shot beautifully, chillingly, from the film’s opening credits to the Salamanders’ various raids on buildings. Consumed by the flames, pages curl and burn away, titles we know and love reduced to smoke and ash in close ups that will make any bookworm gasp in horror. If only that same tone could have been carried throughout, Fahrenheit 451 would have made a more memorable impression.