HBO’s highly anticipated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 premiered May 12, 2018 at the Cannes film festival to largely unenthusiastic reviews. The most optimistic of fans of the seminal work of dystopian fiction prayed that this was just film snobbery, these reviews written by people too proud to admit they had a good time watching Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon burn and proselytize their way through mountains of literature as agents of an anti-intellectual society. However, the movie premiered last night on HBO to the same tepid response it received from the crowd at Cannes. What went wrong, what went right, and why isn’t it a pleasure to burn with this adaptation?
Fahrenheit 451: No Pleasure to Watch
Burning in Broad Strokes
The consensus seems to be that this is essentially a watered-down version of the original Fahrenheit 451 story. That criticism plays well upon viewing the finished product—it’s like someone painstakingly assembled the most basic elements of Bradbury’s story and then decided not to flesh them out.
A lot of work has been done to bring the story into the 21st century, and it makes for occasionally interesting, if ultimately uninspired, viewing. The internet we all know and love has become “the Nine,” and people are constantly reminded to “stay vivid” and report any suspicious activity to authorities. Guy Montag (Jordan) and Captain Beatty (Shannon) are social media superstars, live-streaming their burns and punishments of the “eels”—book readers—they capture for their adoring public. Books themselves are referred to as “graffiti” in this dystopian hellhole. These live-streams are projected on the sides of buildings, with emojis flaring up around the images as Montag’s fans signal their approval—or, later, disapproval—of the fireman’s actions. Early in the movie this is a neat nod to the social media-obsessed world in which we live, but the image of Montag on the buildings with his fans’ reactions bubbling up around him soon loses its charm. It’s worth noting that the production value on this movie is very high, but quality CGI is no replacement for thought-provoking visuals.
The Ending is for the Birds
One of the most baffling changes to the story of Fahrenheit 451 comes in the form of its ending. In Bradbury’s classic novel, the city the story takes place in is atom-bombed into oblivion, with Montag marching off with the other living embodiments of works of literature to start a new life. One of his companions monologues about the importance of destruction and rebirth, comparing humanity to a phoenix, burning itself to ash and then building itself back up every few years. The imagery is striking, moving, powerful—it leaves readers with hope at the end of what would otherwise be a very bleak conclusion to the story.
And the movie couldn’t care less. Gone is the phoenix metaphor, the destruction of the city, and the sense of hope Bradbury was sure to instill in his work. Instead, viewers are treated to a final confrontation between Montag and his friend/superior officer, Beatty, in a burning building. Unlike the novel, Montag does not make it out alive, instead being burnt alive by Beatty after releasing a bird that is injected with knowledge (?) and will somehow spread this knowledge to all living things so the firemen can’t destroy it all (?). It was explained at some point in the movie by the eels Montag encounters (one of whom has memorized 13,000 books, cover to cover, and can quote exact passages from memory, given only a title and a page number), but the explanation doesn’t make much sense and it comes long after the movie will have lost your full attention.
After Montag meets his end, the film cuts to the freed bird joining up with its bird brethren over the open ocean, presumably spreading knowledge like a bad cold to every living thing it comes in contact with. Compared to a nuclear bombardment, the birds come off as somewhat anti-climactic, and the phoenix metaphor, with all the hope it entails for the future of humanity, is lost entirely. Montag’s death spits in the face of Bradbury’s message, seeming to imply that true redemption is found in death, rather than personal growth.
Quid Pro Quo, Clarisse
While a lot of the changes from the source material in the film flounder or lose their appeal, the update to Clarisse is a breath of fresh air. In the novel, the character is a young girl who jumpstarts Montag’s journey of enlightenment with her quirky personality and probing questions about the state of the world around them. In the movie, she’s aged up and played by Sofia Boutella as a convicted eel who sells information to Beatty about book stashes in exchange for a reduction of her sentence. (The punishment for hoarding books, if you’re wondering, involves burning off people’s fingerprints and erasing them from a computer system, so they effectively don’t exist for a set number of years.) This older Clarisse has more agency than her book counterpart and takes a more active role in Montag’s awakening. At the end of the novel when he’s being barbecued by Beatty, she escapes with the other eels in his place.
The only downside to the changes to Clarisse is that, because she was aged up, the screenwriter (also director, Rahmin Bahrani), decided to cut Montag’s wife, Mildred, from the story entirely and have him romantically entangled with Clarisse instead. This is fine as far as it goes, but cutting Mildred means losing something essential from the story. The horror of Bradbury’s dystopian vision isn’t merely the destruction of knowledge, it’s the way that the population in Fahrenheit 451 clamors for this destruction and accepts it with such joy. While some of that is still on display via the live-stream emojis, it was much more effective when presented through a character whom Montag is close with, whom readers were able to see give away pieces of her humanity in exchange for a passive, empty life as a drone, obsessed with television and idle gossip.
You Can’t Keep a Good Character Actor Down
While Sofia Boutella does an excellent job with this revamped interpretation of Clarisse, she isn’t a lead here. For that, we have Michael B. Jordan as Guy Montag and Michael Shannon as Captain Beatty. Jordan got a high-profile boost in popularity earlier this year, stealing scene after scene as Erik Killmonger in Marvel’s megahit, Black Panther. Shannon played one of the greatest villains of 2017 in the Best Picture-winning film, The Shape of Water. Suffice it to say, both men are firing on all cylinders right now in the pop culture landscape and they bring their A-game here, but it’s rarely enough.
Michael B. Jordan does his absolute best to make Montag a sympathetic, engaging character, but it never quite lands because of shortcomings in the script. After an hour or so, even Jordan’s natural charisma isn’t enough to keep you engaged with his character’s arc and you’ll find yourself checking your phone, waiting for his next scene opposite Michael Shannon. For his part, Shannon imbues Beatty with a more consistent watchability, and his sermons on the dangers of books (“Words are a terror, son, I know,” Beatty tells Montag at one point) are frequently entertaining and always well-delivered and the shots of Beatty writing cryptic quotes on scraps of paper are just odd enough to draw you in, but in spite of all that, even with this titan of a character actor strutting his stuff, the movie never measures up to Shannon’s performance.
Last Word on Fahrenheit 451
As far as adaptations go, Fahrenheit 451 is as middle-of-the-road as you can get. Some of it works, but a lot of it doesn’t. The production value here is high, but the visuals themselves are either boring or lose their magic by the halfway point. Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, and Sofia Boutella elevate the script as best they can, but when the writing is this uninspired, there’s only so much they can do. Writer/director Rahmin Bahrani’s last film, 99 Homes (also featuring Michael Shannon as an antagonist), is superior to this one in every way, and if you want to watch a movie about the negative impact society can have on people’s lives, you’re better off renting it instead.
Early in the film, Guy Montag yells to a crowd of onlookers during a raid, “Damn, it’s a pleasure to burn,” echoing the source material’s iconic opening line—the shame is that it isn’t a pleasure to watch him burn. If you’re interested in this story, do yourself a favor and read Bradbury’s novel instead; you’ll find more hope, poetry, and a better narrative in it than you will in this adaptation.
Fahrenheit 451 is currently playing on HBO and available on its streaming services, HBO Go and HBO Now.
Main image credit: