(Before reading this review, make sure that you’ve read my review of Ray Bradbury’s novel!)
(And then make you sure that you’ve read my review of the 1966 Truffaut film!)
The latest HBO original film, Fahrenheit 451, is bad.
For all the talent involved, for all the hype, and for all the hope that many of us had for it, it is extremely bad. It sets up its targets and then fires at them with all the aim and success of a myopic archer. By almost any standard, it’s a misfire of almost Vinyl proportions.
The film, of course, is based on Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future dystopia where the population is kept in line through pharmaceuticals and mind-numbing television and where firemen burn books. Michael B. Jordan plays Montag, the fireman who develops doubts. Michael Shannon plays Beatty, Montag’s boss. Sofia Boutella is Clarisse, who inspires Montag to question why. And no one plays Montag’s wife because that character was apparently cut from the film.
From the minute this version starts, it’s obvious that this film was inspired less by Bradbury and more by Black Mirror, Blade Runner, and the Purge franchise. The entire world is defined by neon and dark shadows. Gone is Bradbury’s suggestion that a world without books would be a bland one. Instead, a world without books is now one that looks like every single recent sci-fi film. People may have stopped reading but apparently, they’re still watching old Ridley Scott movies.
Gone too is the idea of Montag as a middle-aged man struggling with an existential crisis. Now, he’s Michael B. Jordan, who comes across as if he’s never had a moment of doubt in his entire life. He’s less Montag and more Creed in an authoritarian future. Also gone is the weary relationship with Captain Beatty. Now, Beatty is almost a father figure to Montag. Of course, Montag’s real father died mysteriously years ago. Nothing indicates a lazy screenwriter quicker than a character with daddy issues.
As I mentioned earlier, in this version, Montag is not married. Instead, he lives a bachelor lifestyle in a glitzy apartment and he spends most of his time asking questions to the future’s version of Alexa, Yuxie. (“Yuxie, was Benjamin Franklin the first fireman?”) Of course, in the novel, Montag’s wife stood in for every citizen who never questioned why books were being burned. It was Montag’s dissatisfaction with his bland home life that led to him getting to know Clarisse and eventually questioning his job as a fireman. Now, Montag starts to doubt after a random rebel says that Benjamin Franklin didn’t support burning books. But why, if Montag has spent a lifetime refusing to question anything, would some rando rebel suddenly make him reconsider?
The Book People are still around but now they’re kind of a pain. I love books but I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of them. They’re a humorless group of people who live in a farm and apparently being a book person means you can’t wash your hair or something because seriously, everyone looked a bit grimy. I mean, it’s important to rebel again authoritarianism but that doesn’t meant you can’t look good while doing it. Each Book Person has memorized a book and you have to wonder how they decide who gets to memorize which book. We’re told that one Book Person has memorized Chairman Mao but if you’re battling censorship, would you really want to hang out with a person who has devoted her life to the guy behind the Cultural Revolution? Another Book Person claims to have memorized all of Proust but I think he’s a damn liar. I mean, how is anyone going to check that? I’m guessing he probably only memorized the first 20 pages or so of Swann’s Way. What I want to know is who got to memorize the Twilight books?
This version of Fahrenheit 451 is a bit of a mess. I’m not one to demand that literary adaptations stick exactly to their source material. (For instance, the film version of The Godfather was greatly improved by ignoring 60% of what happened in Mario Puzo’s novel. For that matter, we can all be thankful that It didn’t end with the Losers Club solidifying their bond by having group sex with Beverly.) But, in this case, the changes don’t improve on the original. Instead, they just turn Fahrenheit 451 into yet another shadowy dystopian film.
When it comes to Fahrenheit 451, my advice is just to read the book.