Film Review: Fahrenheit 451 (dir by Ramin Bahrani)


(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.

Film Review: Fahrenheit 451 (dir by Francois Truffaut)


Tonight, HBO will be premiering a film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  This version will star Michael B. Jordan as “fireman” Guy Montag and Michael Shannon as Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty.  It’s one of the more eagerly anticipated films of the current television season but it’s not the first version of Fahrenheit 451 to be filmed.

The first version was released, by Universal Pictures, in 1966.  It was the first (as well as only) English langauge film to be directed by the great French filmmaker, Francois Truffaut.  (It was also Traffaut’s first color film, allowing the flames to burn in bright yellow and red.)  Unfortunately, Truffaut would later describe the film as being his “saddest and most difficult” film making experience.

Though there are a few noticeable differences, the film sticks closely to the plot of Bradbury’s novel.  Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is a “fireman” in the near future.  Montag lives in a society where books have been banned and the populace is kept to docile through a combination of pharmaceuticals and mindless television programming.  Montag’s wife, Linda (Julie Christie), is content to live life without questioning anything.  However, when Montag meets a school teacher named Clarisse (also played by Christie), all of his previous assumptions are challenged.  What if the government isn’t always right?  What if ignorance isn’t bliss?  What would happen if, instead of burning books, Montag actually read one?  After witnessing a woman choosing to self-immolate herself so that she can die with all of her books, Montag is finally ready to quit being a fireman.  But his captain (Cyril Cusack) tells Montag that he needs to go on one more call, this one to Montag’s own house.

Truffaut’s film leaves out most of the overly sci-fi elements of Bradbury’s original novel.  For instance, in the novel, Montag is terrified of the robots dogs that the firemen use but the dogs never appear in Truffaut’s film.  As well, Traffaut totally eliminates the character of Faber, the former English professor who uses a portable communicator to keep in contact with Montag.  (Today, of course, that hardly seems like science fiction.)  In Truffaut’s film, the setting is designed to appear as contemporary and familiar as possible, a reminder that the story may have been sent in the future but that the issues it dealt with were relevant to the present.  With this film, Truffaut asked the audience, “How different is the world today from the world of Bradbury’s novel?”

Truffaut’s other big departure from Bradbury’s text was to cast Julie Christie as both Clarisse and Linda.  In the book, Montag’s wife was named Mildred and Bradbury went of out of his way to establish her as being the exact opposite of Clarisse.  In Truffaut’s film, the double casting of Christie seems to suggest that Clarisse and Linda are two sides of the same character.  Montag loves them both, though each appeals to a different part of Montag’s psyche.  Linda appeals to the side of Montag that wants to just accept things the were they are and be happy.  Clarisse, meanwhile, represents the part of Montag that wants to be free to feel everything, even if it means occasionally being unhappy or uncertain.  When Montag finally meets the Book People, he discovers that they are just as fanatical about memorizing and reciting books as Linda was about watching her television shows.  Was this intentional on Truffaut’s part, a suggestion that both the government and the rebels are, like Clarisse and Linda, two sides of the same coin?

It’s an intriguing but uneven movie.  Truffaut apparently didn’t have a great working relationship with Oskar Werner and, at times, Werner doesn’t seem to be particularly invested in the role of Montag.  (Interestingly enough, it’s also been suggested that Jacqueline Bisset’s character in Day For Night was inspired by Truffaut’s experiences working with Julie Christie in this film.)  When the characters interact, the dialogue sometimes feel stiff and dull, as if Truffaut never got over his discomfort with having to direct a film in something other than his native French.  At the same time, the film is full of hauntingly beautiful images, from the defiant woman standing in the middle of her burning books to the Book People walking through the snow.  Truffaut makes brilliant use of color and the visuals are often strong enough to overcome even Oskar Werner at his most sullen.

Fahrenheit 451 is an imperfect movie but one worth seeing.  Will the new HBO version be able to match it?  We’ll find out soon enough.

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


Tonight, HBO will be premiering a new film version of Fahrenheit 451, one that stars Michael B. Jordan as “fireman” Guy Monag and Michael Shannon as his boss, Captain Beatty.  If one may forgive the expression, it’s a hotly awaited production.

That said, regardless of whether the HBO film lives up to the hype or not, don’t forget to read the book that inspired it!

Written by Ray Bradbury and originally published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 takes place in, what was then, the near future.  It’s a world where the citizens are too shallow to realize that they’re living under an authoritarian regime.  Everyone is kept docile through the use of pharmaceuticals and there is no culture beyond what’s televised on the “parlor walls.”  (Actually, Bradbury’s near future doesn’t sound that different from our present.)

It’s a world where books are forbidden.  Of course, some citizens still insist on trying to hide books in their attics and their basements but, fortunately for the government, there’s always somebody willing to inform.  Whenever it’s discovered that’s someone’s been hoarding books, the firemen are deployed.  Of course, these fireman aren’t used to put out fires.  Instead, they burn books.  Fahrenheit 451, we learn early on, is the temperature at which paper will burn.

Guy Montag is one of the firemen.  Though he can’t always explain why, he doesn’t feel satisfied with his “perfect” life.  Even when his wife Mildred survives an overdose of sleeping pills, Montag can hardly be bothered to react.  Guy has started to have doubts.  When he meets a teenage girl named Clarisse, he’s stunned when she says that she doesn’t care about “how.”  Instead, she cares about “why.”  Guy finds himself intrigued by Clarisse, even if he still finds himself wondering if she’s going to inform on him.

And then there’s Captain Beatty!  Beatty is Montag’s boss but at times, he almost seems to be encouraging Montag to doubt the system.  Beatty even reveals that he used to be an avid reader himself.  Is he sincere when he encourages Montag to read or does he have ulterior motives of his own?

Fahrenheit 451 holds up remarkably well.  True, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and things slow down a bit whenever Montag interacts with Faber, a former English professor.  But, much like Orwell’s 1984, the book’s central theme remains relevant today.  Right now, there are people on both the Right and the Left who would happily burn books if it meant doing away with ideas and opinions with which they disagree.  (I imagine even some of our self-righteous centrists would be more than willing to burn a book or two in the name of bipartisanship.)  Democracy dies not in darkness but in ignorance and the best way to keep a population ignorant is to not only burn anything that challenges the state but to also ridicule the very idea of thinking for one’s self.  That is the society that Bradbury portrays in Fahrenheit 451 and it’s one that feels very much like our own.

One final note: I found my copy of this book at Half-Price Books last December.  The copy that I found once belonged to a student named Ashley and she filled the margins with notes about her friends Taylor and Sidney.  At the start of the book, they were best friends.  About halfway through, she suddenly hated both of them but, by the end of the book, they were friends again.  Yay!

Here’s The Latest Trailer For HBO’s Fahrenheit 451!


Earlier this year, I read Ray Bradbury’s original novel so I hope the upcoming HBO film version of Fahrenheit 451 will do justice to the book’s themes.  The trailer below feels a bit more like Blade Runner than Bradbury but Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon both seem to be ideally cast.

So, we’ll see!