‘Fahrenheit 451’ burns again
HBO adaptation scorches the Internet age.
The new version of Fahrenheit 451 has two Michaels but not enough heat.
Despite a classic American novel as inspiration and a marquee cast, including Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon and up-and-comer Sofia Boutella, HBO’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel (Saturday, 8 ET/PT, ★★☆☆) is a disappointment. In attempting to update the sci-fi classic for our digital age, director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani glosses over the finer points of the novel, essentially turning the story into the exactly the kind of sensational entertainment Bradbury was critiquing.
This Fahrenheit still takes place in the Midwest (Cleveland), still features “firemen” who set fires instead of putting them out, and still focuses on Guy Montag (Jordan), a fireman who starts to have doubts about his life and job.
It’s still a cautionary tale about the dangers of forgetting our history and ignoring society’s problems in favor of happy ignorance. But the similarities to the book pretty much end there.
The original novel satirized Americans’ growing obsession with television in the 1950s and how mass media could create mass apathy. Other aspects are firmly entrenched in the 1950s of its publication, including fears of McCarthyism and Cold War nuclear annihilation.
Some updating was required for a 2018 version, and the movie ably points its finger instead at Internet culture: our constant checking of our status and likes on social media and our substitution of emojis and hate for actual dialogue and discussion.
But the film doesn’t have much to say after pointing out that the Internet is vapid and full of hatred. Inevitably, the use of emojis in the movie feels a bit obvious — Montag’s repeated boasts that he’s “100” borders on farce.
The movie drops Montag’s wife, Mildred, ages up Clarice (Boutella) so that she and Montag can have a romance and papers over much of the book’s intellectual debate with generic action scenes, a government conspiracy and a magic DNA molecule that holds millions of books, stored in a bird (seriously). It makes the story convoluted and ludicrous, as opposed to the subtle and unnerving source material.
The actors do their best to add some spark, despite the limitations of the script. Shannon chews scenery left and right as Capt. Beatty, Montag’s commanding officer who struggles with the laws he enforces but mostly just glowers and yells. Jordan is an appealing leading man with a great concerned expression (which he deploys frequently), but he and Boutella lack chemistry as a romantic pair.
It’s a shame that HBO has turned a novel famous for its resistance to mindless entertainment into something that evokes run-of-the-mill dystopian films.
There’s nothing to distinguish Fahrenheit other than the fire imagery. And it’s not much of a pleasure to watch the movie burn.
Michael B. Jordan is conflicted Montag in the updated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”