Where there’s smoke, there is often flame. Unfortunately, HBO’s new adaptation of the classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, is all smoke and no flame. Adapted by Amir Nader and Ramin Bahrani, from the original novel by Ray Bradbury, and directed by Ramin Bahrani, Fahrenheit 451 is this weird mixture of being a modern adaptation and an original story featuring a few of the characters from the book.
Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon star in Fahrenheit 451. Directed by Ramin Bahrani and written by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, the film is a modern adaption of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel. It depicts a future where the media is an opiate, history is rewritten and “firemen” burn books. Jordan plays Montag, a young fireman who struggles with his role as law enforcer as he battles his mentor, fire captain Beatty, played by Shannon. Sofia Boutella also stars as Clarisse, an informant caught between the competing interests of Montag and Beatty. Other cast members include YouTube star Lilly Singh, who plays a tabloid reporter named Raven, tasked with spreading propaganda and broadcasting the firemens’ book-burning raids.
It’s important to start things off by saying that this movie definitely isn’t anywhere near as bad as it could’ve been. Like, this really could’ve been a trainwreck. It’s always a risk readapting a classic novel, especially on a TV budget (even if it is a premium TV budget). Everything could have looked fake and cheap and cheesy, so thankfully we avoided that with this adaptation. The visuals are genuinely impressive, especially when you consider that this adaptation didn’t have anywhere near the kind of budget a movie that looks this good normally would have had. There is a lot of striking imagery throughout the film. It opens with the opening credits placed over footage of burning books; that alone is one hell of a way to start a movie. There’s a scene about thirty minutes in where an old woman refuses to leave her books, so she lights a match and sets herself, and her books, on fire. That scene is partially shown as a live stream broadcast all over buildings/walls/phones/etc where the audience reacts to it with emojis (like Instagram Live videos), and that’s genuinely haunting. All the scenes with fire and burning are done really well and combined with a haunting soundtrack. It’s a genuinely beautiful looking film. Unfortunately, those visuals are let down by the script.
It’s not that the script itself is all that bad; it’s a little generic at times, but fine. The real problem is that it’s just nothing at all like the novel it’s based on. There are elements from the book that are kept: firemen starting fires; the government controlling knowledge by burning books; the underground resistance to the government’s authoritarian ways; the growing obsession, and reliance, on new forms of media; Montag’s gradual change of heart; etc. The rest of the film, however, is almost entirely different from the novel. Gone is Montag’s wife who’s addicted to television and sleeping pills and really plays a major part in Montag’s shift from dedicated fireman to rebel scum; gone is the main plotline of the book where Montag tries to get his wife to change and, in the process, gets himself turned into the firemen by her; gone (or changed) are most of the characters besides Montag and Beatty. In their place is a more generic science fiction/dystopia fiction plotline where the oppressed “eels” – people who share books and other forbidden information – are planning to unleash a new DNA-strand called “omnis” that contains all the knowledge ever collected in books/poems/films/etc. Or something along those lines. It’s all a bit fuzzy and never really explained. Clarisse is still the conduit for Montag’s shifting allegiance from the government to the rebels, but she’s no longer a teenage girl here, but instead roughly the same age as Montag and very clearly designed to be his love interest. Much of the film then plays out about how you’d expect any other piece of dystopian-fiction to play out. He falls for her, she slowly turns him on to the eels’ point of view, he joins up with them to help them pull off a major victory that brings him face to face with his former life, there’s a big showdown, and everything ends. It’s not exactly a bad plot, but it’s still fairly generic for this genre and when compared to the plot of the book, it’s definitely lackluster.
I don’t really mind that this adaptation is so radically different from the novel. I was assigned the book as an assigned reading during Eighth Grade and, naturally, I hated it, as most students do when it comes to assigned readings. With that said, I obviously don’t have much of a connection to the book, so the fact that it was wildly different from it didn’t really turn me off. I can see how it would really upset most people, and I still wonder why Bahrain wanted to adapt the story if he was gonna change so much of it that it’s barely similar to it. That being said, I do think this adaptation was interested in covering many of the same themes that were covered in the original novel, and I think it covered them fairly well. Both the book and this film are interested in how new forms of media (in the novel: TV and film, in this adaptation: social media and the internet) are taking over our lives and eroding our interest in books and language in general. This is perfectly expressed by the images of the book burnings that are broadcast throughout the film and accompanied by emoji reactions – like on Instagram or Facebook live videos. As I mentioned earlier, the point is really driven home as you watch a woman literally being burnt alive while emoji hearts fly around the screen. Both this film and the book are interested in what makes someone willingly turn away from the pursuit of knowledge. The film does this really subtle thing that adds a lot to the character of Beatty by having him pull a Winston (from 1984) and cover up the camera in his office so he can actually write book quotes on scraps of paper before burning them. It’s a subtle moment but it adds some depth to the character and helps set up the comparison between Montag and Beatty that permeates the film. Unfortunately, that bit of subtle filmmaking with Beatty and Montag’s general character arc from being a government man to being a rebel is the extent of any kind of character development that any of these characters get. I suppose that makes sense, given that Montag is the main character and the film has a runtime of 100 minutes, but if his arc is gonna be so generic, can we really be blamed for feeling like it wasn’t enough development?
I understand why you’d need to make changes to Fahrenheit 451 in order to make it an interesting film. The plot of the book is very… bookish. There’s a lot of sitting and talking and not a whole lot of action. I get that that doesn’t make for a particularly interesting movie. But, that being said, at some point, you have to ask the question of why you’re adapting something. If you have to make so many changes in your adaptation, in order to make it work for your chosen medium, that it barely resembles the original work, is it really worth calling it an adaptation at that point? You might as well just create an original work that’s loosely inspired by the subject you were going to adapt. It’s not like dystopian-future is full of original stories. They all steal elements from each other. The Fahrenheit 451 novel has more than a couple of similarities with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? steals elements from both of those books. I mean, this adaptation borrows even more from Nineteen Eighty-Four than the book did! This film features lots of “newspeak” like words like the 9 (the internet), eels (lower-class citizens/criminals), etc; Montag and Clarisse feel a lot more like Winston and Julia than they do their book counterparts; the introduction of Yuxie (an Alexa-like AI that also spies on its owner) to the narrative of this film is very similar to the telescreens in Nineteen Eighty-Four that also spied on their owners. This version of Fahrenheit 451 is less like the book and more of an amalgamation of different tropes that have become prevalent in dystopian-future works. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it a bit bland. The approach taken by Bahrani could’ve worked had the movie been longer than 100 minutes or had it been the premise for a limited series adaptation of the book. This plotline might not have felt so generic had the characters all had the time that being part of a limited series would’ve given them. Being an episodic series would have given the story and its characters the room to breathe and might have softened the blow that some of these changes surely caused.
At the end of the day, HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 isn’t a bad movie. It’s just nowhere near as good as it could’ve, or should’ve, been. Enough was changed in the transition from page to screen that it’s barely the same story and the new elements that were added frequently feel like generic tropes of the genre at this point. The elements that are interesting are mostly just updates on the metaphors that were in the original book (the social media angle) or little character moments that don’t have a huge impact on the plot (the stuff with Beatty writing book quotes) and so they can’t make up for the generic plotline. The directing, cinematography, sound design, acting, and score are all wonderful, but it’s all let down by that weak script. I feel like, had Bahrani just decided to make a fully original story that drew inspiration from works like Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the film might’ve worked better. Or had this premise been the premise for a limited series of like ten episodes where both the characters and the plot could have been given the time to breathe and develop more naturally and less generic. But, as it is, it’s not as good as the book and not original enough to be able to be enjoyed as its own thing. It’s this weird mixture of adaptation and original ideas that never quite feels as original or similar to the book as you’d like. It’s not a bad movie or anything, just generic. And for a story as iconic as Fahrenheit 451, generic isn’t good enough.
3 out of 5 wands.