Lighting HBO Films on Fire: Fahrenheit 451
Alex Hall, 11-30-2018

Michael Shannon and Michael B. Jordan in HBO's Fahrenheit 451.
Michael Gibson/HBO
One important question surrounds the recent HBO Films adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451: how did actors the caliber of Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon working with celebrated director Ramin Bahrani produce a film this bad?

One answer might simply be the difficulty of adapting what is now an anachronistic text. After all, any adapter of Bradbury’s novel must confront the problem of media’s contemporary ubiquity to get the novel’s point across. Before the advent of the Internet, burning books would have seemed a fatal blow to the preservation of culture, to say nothing of the political symbolism of the act. These days, however, burning books is almost purely symbolic.

Of course, it isn’t that Bahrani’s film doesn’t at least attempt to deal with this problem. A social media element is integrated into the narrative, for instance, that makes Jordan’s Montag both a fireman and an internet celebrity. His public vigilance serves to indoctrinate children against reading anything but sanitized versions of texts, but the prohibited versions are consumed (and preserved) via the Internet thanks to dissenters who upload digital copies. In this way, the burning of physical books seems unnecessary, yet Montag and Shannon’s Beatty destroy servers holding the digital books in an attempt at narrative continuity.

While the film does seek to adapt the novel—rather than simply regurgitate it—it goes a bit too far. The history of the firemen in the film is presented as a response to people’s inability to accept the existence of literature they find personally offensive, leading to a widespread purge. This is not unlike the novel, in which Beatty tries to talk Montag down from his increasingly skeptical view of the way things are, but audiences are beaten over the head with the timeliness of political correctness and free speech issues. Montag himself becomes a dissenter after assisting in the burning of his own house when his stash of contraband books is discovered. The novel would end here, with Montag and the dissenters memorizing books for posterity, but instead he must help free a bird whose DNA has been encoded with a trove of human literature for scientists in Canada to retrieve and archive. Predictably, Beatty shows up, attempts to thwart the plan, fails, and burns Montag alive, injecting the typical Jesus plot into the film.

The lack of fanfare and publicity surrounding Fahrenheit 451’s release is therefore not surprising. It’s worth noting that François Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation is itself a failure in many ways. HBO Films, however, has had a lot of success with its original film content, especially in recent years, so Fahrenheit 451 is especially disappointing.

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