Given our current socio-political climate that is rife with deception, doublethink, alternative facts and “fake news”, one would expect a slick yet biting adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1953’s classic about the perils of living in a society where homogeneity is absolute and right. For anyone that somehow never read the novel in the last 65 years, Fahrenheit 451 was a chilling dystopian critique on the power of censorship and realistic fear of an inflexible, suppressive government. Firemen John Beatty and Guy Montag patrol and incinerate outlawed literature and art in near-future Cleveland, believing such material incites discord and spreads “a sickness” in society. Little do either know they share a curiosity in the forbidden, and their conflicting views give rise to a blistering conclusion.
There were a number of mystifying choices made by director Ramin Bahrani, most of which sought to present Bradbury’s tale into the current retro-future aesthetic that permeates recent sci-fi movies. The look (though apt) and tone (certainly dark and gritty) does little to nothing in regards to the powerful, destructive themes of the book. In any case, Montag and Beatty live and thrive within The Nine, the ever-knowing forever present social platform. This is coupled by the all-seeing Yuxie, monitoring all citizens for their safety and protection. Add the emotion-suppressing Oculus eye drops and you’ve a hellish futurescape of callow drones that instantly go into a frenzy at the sight of a book or a recited passage.
As in Bradbury’s tale, the presiding Ministry grants citizens the choice of reading three books – The Bible, To the Lighthouse, and Moby Dick – which are heavily edited and truncated. In order to get this across for today’s generation, omitted words and revised sections are replaced with the accepted language: emoji. It’s a cute play that ultimately serves no purpose but to make Fahrenheit fresh and hip, yet it doesn’t need much help in that regard because the material itself is timeless.
What was decidedly special were the performances by Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon, who truly made the characters of Guy Montag and John Beatty their own. Both actors make the best of a perpetually dreary situation with their oddly affectionate relationship formed around death and violence. Beatty is grooming Montag to become his successor and both hold deep secrets thanks to their continued exposure to banned materials. Guy’s story remains mostly untouched, but Shannon’s portrayal of Beatty adds considerable dimension to the hard lined captain. As a veteran, Beatty had seen and done many things in the name of The Ministry and unlike his literary counterpart, Shannon’s iteration occasionally shows tinges of regret and curiosity about the Eels he eliminates. Though subtle and poignant, these instances are hastily dispatched by Beatty with the purity of the flame.
In spite of Jordan and Shannon’s enthralling performances, the entirety of this new edition (especially if you’re a fan of the book) may leave you in want. Forgive the pun, but Fahrenheit is a slow burn that attempts to give the classic an edge and only blunts its narrative. Clarisse (Sofia Boutella) still has a prominent role in Montag’s evolution as a complete being, however, extending her presence in his journey of self-discovery lessened its importance somewhat. There were other inclusions, extensions, and re-imaginings here and there, yet none of them compare to the perplexing decisions made in the third act.
It’s the irony of ironies that a celebrated classic such as Fahrenheit 451 – a cautionary tale about the dangers of authoritarian government and powerful men’s desperate need to twist their truth into everyone’s reality – would be severely altered for the sake of being unlike its previous adaptation. Perhaps Bahrani‘s choice was to elicit a vibrant hope for the future, one many of the principal characters likely won’t see as their civilization is in precipitous decline. Still, it feels like a whimper than the bang few of us anticipated. To be fair, Fahrenheit 451 is a difficult book to adapt and requires a tactful hand to bring its most evoking imagery to life. Regrettably, this adaptation fails to stoke the flames of edification.