Culture

Does Fahrenheit 451 Even Matter, Anymore?

HBO's New Adaptation, Starring Michael B. Jordan, Feels Woefully Unnecessary

By Sam Eichner ·
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HBO

Part of the thrill of reading the book, Fahrenheit 451, particularly at an impressionable age, is holding it in your hands. From the writing inside, which tells the story of an Orwellian future, wherein firemen are tasked with burning books to uphold a totalitarian regime, the object itself changes. No longer is it this everyday item, as common and unremarkable as a toothbrush; it becomes a scandalized totem of revolution, of enlightenment, of freedom. The excitement is one of revelation. As if for the first time, you realize the power of a thing you probably took for granted.

No such excitement is to be found in Ramin Bahrani’s cookie-cutter film version of Ray Bradbury’s inciting 1953 novel, which premiered on HBO this past Saturday. It’s a movie about challenging authority that does nothing to challenge its audience, an adaptation of a provocative book that does nothing to provoke. Seemingly conceived as a twisted reflection of our current political moment, the film—which remains faithful to the themes and overarching plot of the book, albeit with some critical differences—fails to bring anything new to the conversation. It merely fans the flames.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Guy Montag, a “fireman” who works for a shadowy "Ministry," dedicated to burning books with very cool-looking and highly effective flamethrowers, and deleting the identities of “Eels.” These literary revolutionaries serve as the #resistance, and they're doing their best to save books and related cultural works—mostly by uploading them onto servers. In an attempt to draw a connection to social media, Montag is somewhat of a local celebrity in his humble hamlet of Cleveland; the raids he and his fellow firemen conduct on the Eels are broadcast to the entire city, projected on skyscrapers and other edifices with a Facebook Live-like interface, through which the engaged citizenry can “like” and comment. This would be interesting, were Bahrani to actually investigate it. But there aren’t any real consequences of this system. Rather, the endeavor comes across as just another box to check—another shallow tactic deployed to make the movie feel “relevant.” (Nothing is made of Montag's race, either, despite the fact that he appears to be the only black fireman in his squadron.)

Montag goes about his business—burning books, persecuting Eels, drinking with his coworkers, taking special eye drops to keep him happy and docile, fraternally sparring his boss, Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon)—until, by some mysterious intervention, he begins to question why he’s doing what he’s doing. This new line of inquiry is rooted in the memory of his father, who we see occasionally through brief remembrances—most notably, during the first big “burn.” Are these memories new? Has Montag been plagued by them before? What do they mean? Why is he experiencing them now, if he’s been burning books for over a decade? There are no answers to these questions, except to say he’s experiencing them now because the plot requires him to. Like the false history of the United States propagated by the Ministry—Benjamin Franklin founded the first firehouse, to burn things—these visions are placed in his head (this time, by Bahrani), and go unchallenged.

The path to radicalization, for Montag, is swift. Following a tip from the beautiful and enigmatic double agent, Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), Montag and Co. discover a giant house with an attic full of books. These are the first actual books Montag has ever seen, and he handles them as one might a precious jewel. They are fetishized, even sexualized, in his hands. Before setting them all aflame, he slips a book under his shirt: Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.

Fascinated by what he reads, he seeks out Clarisse in the ghettos on the margins of the city, reserved for those who have been expelled from mainstream society. Together, they read from the book on the floor of her room. It’s romantic, as it should be, but it's a foregone conclusion that the two will fall for each other. We don’t need to know why they feel for each other the way they do; the actors don’t feel obligated to compellingly show us. The movie seems to imply that we will accept their love for each other because Hollywood has trained us to do so. The most profound aspect of Fahrenheit 451 may be how much and how obliviously it exhibits the very slavish obeisance to the powers that be it was ostensibly created to combat.

Soon enough, Montag completely converts to the resistance, becoming a key player in the Eel's final act, which will irreversibly make books and knowledge accessible to all. No matter that Montag is, as Beatty says, the same dog barking for a different master; he doesn’t seem to doubt his new belief system, and neither, it seems, should we. We know who the heroes and villains are here, and, if you’re even a casual movie fan, you’ll know more or less how this ends. There is no ambiguity in the film, unless you consider this utter lack of ambiguity itself ambiguous; it would be a generous reading, but perhaps our tacit acceptance of such clear-cut good and evil is meant as a kind of indictment.

The only character in the film with any real sense of conflict is Beatty, Montag’s boss and mentor. Despite actions to the contrary, he has a devious affection for books. His knowledge of literature is vast; alone at night, he sips whiskey and writes axioms on cigarette papers, before burning them in the morning. In one scene, Beatty implores Montag to burn his hand, and promises he’ll get Montag to the point where he “won’t feel anything when they burn you.” The problem is, Beatty does feel—maybe too much. His nightly rituals are an act of Dostoyevskian masochism. He is tortured by all the knowledge he cannot un-know, its pleasures and its pain.

Needless to say, this is a perfect role for Michael Shannon, who’s as good as any working actor at making villains  three-dimensional (if not wholly sympathetic). Were Bahrani to focus more on his character, versus Montag’s, the movie might’ve left a mark. Of course, Beatty is not the protagonist in the book. But one has to wonder whether an adaptation that adheres this closely to the novel is worth adapting at all. Burning books seems, by comparison with the Trump administration’s outright lies and propaganda, almost quaint. I found myself strangely overjoyed that people in the movie even cared enough about great works of literature to burn them, much less defend them to the death. Surely, nobody in present day America would expend such a massive amount of manpower to destroy a thing that’s already been relegated, by natural forces, to the margins of popular culture.

Obviously, books in Fahrenheit 451 function as a symbol—of knowledge, of freedom of thought, of truth to power. Given our President’s concerted efforts to control the media—to adjudicate truth—this message is an important one. And yet, it may be a redundant one. What can we learn from this movie that we can’t learn simply by reading the news every day? 

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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