You could be forgiven for not knowing that, after months of hype, HBO finally released it’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 two weeks ago. The trailers and teases were intense and compelling. The original book is one of the best works of the 20th century.
We had every reason to expect a grab-you-by-the-throat viewing experience. And those expectations only serve to magnify our disappointment.
Same But Different
The movie has stylistic differences from the book in an effort to make it modern. But in doing so, there are times when the movie feels more like 1984 than F451. Michael B. Jordan plays the lead role of Montag. But instead of being married to a vapid woman obsessed with the TV, he’s a sexy single Firefighter who’s found fame on the “9,” the new internet as a celebrity Firefighter who works for The Ministry.
There are also Amazon Alexa-esque personal assistants that are even more invasive than the ones we have today.
People watch the book and technology burnings on the 9, and see how book-loving Eels are punished. We are told this is for their happiness, to prevent conflicting ideas from confusing people and having them fight about which idea is correct, and it all started after a second American civil war.
There are some stories that are fine not filling in more background detail. In A Quiet Place we joined the crisis in progress, and it didn’t matter where the alien beasts came from or how humanity died trying to fight them. But here some detail would serve to get the audience up to speed. We don’t need an evil leader to hate or civil war flashbacks. The Firemen serve as the omnipresent boogie men. But the lack of more history keeps the audience as outsiders and not active participants vested in the story.
Montag’s boss is Captain Beatty, played by Michael Shannon. Shannon has the role of menacing authoritarian figure down to a science. Here he is not only Montag’s boss, he’s also his father figure, mentor, and drinking buddy. This relationship also leads to some of the most disjointed moments of the movie.
One moment they’re on fire engines attacking readers. The next they’re talking in Beatty’s office. Then they’re having a beer, and in another uncomfortable edit they’re singing with a crew in the bar. It was odd and uncomfortable, but not in the good way. It seemed like lazy writing and execution to get us to understand it’s not an average boss-employee relationship.
Montag is also Beatty’s handpicked successor, which may lead him to overlook certain subversive actions. Yes, Beatty wants to validate his own judgment and wants to see only Montag’s best. But there are so many red flags, a true friend and boss would have intervened long before the only option is to have Montag burn down his home and eventually incinerate him (another major change from the original book).
And then there’s Clarisse. In this version she’s a subversive Eel-turned-informant for Beatty. She gives up several rebels in exchange for a reduction in her punishments. Yet she seems to be a true believer and brings Montag into the inner circle of book preservers. Her early action are never squared away with actions she takes later, and it’s incredibly jarring to the viewer.
And don’t even get us started on the genetically modified bird that’s gonna save literacy, culture, and humanity!
Good Message, Bad Messenger
Of course the message of free speech and guarding against a glitzy tyranny is important. But HBO’s movie does not make the best case for it. You can feel when the director is trying to create emotional, poignant moments, and that makes it all the more uncomfortable when you consciously fail to connect.
Too often it just boarders on nonsense.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Pour yourself a shot of Fireball. It burns going down but warms your heart (and other things). Or, on second thought, skip this movie and curl up with a good book. But keep the Fireball!