As our own world comes to increasingly resemble the dystopian futures described in post-apocalyptic speculative fiction novels, we’ll inevitably see more and more of those works emerge, just to remind us how truly fucked we are. This week, I read and reviewed Ray Bradbury’s iconic treatise on censorship and authoritarianism, Fahrenheit 451, and now I turn to the most recent movie version.
Before it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the arrival of HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 was heralded by a particularly eerie Tweet. It offered us the immortal tagline: “Fact. Fiction. It all burns.” Ramin Bahrani started developing this adaptation back in 2016, and last year it finally reached our screens. Mel Gibson was reportedly planning to direct, with Tom Cruise in the lead, but their conflicting schedules led them both to pull out; Brad Pitt was also briefly considered for the role. I, for one, am incredible glad the Calendar Gods that stymied those ideas, because I’m not sure I could have convinced myself to watch 100 full minutes of those ageing white dude-bros trying to save the future. As it stands, Bahrani ended up writing and directing the production, which was the best possible outcome for all involved.
His opening credits were genius: shot after shot of classic books and artworks distorting as they burn. It’s truly haunting watching Pride And Prejudice, As I Lay Dying, Lolita, Moby Dick, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Aeneid, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings get eaten up by flames, particularly when the images are interspersed with footage of Nazi book burnings. And if that’s not enough of a whammy, the credits give way to a really powerful shot of a man striking a match and staring into the flame. So, I think it’s already clear: I loved Bahrani’s direction. Later, he layered in these CCTV-like shots which chillingly reinforced the sense of everyone being surveilled, as a mechanism of control. Brilliant!
Just a few minutes in, it was obvious that Bahrani wasn’t sticking faithfully to Bradbury’s book. I mean, it’s hard to blame him – I know there are plenty of fans of the original material who would see me tarred and feathered for even suggesting this but I think the changes improved the story dramatically. Guy Montag (played by Michael B. Jordan) is no longer an oblivious middle-aged grunt with a miserable wife, but a young and energetic public figure, the face of the Firemen – and black. I debated whether to even bring this up, because it shouldn’t matter (and in an ideal world, it wouldn’t), but it’s important to celebrate filmmakers who get it right: the POC casting in this film was amazing, without the hollow ring of tokenism that so often plagues films trying desperately to appeal to “woke” audiences.
There’s plenty here for those audiences to sink their teeth in to, a whole new tree grown organically from the roots of Bradbury’s story under Bahrani’s tender loving care. Fahrenheit 451 is clearly heavily influenced by the success of Black Mirror, being very similar in tone and approach. I also noted several nods to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (the “FREEDOM IS CHOICE” mantra reminiscent of Orwellian slogans, and a secret diary hidden from an all-seeing household appliance), and also Huxley’s Brave New World (a populace mollified through medicated eye-drops). Given that these three books are often listed together as some kind of classic dystopian trifecta, the homages make sense. I appreciate that Bahrani didn’t shy away from the common ground.
The story is still set in an unspecified future time, after a Second Civil War, where books are banned but all information is now accessed through a state-controlled heavily-censored version of the internet called “The 9”. It’s basically a 24-hour news channel with a social media overlay. The imagery of “likes” and “stories” seemed a strong indication that the filmmakers intended to stay very faithful to Bradbury’s anti-mass media message, if not his plot. The firemen still burn books, as we know (but they call them “graffiti”), and Montag is their poster boy, unquestioningly spouting the party line at every opportunity.
It’s not just about physical books, though: the list of contraband has been expanded and updated for this century’s viewership. The Firemen also shut down people who upload electronic books and host them online (there’s a great visual of a fireman destroying a computer server with the old-fashioned technology of a strongly-wielded axe). These are electronic “burnings”, and the perpetrators (called “Eels”) are punished by having their online identities erased, which makes it practically impossible for them to function in the world.
When Montag starts to come around to the idea that, hey, maybe something’s hinkey with this whole set-up, we see that he has a stash – not of books, but of random ’90s crap: a cassette, a film reel, a computer mouse. It made me wonder whether they were perhaps diluting the censorship message too much, making it more about the technology and the mechanism of distribution rather than the power of knowledge and information itself. Montag does still steal a book, from the home of the old lady who chooses to burn with her book collection rather than live without them. He takes Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground, which seems fitting.
Montag’s disillusionment reaches fever pitch when he starts hanging out with Clarisse (played by Sofia Boutella). Ah, Clarisse! Believe it or not, she is given an actual back-story and some actual agency in this version of the story! Her Manic Pixie Dream Girl qualities in the book version irritated me to no end, so I literally fist-pumped when I realised Bahrani had taken a different approach for her character. Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451 the movie is actually an informant, trying to get her own sentence for infractions reduced by feeding the Firemen information on where they can find the book-hoarding Eels. She tells Montag the true history of books and how they came to be banned, in direct contradiction to his boss Captain Beatty’s version of events. Montag’s all “Awesome, I’m on your side now, teach me how to read this book I stole from the lady you dobbed in!”, and away they go.
I’m not going to lie, Fahrenheit 451 on-screen is still a pretty dude-centric story, at least in the beginning. They cut out Montag’s wife, for one thing, so that halved the number of female characters drawn from the original book. Until about mid-way through, only Clarisse and a female news reporter were allowed to speak. Thankfully, in the second half, more female characters are introduced; not only do they get to speak, they sometimes get to speak to each other, and take on leadership roles – a vast improvement over Bradbury’s original version, don’t you think?
The movie also does a much better job of highlighting Montag’s hypocrisy. He beats up and burns book owners by day, then reads with Clarisse by night. It really only occurred to me while watching the film how sympathetic the book was to him – he really is a garbage person, all told. At least until he decides to go out, and help the rebels: they have a plan to encode books into DNA (“Omnis”), that will be reproduced and disseminated throughout the world through animals, making any attempt to censor or destroy them impossible.
I’m not going to pretend I completely loved and understood this whole “Omnis” plot point, but I decided to just go with it. The Eels implanted some poor bird with this magical book DNA, and it was Montag’s job to steal a transmitter that would allow them to track its flight to Canada (where books aren’t banned and forcing mutant birds to mate and spread isn’t illegal, just creepy). He pulls it off, in the sense that the bird gets away, but Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) shows up and he is pissed that his golden child has joined the Dark Side.
In this version, Beatty survives, but Montag doesn’t fare as well. Beatty literally incinerates him with his flame-thrower (and you thought your boss was bad!). I wanted to come up with a clever play-on-words about Montag dying by the flaming sword he lived by, but I couldn’t quite nail one down, so just pretend I used one here and chuckle appropriately. It’s a much more fitting and realistic ending for Montag, I think, but the true horror is tempered by the whole hope-springs-eternal thing, in the form of a magical mutant bird escaping safely…
My only real quibble with Fahrenheit 451 the movie was the fact that all the actors seemed to forget to react to the heat of the flames (and a lot of shit gets burned, so I noticed this every couple of minutes). I know it’s a post-apocalyptic future and everyone’s all hardened and everything, but sheesh – I reel when I open a gas oven! That shit is HOT! It’s normal to at least squirm a little when a house burns down around you.
But it would seem that reviewers and film critics took far more issue with Fahrenheit 451, and almost none of them liked it as much as I did. Rotten Tomatoes gives it an aggregated approval rating of just 35%, saying it “fails to burn as brightly as its classic source material”. Published reviews have been mixed at best, with most of them criticising Bahrani’s attempts to modernise the story for a contemporary audience. Fahrenheit 451 did get a handful of miscellaneous Emmy notifications, but won none of them. To be quite honest, I really don’t understand all the hate – I loved it!
So, which was better, the movie or book?
The movie. The movie, a hundred times over. I really didn’t love the book as much as I’d expected to, but the movie blew me away. It would seem that I’m out of step with the rest of the world – confessing to liking any movie more than the book is sacrilegious, and this one got more bad reviews than most – but I’m saying it loud and saying it proud. I’ll probably never flick through the pages of Fahrenheit 451 again, but I can’t wait to re-watch the movie with my husband and point out all my favourite bits again and again.