Fahrenheit 451 Review: HBO Adaptation Could Use Some More Heat

Photo: Michael Gibson/HBO.
A new week, a new adaptation of a beloved old novel, right? Mere days after PBS debuted its Masterpiece Theater miniseries reboot of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, HBO is here with Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 book of the same name, now with a social media-friendly spin. The Michael B. Jordan-starring film, premiering Saturday, May 19, should feel like the soul sibling to Handmaid’s Tale. After all, both are dystopian prestige TV offerings inspired by classic novels. They both seem to have opinions about the way society is heading. And, they both seem to believe that direction might be over a very tall cliff made up of fascism.
But, the difference is, one is a weekly series given hours upon hours to dig into the nitty-gritty of politics, authoritarianism, and Where We Are Right Now — and one is a surprisingly speedy 100-minute film. Unfortunately for Fahrenheit 451, it is unexpectedly lithe movie, and it suffers from that. While the premium cable offering should leave viewers fired up and terrified for the future amid America’s current slide into dangerous policies — just this week the Trump administration announced shocking possible plans to hold immigrant children on military bases — you instead walk away cold.
The problem is, there is simply too much world to build and story to plot for a mere 6,000 seconds of film.
We enter this new, visually dazzling world of Fahrenheit 451 with a foreboding, and purposefully incorrect, quote: “It is better to be happy than free.” That line is supposedly from the Bill Of Rights, but, of course, that is a lie. At least we now understand just how much the world of Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) is powered by fake news. When we meet protagonist Montag, he is quite literally playing with fire, in the form of matches, in his ridiculously cool home. Soon enough Montag is boxing with wild-eyed always-villain Michael Shannon, who plays 451 antagonist Captain Beatty, and preaching about the danger of books to at least 100 young “natives,” which is the word for citizens here.
Unfortunately this makes sense, since Montag is a firefighter. While that position tends to mean stopping fires in 2018, in Montag's society, the gig equates to starting fires the moment anyone sees a book. Montag's entire life is built around book burning in order to uphold the very controlling society his lives in; it’s a society where only three books are allowed, everyone has an Alexa-type home assistant recording their every move and heartbeat, and citizens tune into superlike, thumbs down, and rage comment as books are burned and dissenters are punished, live on camera. No one is even allowed to watch Singin’ In The Rain, or any other movie for that matter. This world is trash.
If 451 were a series — even a miniseries — the drama would have time to flesh out who Montag is and how, exactly, he comes to sympathize with the “eels,” or book-reading rebels trying to take down television’s latest authoritarian regime. But, Montag isn’t given that time. Instead, he’s a complete company man until… he isn’t. The roller coaster from Good Soldier Montag to Literary Rebel Montag takes minutes, when we all know undoing decades of social conditioning could not be that simple. Yes, even when he has the beautiful, eel-affiliated Clarisse McClellan (Sofia Boutella) there as his guide.
For this entire movie to work, viewers seriously have to buy into the chemistry of Montag and Clarisse. She is the reason, or at least a very, very big part of the reason, Montag leaves his entire safe, sensible, legal life behind to save books and the very idea of freedom itself. Yet, Clarisse is one of the most flat characters on the screen. She is mostly left to pout in cool clubs, wear futuristic cozy knits, detail her past in a way that illuminates Montag's own history, and explain actual reality to her new love interest, an emotional and mental baby of human. Clarisse is an underground badass with connections to a bunch of novel-loving rebels. Clarisse deserves to do something much cooler than sitting shotgun for Montag.
Although Clarisse, like every other character, probably would have benefitted from a longer Fahrenheit 451, at least the movie does take on an interesting lens with two leads of color (Boutella is Algerian). This is especially true for Montag, as we watch a Black man walk through a world that has fully fallen into America's worst fascist impulses. Viewers will likely notice Montag is usually the only Black person in his squad, and it’s very clear his underlings resent that. When the N-word is dropped during a conversation with Montag, or someone uses “boy” in that way that immediately reminds you of slavery, it’s impossible not to feel something visceral in your body. All of a sudden, we're reminded we need more dystopian entertainment with people of color at the forefront.
Plus, no matter the character, Michael B. Jordan of shirtless Black Panther fame makes anything he’s starring in more compelling and harder to look away from.
That’s why you probably shouldn’t put your plans on hold this Saturday night plans to watch Fahrenheit 451 live. But, if you’re scrolling through HBO Go one night, you’ll probably enjoy spending 100 minutes watching Erik Killmonger reason through the importance of culture and freedom, while accompanied by some truly stunning, futuristic backdrops. Your only real problem will be, you’ll simply wish there was more.
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