“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Thus opens Ray Bradbury’s iconic 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451.” In contrast, the first spoken words of the 2018 HBO adaptation are those of a news report, one that could well have been lifted from a contemporary American paper, save for some dystopia-specific vocabulary.
Just as “Blade Runner” takes the world and the name of the main character from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” but then creates a very different story, Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi’s adaptation is faithful to its source while still finding room for innovation. By far, the film’s greatest strengths are the ways by which the classic novel is adapted to better (read: more eerily) resemble today’s society.
Michael B. Jordan, who was also an executive producer on the project, breathes new life into the role of Guy Montag. While Bradbury’s Montag was an older man in an emotionless marriage, Jordan’s Montag is a young, vibrant persona both among the firemen and on “the Nine” — the dystopia’s version of the internet.
The Nine is one of the principle ways the television adaptation departs from the original lore. It goes without saying, but the 1953 novel predates the invention of the internet. Bradbury was primarily concerned with the ways technology possesses the power to eat away at our collective humanity. He imagined floor-to-ceiling screens on all four walls of a room, each screen playing a different distraction.
Similarly, HBO’s adaptation does not shy away from a critical look at technology — Montag and Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) both take measures to hide certain activities from their Alexa-esque home artificial intelligence systems. Some of Bradbury’s original vision makes its way into the design of Montag’s house, the interior and exterior of which is uncomfortably identical to the cutting-edge smart houses of Silicon Valley.
But technology itself is not the villain in the 2018 adaptation. This alteration is one of the most compelling changes made. Unlike the novel, which opens with the firemen responding to a housecall and burning a woman and her library collection, the film opens with a bust on a group of people called Eels who are desperately uploading books, known as graffiti, to the Dark Nine (think dark web).
When the time comes to “burn for America again” and the firemen light their pyre, it is to burn an amalgamation of hard drives and hard covers, perfectly depicting the film’s blending of the old and the new.
At the head of this crusade is Captain Beatty. Shannon continues to prove his impressive handle on embodying the most insidious of villains. Amid dozens of op-eds covering and decrying the coverage of your everyday alt-righters, Shannon has cornered the market on the Nazi next door who is all the more terrifying because he is so familiar. Shannon’s square jaw and strong brows give the sense of an all-American boy all grown up. This physical presence, combined with Shannon’s commanding performance, establishes his Beatty as a terrifying force.
For all of this adaptation’s strengths, its plot ultimately feels rushed. Clocking in at only 100 minutes, the film ultimately does not have enough time to give each character a fully realized arc. Montag’s change of heart is believable, but it feels superficially carried out, given the short amount of time in which we see the character go from the poster child of the regime to somebody who is willing to risk it all to bring that regime down.
Yet the adaptation builds a compelling world. While the film does not have the space to fully develop its strongest attributes, the plot’s nuanced consideration of the issues of today’s society make the story memorable. HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451” is a refreshingly nuanced, if imperfect, consideration of the ways technology and knowledge can both liberate and oppress. Its ambiguous ending, while frustrating, also feels like the appropriate conclusion — given that the film could be a not-too-distant future for our society.
Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].