Science fiction often offers us cautionary tales about the role technology may play in humanity's future, but Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 isn't content to merely caution. It shrieks. It wails. It pulls out its hair, gnashes its teeth and rends its garments. It grabs us by the lapels and shakes us, screaming dire threats. It's ... unsubtle.
Which is part of its curmudgeonly charm, of course. There's more than a little grumpy satire to Bradbury's dystopia, in which the populace has chosen to embrace a kind of witless, anesthetized existence fed by television screens that offer them platitudes and propaganda, while choosing to reject the thornier, more demanding intellectual pleasures of capital-g Great capital-l Literature. In that world, brigades of Firemen hunt down the last remaining works of literature to gleefully and publicly burn them, setting out to erase history and alter collective memory.
Today, generations of middle-schoolers have been compelled to grapple with Fahrenheit 451, which is, at the very core of its essence, one worried 1953 writer's sneering, polemical takedown of a new medium he feared augured the death of his livelihood: television.
Bradbury's Fear Of The New — to say nothing of his Worry About His Next Paycheck — lends Fahrenheit 451 its plaintive, hand-wringing sense of urgency. There's a smug elitism, too, in his description of the teeming masses willingly if passively absorbing the inane boosterism they invite into their homes on "wall-screens." But what makes the book interesting is Bradbury's slyly sardonic insistence that it wasn't something that happened to us — there was no charismatic dictator, no military coup, no megacorporate takeover that bent everyone to its will. No, what's important, what's crucial — and what keeps the book timeless — is that, in Bradbury's mind, we did it to ourselves.
So it's not surprising that the scenes that resonate, in HBO's 100-minute Fahrenheit 451 movie, are the ones that explore our collective culpability. "Nobody was reading any more," snarls Michael Shannon's head Fireman (Shannon snarls his every line, by the way) "or they were just glancing at headlines generated by an algorithm."
There it is. Director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes), conscious that Bradbury's paranoia about television might play differently today, especially in an adaptation made, you know, for television, instead loads up the script (written with Amir Naderi) with more immediate techno-bogeymen: An all-seeing, all-hearing, female-voiced interactive operating system found in every home called ... Yuxie. Broadcasts on the sides of skyscrapers that channel social media outrage. The great works of Melville et al. reduced to emojis.
To streamline the book's shaggy, discursive plotline, the film inserts a rote MacGuffin — a mysterious substance known as the OMNIS, which (say it with me) holds the key to humanity's future.
Perhaps the biggest change Bahrani and Naderi made is the most welcome: In the book, Fireman Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan, here) is married to a lazy, spoiled, dull-witted woman who eagerly consumes whatever the wall-screens feed her and ultimately turns Montag in — a poorly-drawn, uncharitable if not misogynistic portrait of womanhood writ large. She's nowhere to be seen, in the HBO movie, and one of the book's minor characters — Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), who here feeds information to the authorities about the actions of the book-harboring "eels" (short for "illegals") — rushes in to fill the narrative vacuum.
The bones of the plot, however, remain the same — Montag, an enthusiastic, true-blue Fireman at the outset, undergoes a crisis of conscience and turns against his masters to join the ranks of those who seek to preserve the great works of literature. Jordan does his level best to convey the arc of that spiritual awakening — we get lots of shots of him looking soulful, wet-eyed and wounded — but the script haltingly frog-marches him through the motions of it all far too quickly for it to seem real. Shannon, meanwhile, does little to modulate his performance, alternating between shouting and growling like he's J. Jonah Jameson hectoring his employees for photos of Spider-Man.
The characters' tendency to speak in aphorisms is likely meant to convey this fallen world's reliance on propaganda as cultural currency, but its blunt polemicism effectively flattens the characters in ways they can't recover from.
Smartly, the movie tosses the book's tidy, quasi-hopeful ending onto the fire, in favor of something more allusive and abstract. Unfortunately, the film that precedes those closing images possesses none of their mystery or magic.
Fahrenheit 451 airs on HBO on Saturday, May 19, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time.