Fahrenheit 451 (2018)
Adaptations of popular books, especially classics, often do not well in online reviews because fans of the book are comparing it to the text. I know, I’m guilty of this as much as anybody. Which I think explains the poor reviews for HBO’s adaptation of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Some of the reviewers on IMDB stated that their review was of the book and not the movie or it was a comparison to Truffaut’s 1966 classic adaptation.
Having said that, this is not a bad movie. That is not to say it is a great movie. What it is not is the original novel which is immediately obvious. It is Bahrani’s interpretation of the biggest image behind the novel – that there is a government agency dedicated to burning books – and might have done better under a different name. Bradbury’s novel was written in the shadow of Nazis burning books and anti-Communist fervor in the United States. The Truffaut version was made not much later but in the same zeitgeist. Bahrani’s version is for a very different time. It is for a post-Cold War, post-September 11th world where the internet is universal. It is a much more dystopian view of the world (as evidenced by being filmed mostly at night).
Bradbury said his novel is not just about censorship, it was also about the way in which the mass media of television had transformed lives and ‘dumbed down’ the people. This is best illustrated in the relationship of Montag’s wife Millie’s addition to the ‘parlor walls’ and their dramas. I wonder what he would think about the modern age where media is always in your pocket and you can tune out the world and everyone around you. A concept shown in the movie when Montag and Beatty visit a club where all the patrons are on 3d viewers (BTW, an ad for Oculus appears behind Montag in one scene. Not the best product placement).
But, back to the movie. Bradbury had said that censorship will come about because the people will demand it. That they will not want to be confused by ideas. This theme comes out clearly in a scene where Montag and Beatty come across a cache of books. Beatty goes around picking up famous novels or authors and talks about why the needed to be burned. ‘Twain’s Huck Finn offended blacks. Wright’s ‘Native Son’ offended whites. Hemingway angered the feminists.’ Ironically, he picked up Mein Kampf which is banned in Germany (one of the great directorial choices is in the books that are highlighted during burns and the one that Montag steals). Here is where the book has jumped to modern times. These are titles (and authors) who have been excluded from curricula for the reasons cited. It was not the government that said these ideas were dangerous, it was interest groups that put pressure ON government to remove them from schools and the public eye. This is best exemplified by the protests against conservative speakers on campuses and the push to remove anything about the Confederacy from public spaces (both of which eerily echo Orwell’s 1984).
[WARNING: This paragraph contains spoilers] Where Bahrani has improved on Bradbury is that Montag and Beatty now have backstories. You can see their motivations more clearly. In the confrontation between Montag and Beatty, Beatty confesses that his decision was that in a conflict between ideas and social relations he would rather ‘stand with his brother’. This is suggested in an earlier scene of a kegger among the firemen. Bahrani also did a good job updating the novel with mention of the Second Civil War because of the growth of factions in the United States, a phenomenon that has been noted by multiple social and political scientists. The growth of ‘smart speakers’ like Amazon Echo is seen to its fruition with the ever-present (and monitoring) Yuxie as a fitting stand-in. As my son joked when we were watching it, “That explains why Amazon didn’t produce it.” [End of Spoilers]
I do need to give special mention to Michael Shannon, who as Fire Captain Beatty steals the show. The scenes of him alone become riveting as we watch him work out his inner conflict. He is fast becoming one of my favorite actors.
Bottom line. This is a good movie. It is just not the book; however, it is how the book might have been written in 2018.