"I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” an old man says in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.”
The scariest thing about Bradbury’s science-fiction nightmare—published in 1953, and bearing stunning similarities to 2018—isn’t that books are outlawed and burned, or that the country wages vague, never-ending war, or that communication has garbled into white noise.
The scariest thing about Bradbury’s anodyne dystopia is that its people want it. Sure, the government of Fahrenheit 451 oppresses, but it can’t do so without the cooperation of what one character calls “the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.” In this futuristic dark age, ignorance really is bliss.
Fahrenheit 451, HBO’s TV movie adaptation of Bradbury’s book (airing Sat May 19), handles some elements of the story really, really well and other elements not so really, really well. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, it has a perfect cast: Michael B. Jordan plays Montag, a “fireman” who’s starting to ask why his job requires him to burn books, while Michael Shannon plays Beatty, Montag’s cold-eyed boss who seems to know an awful lot about the libraries he turns to ash.
As in the book, Beatty is the sharpest, saddest character: Unlike Montag, he knows what the world has given up. Beatty has read what he burns, and he burns it all the same.
Predictably enough, both Jordan and Shannon are great, with Jordan’s paranoid hope clashing against Shannon’s coiled rage. Also good is Sofia Boutella as Clarisse, who walks the line between the book-burning firemen and a few scattered, book-hoarding rebels. On the upside, Clarisse has a heftier role than in Bradbury’s novel, where she’s the ill-aged definition of a manic pixie dream girl; on the downside, even here she ultimately fades into the background.
Before long, this adaptation starts to creak and tumble. While Bradbury’s book was set in the distant future—one with helicopter cars, robot dogs, and an immersive pablum of ever-present television—this Fahrenheit 451 is set in a near-future Cleveland that’s much the same as ours. Sometimes this leads to cleverness: Montag and Beatty are social-media stars, there’s panic over “illegal migration” as Americans sprint to Canada, and public discourse is conducted in emoji.
The updates, though, are hit-or-miss. Here, Montag burns hard drives as often as books, and not only is it a lot less horrific to watch computers being burned (do computers even burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit?), it raises questions the film can’t answer. (There are allusions to a kind of darknet, yet it’s unclear if contraband books are uploaded to it. If they aren’t, why not, and if they are, shouldn’t these firemen be trying to find those servers?)
While TV has evolved dramatically since Fahrenheit 451’s publication (for proof, look no further than everything else on HBO), it still feels like a cop-out that the book’s aggressively anti-TV stance has been erased. (This may or may not have something to do with the fact this is a TV movie.) And in an admirable gambit, the film’s final stretch radically departs from the book—but by tossing in a wobbly backstory and an unnecessary MacGuffin, it loses the tangible dread that thrums in Bradbury’s pages.
It’d be easier to write off HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 if it was just flat-out lousy (as was the case with François Truffaut’s mind-numbing adaptation from 1966). But it’s not—thanks to Shannon, Jordan, and the bone-deep horror of Bradbury’s ash-smeared world, much of it works.
At the same time, it’s hard to recommend actually watching it, particularly when you remember not just how brilliant Bradbury’s book is, but its elegant concision. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is short enough that you can read most of it in the time it’d take to watch the movie. In this case—especially in this case—reading is the better choice.