How do you make a television movie out of a book whose premise is that televised entertainment is destroying humanity? Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury told LA Weekly in 2007, is a warning against an age of factoids, of rolling cable-news chyrons, of attention spans so fried that what he once called our “hopscotching existence” makes it impossible to sit still with a novel. The 1953 book features a woman whose entire life revolves around her “interactions” with actors whose shows take up three full walls of her living room—an immersive kind of entertainment unheard of in Bradbury’s time, but commonplace now.
Ramin Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451, which airs on HBO Saturday night, updates Bradbury’s dystopia for the social-media age, meaning that television is no longer bringing about the downfall of civilization: the internet is. The story is set in a kind of alternate-reality Cleveland by way of Black Mirror, where (as in the source material) books have been outlawed. Knowledge, Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) tells a classroom of schoolkids, “will make you sick and crazy.” The great classics (Moby-Dick, the Bible) have been abridged into a handful of emojis. Everything else is systematically torched by firefighters, whose hoses spout kerosene instead of water.
The great difference from the novel is a practical one, given the contemporary ubiquity of cellphones and the ability to download any book in existence at the tap of a thumbprint. In Bahrani’s world, all Americans are permanently plugged into a kind of rolling online network called The Nine, broadcast on screens in every home, and projected onto the city’s buildings. Any literature or art uploaded to The Nine is dubbed “graffiti,” and strictly outlawed. Tech companies, it’s revealed, have become a kind of de facto government, phasing out language to better ping the dopamine receptors of The Nine’s twitchy users. “They sold us what we wanted, self and happiness,” Clarisse (Sofia Boutella) tells Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan), a firefighter in Beatty’s command. “We did it to ourselves. We demanded a world like this.”
Did we? Are we? Look how eerily relevant this premise is, Fahrenheit 451 blares, with its Alexa-like homebot (named Yuxie in the film), who doles out compliments and orders personalized—drugged—eyedrops for Jordan’s increasingly dissatisfied Montag, and appears to be listening even when she’s not supposed to be. Not to mention its conception of an America in which knowledge and education are threats rather than assets. The regime in the film, it’s revealed, was established after a second civil war, precipitated by too many differences of opinion. The systematic vilification of facts and expertise, the violent abnegation of diverse thought, the constant blasts of paranoia-stoking crime reports and patriotic soundbites on an inescapable news network—could this be more now?
Well, a bit. And that’s the problem with Fahrenheit 451: It works so ferociously to be relevant that it forgets to make sense. (The motto of the autocratic regime is “Happiness is truth, freedom is choice, self is strength,” which bears no relation to the themes of the story any way you spin it.) Not to mention that Montag’s interiority and his shifting perception of the world—the most important part of the book—is lost on film, leaving Jordan with a handful of clunky soundbites and a perturbed expression to communicate the bulk of his evolution. Bahrani eliminates two of the three key events from the novel that bring about Montag’s disaffection with his life and career: his wife and her overdose on sleeping pills, and the death of Clarisse, a guileless, quirky 17-year-old schoolgirl who exists briefly to connect Montag with nature (I’m not saying the book’s perfect either).
Instead, Montag (who lives alone) goes on a routine call one day and discovers a veritable Bodleian library of contraband books, owned by a middle-aged woman who refuses to be cowed by threats or flamethrowers. Something about her silent defiance stirs Montag, who’s also struck by the strangeness of seeing books for the first time—their physicality and their presence. He’s compelled to share his newfound confusion with Clarisse, no longer a schoolgirl but an “eel,” or illegal, a criminal cut off from society and The Nine who informs on book owners to shave time off her sentence. From there, the movie quickly escalates (its running time is a fleeting one hour and 40 minutes) as Montag gets drawn more deeply into the resistance.
The world of Bahrani’s adaptation ticks all the right dystopian-horror boxes. There’s the nightmarish neon light that filters into all environments, the menacing omnipresent emojis reacting cheerfully and inanely to state-sponsored brutality, the inability to escape surveillance. I was reminded more than once of the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits,” in which Daniel Kaluuya’s character lives in a small white box surrounded on all sides by TV screens and is permanently plugged in to a goofy media network of avatars, pornography, and reality television. But unlike its stylistic counterparts, nothing genuinely chilling happens in Fahrenheit 451, unless you’re the kind of person who’s triggered by the sight of a charred, ashy copy of a Harry Potter title.
That’s because the most disturbing—and relevant—elements of the original book have been excised. We get little sense, for instance, of the depression that pervades Bradbury’s world, because people are so perpetually buzzed by entertainment and deprived of free thought that their brains break down. In the novel, Montag’s wife exists in a kind of sentient coma, fueled by television, tranquilizers, and a wall of sound transmitted into her ear that prevents her having to feel things. Teenagers in the book run down pedestrians for kicks. When one of Montag’s neighbors accidentally hears poetry, she’s so disturbed by the feelings it triggers that she cries and runs out of the room. The sharpest parallels between the 1953 Fahrenheit 451 and contemporary culture are the ones that consider the mental-health consequences of being permanently stimulated.
Bahrani’s film ignores all this. The only characters it spends any real time with are Montag, Beatty, and Clarisse. Montag’s inner turmoil is expressed through flashbacks to seeing his father arrested as a child, Beatty spouts Bradbury’s most verbose and opaque lines of dialogue about knowledge, and Clarisse is just an escort for Montag’s heroic journey. Jordan does his best with a muted role, and Shannon is as generically Michael Shannon as he’s ever been, but it’s hard to see a window into what Beatty is supposed to represent—namely, the ambiguity of free thought. The movie looks terrific, and the world Bahrani has constructed is a detailed one. But it’s challenging to pull an interpretation out of the cryptic final scene, which could itself have been rendered in emoji without losing too much nuance.
The movie’s superficiality perhaps embodies what Bradbury was trying to say—that TV and film are stunted, two-dimensional forms of entertainment compared to the complexity, the richness, and the interrogative nature of books. He was wrong, obviously. But this adaptation isn’t the persuasive counterargument you might hope for.