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.