Airing this Saturday on HBO, Fahrenheit 451 has solid performances from its lead actors and intriguing production design but lacks the biting tone which made Ray Bradbury’s novel a classic.
Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon head up this strong cast as they attempt to bring a modern spin to Bradbury’s work. Director Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) is more than up to the challenge of bringing Bradbury’s words to life. Kimberley Zaharko’s production design is an homage to the 1966 film as she utilizes bright colors in the interior shots. Zaharko does add her own twist to the adaptation, as she creates the appearance of LED screens on the cityscape that allows others to watch these mass burning moments.
The narrative centers on the exploits of Guy Montag (Jordan) and Beatty (Shannon). Montag is part of the firefighting squad whose mission involves burning all books, music, visual art and digital art. Beatty is Montag’s boss and runs the most popular squad in the department. However, what happens when Montag begins to realize that everything he’s based his life on is a lie? Could we indeed exist in a world with some intellectual stimulation?
Jordan and Shannon are solid in their respective roles. Neither actor is attempting to replicate performances seen in previous adaptations. Jordan’s Montag looks up to Beatty, and he tries to emulate his no-nonsense approach to firefighting. This version of Montag comes off as a bit more curious than the character in Bradbury’s novel. Shannon’s Beatty is a firm believer in tradition and cares about the legacy of his profession. His perfect world has no record of the past, and he accepts this world as the way it always has been.
Zaharko’s production design certainly makes a statement about how reliant our world has become on social media. One of the more interesting choices is how they made every book burning a newsworthy moment broadcasted to everyone on those giant LED screens. The world is allowed to interact with these moments in the same way people handle Facebook live videos. People can post comments during these broadcasts and “like” individual moments as they unfold live for the world to see. The setup is highly effective in reinforcing the mob mentality which permeates all aspects of this dystopian society.
Bahrani’s direction is sufficient. His talent for pacing and staging was clearly on display during Fahrenheit 451. The scene where Montag and Beatty are leading a school assembly about the dangers of the written word demonstrates that. Rather than having the cast race through the dialogue by taking a medium pace, it allows for the tension to reach a fever pitch. Having the auditorium be dimly lit and each row be perfectly aligned gives each second of the scene a feeling of watching innocent children being brainwashed.
My only wish is that the narrative had been a bit more effectively constructed. Amir Naderi’s screenplay glosses over some of the most critical details of Bradbury’s novel. Audiences are left to wonder why these book burnings started. Naderi’s focus appears to be more on the digital age we live in now rather than why certain characters are driven to take the actions they do. The message behind the source material gets muddled during the film. Fahrenheit 451 was written during the height of McCarthyism and denounces the evils of a mob mentality. This adaptation comes across as taking censorship to task.
Overall, while Fahrenheit 451 is enjoyable, it’s hard not to wonder how much more enjoyment audiences would have gotten out of it if the message more closely mirrored Bradbury’s original work. We indeed do live in a world where a mob mentality is undoubtedly relevant and applicable to what we are witnessing on the evening news.