TL;DR – While it is wonderfully acted and beautifully filmed, unfortunately in the attempt to update the source material it loses some of the core parts of the narrative in the attempt to tell a more straightforward narrative.
Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one of those titan works of literature that kind of looms over narrative and speculative fiction genre. It was both miles ahead of its time but also very much a product of its time, making it a difficult work to adapt especially as time has gone on. It is one of those books that is weird and at times off-putting but entirely compelling as it sucks you into a world without books. When I heard that they were going to do a remake of it starring Michael B. Jordan I was really excited because it held such promise and now that I have seen it well, I don’t know, but somewhere along the way, it lost something. Today we are going to look at just what that might have been and yes I am writing this from the perspective of someone who has read the source material, and if you have not you might get something completely different from the film and that is completely fine. I am not someone who believes that you have to read the book before seeing it updated, but seeing that I have it shapes the way I experienced the film.
So to set the scene, it is some time in the future after the second Civil War in America and in an attempt to avoid further conflict the powers at be have decided to remove all physical media leaving only selected copies online that can be modified and edited to suit what they want. The aim is to keep everyone happy by not presenting them with debate, or questions, or the fact that there might be two sides to an issue. In that world, we have Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) our protagonist who is a firefighter, but instead of fighting fires with water, they use fire to cleanse away parts of society that they do not like. Under the command of John Beatty (Michael Shannon) Guy helps round up Eels like Clarisse (Sofia Boutella) who release graffiti (their term for an unaltered media) onto the net and who hide books from the authorities. Well as time has gone on the firefighter has started to question what it is that he does, who he is, and what world he lives in.
While for me there were a lot of issues with this adaptation, there were a lot of aspects of the film that I did really like. The first thing that really stands out is the rapport between Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon. So much of the film is put on their shoulders and they completely sell the complicated relationship between a surrogate father/son, mentor/student, and authority figure/home of rebellion. This is really needed because in this adaptation Beatty is the only real anchor for Montag so if that relationship came off a disingenuous it really would have destroyed the film. As well as this, I do really have to give credit to the whole cinematography team here. There are some truly wonderful scenes in this film with the interplay of night and fire. Add to this every shot is really well framed so that there is never any confusion as to what is happening and this is a just a very well filmed piece of cinema.
Now while there were aspects of this film that I really liked, for me personally I do not think they nailed the adaptation part of the process in both story and tone. Now when you are adapting a work there have to be some changes because the medium of a book and the medium of a film are two very different things. However, while a good adaption might mess around with all the small details, they still make sure to get the core concepts right and I don’t think we got that here. The first really big change of the film is that they have removed the character of Montag’s wife. To be fair I can see why they did because she was written very much of her time and that would not translate very well today. However, in doing that you lose a lot of Montag’s character arc and a clear insight into how people in this world outside of the Eels and Firemen think and act. The world had become completely selfish and self-serving, in a ‘let’s run someone down whose crossing the street cause that would be a bit of fun’ kind of way. This is a core part of the original work and it is completely missing here and that’s important because you see what a world becomes without critical thought at the centre, which goodness is that not topical.
This is combined with an update to the world that the film is set in that feels undercooked. Given how forward-thinking Bradbury was, and the world we live in today, an update was needed but it felt like the film wanted to be a commentary on the world we live in, but it did not want to commit to it. So in points during the film, they make casual references to the world we live in today, with veiled analogies to algorithms that cause conflict rather than inform and discord over race relations. However, in a need not to offend people it always feels like the film wants to have its cake and eat it too because it always holds off on actually making the point, or when it does it tries to obfuscate it by trying to hit every side of the debate.
As well as this, while the film hits many of the same plot points of the original work, it completely changed up the original works ending by replacing it with a paint by numbers good/bad narrative. Even though the book is over 50 years old there will be some [SPOILERS] here for the ending if you have not seen the film or read the book. In the original work, Montag goes through the same motions of having the women burning herself with her books, being caught out by having books in his house, etc. Indeed, there is not the same hidden code word drawing him into a conspiracy, it is his own internal discovery that the world he lives in is not a good one. So when the world turns against him it has a lot more emotional weight, especially since it is Beatty that gets burnt in the book. Indeed, the whole end of the film is an escape chase from a robot dog hunting him down, how did that get the axe in pre-production. It is here where we discover the ultimate cost for people living from one distraction to another, they become so distracted that they don’t know or at least don’t care war is coming. Instead, we get this side plot that tries to fill in the same motivation that we got in the original book, but they go with the most generic set up, and shove the showdown to the end where it has the least impact.
So, in the end, do we recommend Fahrenheit 451? Honestly, I don’t think we do, which is a real shame. For me, the changes they made and the need to fit it within modern narrative styles took away from the message of the book, and really limited its impact. Which is a shame, because everyone is clearly giving their all here, it just unfortunately falls flat.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Fahrenheit 451
Directed by – Ramin Bahrani
Screenplay by – Ramin Bahrani & Amir Naderi
Based on – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Music by – Antony Partos & Matteo Zingales
Cinematography by – Kramer Morgenthau
Edited by – Alex Hall
Starring – Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella, Khandi Alexander, Lilly Singh, Martin Donovan, Andy McQueen, Dylan Taylor, Grace Lynn Kung & Keir Dullea
Rating – Australia: M