HBO's Heavy-Handed 'Fahrenheit 451' Lacks The Poetry Of Ray Bradbury's Original

May 18, 2018
Originally published on May 29, 2018 11:10 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Saturday, HBO presents a new made-for-TV version of "Fahrenheit 451," the novel by science-fiction author Ray Bradbury about a repressive government that burns books and manipulates facts. Bradbury wrote "Fahrenheit 451" in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy era.

At that point in the '50s, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy was accusing people of communist activities without any actual proof but destroying careers and lives just by the power of his nationally televised accusations. Bradbury's book, like George Orwell's "1984," imagined a world in which the government creates its own facts, suppresses unwelcome thoughts and opinions and attacks unapproved ideas. Book burning in Bradbury's story was the central metaphor for a disdain for both knowledge and art.

The title "Fahrenheit 451" refers to the flashpoint temperature at which paper catches on fire. The last time "Fahrenheit 451" was made into a movie, as the first English-language film by French new wave director Francois Truffaut, was in 1966. The divisive politics and culture of those times gave Bradbury's message a new resonance then, and so do the political and social conflicts of 2018. I was really looking forward to HBO's new adaptation of "Fahrenheit 451" and how it might position and present Bradbury's classic narrative to a new generation. And then I saw it.

This new version stars Michael B. Jordan, from TV's "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" and from the movie "Black Panther," as futuristic fireman Guy Montag. His boss, Beatty, is played by Michael Shannon from "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Shape Of Water." And their characters don't fight fires. They start them whenever their investigations turn up one of those increasingly rare artifacts of unrestricted ideas, printed books.

Montag begins the drama as an enthusiastic book-burner but comes to see the light. Beatty, however, remains on the dark side, even though he reads many of the books before burning them and quotes from them afterward. He does so in a heavy-handed fashion, but that matches everything else in this new "Fahrenheit 451" movie.

Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, this adaptation hits every point and every scene with the subtlety of a firehose. Here are Beatty and Montag, for example, leading a sort of pep rally for youngsters. They're indoctrinating them in the dangers of the printed word. In so doing, they employ other words, like eels, which is short for illegals, and the Nine, which is this future's version of the Internet. Oh, and graffiti, which is any non-approved form of writing. You get the idea. And even after you do, this TV movie will keep hammering it home.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAHRENHEIT 451")

MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Beatty) Eels are bad. They're dangerous. And they want chaos in your hearts and your minds. They want to make you unhappy. Eels try to upload graffiti to the dark Nine before we can burn it. What should these young natives do, Master Trooper?

MICHAEL B. JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) Stay vivid on the Nine. If you see something, say something.

SHANNON: (As Beatty) Eels say we limit information. Lies. Master Trooper Montag, can you read any book you want on the Nine?

JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) Sir, any book, sir.

SHANNON: (As Beatty) Yuxie, show us some classics. The Bible. "To The Lighthouse." And "Moby Dick." This is all you need to know. Anything else will make you sick, crazy. And that's why we're here, to protect you and to keep you safe and happy. Understood?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yes, sir.

JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) Please rise.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Happiness is truth. Freedom is choice. Self is strength.

BIANCULLI: Bahrani as both writer and director here loves to belabor the obvious. He loves fire, not just as a metaphor, but as a reliably flashy visual. His characters are either good or bad. And in keeping the story set in some sort of authoritarian near-future, he injects his equivalents of social media, YouTube, Alexa and other recognizable modern technologies. It's as though he wants his version of "Fahrenheit 451" to pass as an episode of the tech-savvy sci fi anthology "Black Mirror," but it doesn't work at all. Bahrani even changes the ending of the novel in a way that both dilutes and deflates it.

What's missing from this movie most of all is the poetry of Ray Bradbury's original vision, as well as the poetry of his prose. HBO's "Fahrenheit 451" is so disappointing an adaptation that ironically it ends up encouraging exactly the sort of activity and inspiring the type of passion that Ray Bradbury was after in his novel. He wanted you and encouraged you to go back and read books. After enduring HBO's "Fahrenheit 451," I encourage you to skip the movie and go back and read Bradbury's book. It'll be time much better spent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon has a new collection of essays called "Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces." It features a story about taking his 13-year-old son to Paris Fashion Week, which became a viral sensation online, and meditations on the complicated relationships between fathers and children. Hope you can join us.

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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.