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One peculiar side-effect of the Trump era on popular culture is that old tales that might have felt speculative in another time are being made new again, lent fresh urgency and vigour by current events. “It could happen here”, has been the resounding – and by now somewhat cliched response – to Hulu’s incel-evoking adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, whose success must have had executives rifling through the Penguin Modern Classics section for ripe dystopian IP.
Quite whether anyone’s first choice though would have been Ray Bradbury’s 1953 book Fahrenheit 451 is debatable. While it may have some pertinent truths to tell about anti-intellectualism and the stultifying effect of mass media on individual though, its setting – an authoritarian state where books are illegal – feels rather less compelling in an age when information can be widely disseminated at the swipe of a thumb.
Iranian-director Rahim Bahrani (99 Homes, Chop Shop) finds a solution of sorts to this issue with an uneven HBO TV movie adaptation of Bradbury’s book, which stars Michael B Jordan and premiered at the Cannes film festival. It’s a film that drags the source material into a gleaming Black Mirror-tinged future where where, not just books but all forms of writing and indeed art have been outlawed, and mass communication instead takes place through a series of emoji-like images sent around the Nine, a heavily censored, state propaganda-spewing update of the internet.
Books still have a totemic presence, and mass burnings of them are livestreamed onto the Nine to dissuade would-be bibliophiles and entertain everyone else, but they are treated as illicit, dust-coated objects from a darker time. (Early in the film a group of schoolchildren gawp and shudder as one is displayed in their classroom, a scene that doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine happening in a class full of smartphone-native kids in a time not far from now.)
The people doing the burning are nominally known as the firemen, though they’re closer to a fascistic, heavily militarised police force, led by the sadistic captain Beatty (depicted with characteristic menace by Michael Shannon). Jordan meanwhile plays Guy Montag, a young fireman who is being fast-tracked for promotion due to his willingness to do what needs to be done, a willingness that is helped along by memory depleting sedatives administered every day in the form of eye drops.
Secretly though, Montag is beginning to question the mission, and his doubts are accelerated after he witnesses a woman burn herself alive rather than be parted from her novels. He smuggles her copy of Notes From the Underground home and thus begins a process of enlightenment, helped along the way by resistance fighter Clarisse (Sofia Boutella). Jordan, who exec-produced the film as well as starring in it, is gaining a reputation for portraying this sort of roiling, conflicted figure, though his performance here doesn’t match his turn as Killmonger in Black Panther in its rawness and complexity.
Bahrani’s film seeks to draw some neat parallels with the present. The demise of books, we learn, was ended not by diktat but by the will of the public, who instead of reading “were just glancing at headlines generated by an algorithm.” There’s a sense too that the firemen’s form censorship might be the logical endpoint of a social media culture that refuses to expose itself to dissenting thought.
Visually too the film pops and dazzles, the soft futurist blues and pinks reminiscent of Blade Runner 2049 giving way to the violent yellows and blacks once the conflagrations start in earnest. And there are some creepy technological touches, like the Siri-like devices that offer up alternative facts and spy on its users.
At the same time there’s a high-minded, hectoring tone throughout that soon begins to grate, with only the slightly pantomime figure of Shannon breaking up the film’s portentous tone. For all its mentions of Proust, Dostoevsky and Kafka, the film never really grapples with the knotty ideas behind the works it namedrops. We never get a sense of what in these books has intellectually stirred Montag from his stupor.
Ultimately though, the main issue with this Fahrenheit 451 may not be the fault of its director but with the source material. No film adaption could match the potency and thrill of reading a book about a world where books are banned. It’s a monument to the power of literature that even the firemen would struggle to burn down.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Fahrenheit 451 review – Michael B Jordan adaptation fails to catch fire | Cannes 2018