'Fahrenheit 451': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Michael Gibson/HBO
Burns weakly.

Ramin Bahrani's adaptation of the Ray Bradbury classic stars Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon and will air this month on HBO.

This new Fahrenheit 451 is a flame-out. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 speculative fiction novel audaciously anticipated a world in which large home screens have replaced written matter in society to the extent that books are banned and burned. The fact that nearly everyone now carries a small screen around with them in addition to having a big one in their homes paradoxically makes this new adaptation both more relevant and less scary than the story seemed before. After a potent start, director/co-writer Ramin Bahrani’s updated take on Bradbury’s cautionary tale becomes less credible as it develops and ultimately suffers from some fundamental creative missteps that leave it unconvincing in the final stretch. World premiering in a midnight slot at the Cannes Film Festival, this HBO production wouldn’t have cut it as a theatrical release even with the popular Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) in the leading role of the rebel fireman.

When Bradbury’s keenly farsighted book was published, televisions had just become commonplace additions to American homes and the specter of thought control was something exclusively associated with totalitarian regimes. But, as fire-lighting Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) puts it, turning a fundamental American principle on its head, “We are not born equal, so we must be made equal by the fire, so that we can be happy.”

This anaesthetizing principle in the cause of social parity lies at the heart of Bradbury’s tale, which the author himself significantly revised more than once for stage and other adaptations. What Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi have done, not surprisingly given our era, is to turn at least the first act into a macho, kick-ass actioner in which Beatty and his most talented fireman, Jordan’s Montag, are akin to sports stars, their exploits celebrated on giant screens on the sides of gleaming skyscrapers for an adoring public.

This new American society, which is the result of a mentioned but unexplained second civil war, is not entirely writing-free; government-approved slogans, the equivalent of ad copy, are prominently posted and three books — Moby-Dick, The Bible and To the Lighthouse — are still permitted. But Beatty makes a promise to a group of youngsters: “By the time you guys grow up, there won’t be one book left.” The sleek production and costume design make the world on view look quite like today, with a few spiffy adornments.

There is, of course, a resistance, a scruffy lot who hide books in walls and elsewhere and also download texts for preservation purposes. One of these is the dissolute, punky-looking Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), who has turned spy for Beatty in exchange for a shortened sentence in deprived exile. She tips him off to a huge secret library, but even as Beatty goes about his business, a certain oddness emerges: He tells Montag to read Kafka and he himself surreptitiously scribbles peculiar notes to himself on cigarette papers.

The ambiguity of Beatty and the conversion of Montag is where this Fahrenheit cools off. The boss’s dirty little secret seems like just that, a private perversion he’s always managed to keep to himself and not allow to affect his professional life. But as Montag is the real protagonist here, his about-face has to feel convincing and profoundly motivated. The book that supposedly changes his life is Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian Notes From Underground. But the unlikelihood that a basic non-reader would be able consume and digest such a dense and challenging work is compounded by the problem that this Montag never subsequently explains what he learned from it that turned his head around.

From this point on, Montag mostly stands around not knowing what to say or do about much of anything, including Clarisse, with whom there’s no real spark and whose character is basically a plot device here. Struck by conflicting feelings when he confiscates a Braille book from a blind person, Montag is ultimately traumatized into action after he witnesses an old lady choosing to go up in flames with her books rather than save herself, but his transformation is never truly convincing. This is Jordan’s first performance in which he seems rather at a loss over how to connect with or put across his character.

Coming on the heels of his turn as a nasty authority figure in another high-end sci-fi outing, the estimable The Shape of Water, Shannon also looks a bit like he’s treading water here; he definitely needs a couple of good, non-creepy change-of-pace roles at this point. 

In line with the template of most contemporary cinema, this new Fahrenheit 451 has been turned into as much of an action film as possible, including the final stretch. As flawed as it was, Francois Truffaut’s 1966 screen version of the novel concluded with the hauntingly beautiful scene of a small society of book people walking through a forest in a light snow as they recited the books they had committed to memory. Crucially, a palpable feeling of love of literature emanated from the film.

Furthermore, for all the changes Bahrani and his team have wrought in the material, they have strangely diluted the urgency of the rebellion against book burning by noting, in line with television’s ongoing The Handmaid’s Tale, that there’s no book burning in Canada (and presumably elsewhere); the anti-intellectual drive seems to be strictly an American thing. As disturbing as the forecast for American life and politics may be in Fahrenheit 451, this wrinkle nonetheless serves to seriously diminish the absolute need to preserve texts when they’re known to still exist elsewhere; when America gets its head on straight again, there is backup to resupply the intellectually deprived.

Good production values are led by Kramer Morganthau’s darkly burnished cinematography and an arresting electronic score from Matteo Zingales and Antony Partos.

Production companies: Brace Cove, Noruz Films, Outlier Society
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella, Lilly Singh, Khandi Alexander, Keir Dullea, Dylan Taylor, Martin Donovan
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Screenwriters: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury
Executive producers: Sarah Green, Ramin Bahrani, Michael B. Jordan, Alan Gasmer, Peter Jaysen
Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau
Production designer: Mark Digbt
Costume designer: Meghan Kasperlik
Editor: Alex Hall
Music: Matteo Zingales, Antony Partos
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Midnight)

Premieres: Sat., May 19, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)