Even Michael B. Jordan can’t save HBO’s disappointing ‘Fahrenheit 451’
Resistance art only works when you put the art first
The challenge in crafting dystopian art is to find a way to communicate the danger humanity is confronting without being too precious about it.
The 2016 presidential election ushered in a golden age of dystopian fiction. Now, in 2018, it’s showing up on screens large and small. The latest offering is HBO’s adaptation of the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451, which premieres on the network and its streaming platforms Saturday night.
Directed by Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes), Fahrenheit stars Michael B. Jordan as Master Trooper Guy Montag, the No. 2 fireman in command of the Cleveland Fire Department’s Salamander engine. Montag has been raised by his mentor Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) and is on the precipice of being promoted to captain himself. In this future Cleveland, however, firemen don’t extinguish fires, they start them. Their primary job is to hunt and burn the written word, referred to as graffiti, in order to protect and preserve the happiness of an ignorant society. The powers that be in this new America have rewritten history, establishing Benjamin Franklin as the founder of the nation’s first fire department and a great man who took pleasure in burning books.
Maintaining order in this state of perpetual ignorance is a multifaceted challenge. The government provides eye drops that erase memories of an era when art existed. It monitors its citizens with an all-seeing, Alexa-like apparatus called Yuxie, which is a standard part of every home. It publicly shames those who go against the official word of the government. Such people are called “eels,” while law-abiding residents are called “natives.” When citizens are suspected to be trafficking art or the written word, the men of the Salamander squad descend on their houses like a fire-breathing SWAT team. They publicly shame the eels by burning their books, computer servers and other contraband and broadcasting it live across a state-sanctioned internet called The Nine. Spectators can respond with emojis in real time, and the burnings serve not just as entertainment but also as warnings to other would-be dissidents.
“We won’t let eels take our jobs and steal our tax money now, will we?” Montag snarls into a camera to his many fans during a state-sanctioned burning.
It’s easy to see the parallels between a story about a virulently anti-intellectual future society that’s consumed with communicating via screen and emoji and present-day stories that set off alarm bells for anyone worried about the creep of authoritarianism into American democracy. After all, Fahrenheit 451 will air in the wake of news reports that televisions at the Food and Drug Administration have been tuned to Fox News and cannot be switched to anything else, as specified by edict of the Trump administration.
But it is not enough for dystopian art to remind us what human beings are capable of, as Fahrenheit 451 does with inspiration gleaned from Nazi book burnings, or as the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale does with its emphasis on drawing a line from concentration camps to Gilead’s penal colonies. For these narrative alarm systems to be effective, the stories must make sense, and that is where Bahrani’s Fahrenheit stumbles.
When he spoke before the New York premiere of the film at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts earlier this month, Bahrani thanked his wife for her encouragement when he wanted to give up on the screenplay for Fahrenheit, which he wrote with Amir Naderi.
His fatigue is evident by the film’s third act. Montag is shaken by the sight of a woman who decides to immolate herself when the Salamander unit descends on her house and finds an enormous library. The woman, whose books have already been doused with kerosene as the department prepares to burn them, opens her coat to reveal even more books strapped to her body like a suicide bomb. She lights one match and goes up in flames. Her last word is “omnis.”
It turns out that omnis is the secret weapon of The Resistance: Scientists have discovered a way to encode the whole of human knowledge into DNA, somehow preserving and spreading it into perpetuity.
Montag is the honorable man who begins to ask questions after having smuggled away one book to satiate his own curiosity: Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground. He goes to a police informant named Clarisse McClellan (Sofia Boutella), a native who sympathizes with the eels, searching for answers. Somehow he finds them in a bit of jazz music on a record player and the strains of sound McClellan coaxes from a harmonica. Magically, Montag, who has been raised since childhood to worship and evangelize burning, becomes a turncoat willing to risk life and limb to aid the omnis project.
It’s a testament to Jordan’s skill as an actor that these scenes are remotely palatable, given the shaky emotional scaffolding on which they are built. In addition to seeing the light thanks to a few inscrutable lines of Dostoyevsky, Montag is haunted by flashbacks to his childhood: namely, the night he was taken away from his father, a fireman who was friends with Beatty. But even Jordan cannot perform miracles, and when he offers to help a community of eels, the explanation for his change of heart holds little credibility.
Montag tells the group that reading Notes From the Underground reminded him of being a kid trying to scoop up sand at the beach with a sieve. Like sand through the sieve, Dostoyevsky’s words passed right through him, and here he stands, an agent of the resistance.
It makes sense that Montag, who’s never read an entire book in his life, is ill-equipped to express himself through metaphor. Nevertheless, it’s the job of the director and screenwriters to illustrate Montag’s motivations when he can’t clearly express them. And this is where Bahrani and Naderi falter.
There are other unresolved questions about just how much everyone knows or doesn’t know in the world of Fahrenheit 451, which exists after a second civil war has claimed 800 million lives. The film leaves you wondering how much, if anything, Montag understands about his own blackness. What was he taught about the cause of the first civil war? Has slavery been erased in the alt-history presented on The Nine, along with any knowledge that enslaved people, too, were once kept from reading? It’s impossible to know, given that Montag is presented as a man who knows only what he’s learned from Beatty. That’s plausible. But if that’s the case, one would think a man, well past the natural rebelliousness of adolescence, who’s been so completely indoctrinated, would be far more reluctant to turn away from the one parent he’s ever really known.
In the rush to tell us how important it is to value books and the ideas expressed in them, Bahrani falls short of his crucial mission as a director: to effectively translate those ideas to the screen.