Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Fahrenheit 451 (2018)

If for no other reason, HBO’s remake of Fahrenheit 451 stakes a claim on history, because it gives Keir Dullea bragging rights as perhaps the only actor to appear in films based on the work of both Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Unfortunately, this adaptation is far too concerned with being “timely” and “relevant,” thereby limiting its long-term significance. Bradbury’s anti-censorship message is perhaps more needed now than in 1953 when he wrote his classic novel, but it doesn’t come through in an urgent, principled way in Ramin Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 (trailer here), co-adapted with the great expat Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi, which premieres this Saturday on HBO.

Guy Montag is a fireman, just like mentor, Captain Beatty. As you should know, that means they set fire to banned books (pretty much all of them), rather than extinguishing accidental fires (come to think of it, wouldn’t they still need old-fashioned firemen in a dystopian world?). Montag has never really thought about the implications of his work, except maybe when a repressed incident from his childhood resurfaces in his memory. However, an encounter with Clarisse McClellan, one of Beatty’s reluctant sources, starts churning up vague doubts. Not long after, he secretly takes home a contraband book, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. With McClellan’s help, the book spurs Montag to start thinking for himself, perhaps for the first time.

Montag is further haunted by the horrifying sight of an old fashioned “Eel,” who opts to self-immolate rather than abandon her books. In a significant departure from Bradbury (and Truffaut), she also happens to utter a word she really shouldn’t have, because it gives the Firemen a clue as to a game-changing book-preservation initiative the dissident underground has concocted. (As an aside, Montag’s media-anaesthetized wife Millie was cast, but later cut from the final film, which seems like a rather Orwellian act to make such a major character disappear without a trace.)

Without question, the greatest misstep of this Fahrenheit is the attempt to update the near dystopia with elements of internet culture and reality TV that will be familiar to contemporary viewers. However, this just distracts more than it enhances the films credibility. It’s a constant source of business undercutting the starkness of Bradbury’s original vision. Bahrani and Naderi also ash-can the background drumbeat of impending war, which explained why all these thought police regulations were implemented in the first place.

Still, the ever-reliable Michael Shannon is quite intriguing and compulsively watchable, playing the hard-nosed Beatty, who has his own secret print vices. In contrast, Michael B. Jordan is rather inert and inexpressive as Montag, the Fireman supposedly wrestling with his conscience and doubts. Nor is there much chemistry between him and Sofia Boutella’s McClellan. However, Dullea adds a note of integrity as the learned “Historian,” who is also involved in the book-preserving underground. That really was perfect casting.

Fahrenheit just doesn’t hold together as a persuasive cautionary vision, which is a shame, because we could use a good version about now. Quite problematically, it plays ideological favorites with the books we see burning. You will not find any conservative classics like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in the Firemen’s bonfires, but it is hard to think of a book that would be less acceptable to the dystopian powers-that-be. In fact, it rather mixes the message when one of the underground “Book People” is introduced as “Chairman Mao” because she memorized the Little Red Book—yet you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in history who did more to censor and eradicate books than Mao Zedong. Sadly, the film never really drives home the point that we should apply the 1st Amendment most to books and articles that we do not agree with, or else we risk adulterating our own constitutional protections. A major disappointment, Fahrenheit 451 premieres this Saturday (5/19), on HBO.