One risk of adapting a groundbreaking work is that what once was shocking and new may come off as derivative in light of everything it inspired. That’s especially true for genre fiction, in which trailblazers are quickly cannibalized and reinterpreted. So, a 2018 film based on Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 is a dubious prospect, and director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani struggles to make the HBO production stand out from the glut of sci-fi dystopias at the movies and on TV in recent years.
Bradbury’s book is also very much of its time, a time before the Internet and when television was still a novelty. There was no social media to contend with in the story of Guy Montag (played here by Michael B. Jordan), a “fireman” in an unspecified future when that job means starting fires, not putting them out. Firemen track down and burn books, deemed too dangerous for a society full of the blissfully ignorant. In Bahrani’s film, firemen also spend time torching hard drives, film canisters and video tapes; one of the shocking bits of contraband is a Blockbuster VHS with a sticker reminding viewers to rewind.
There’s also a constant online presence, with a stream of emojis covering screens that surround the characters wherever they go. It’s a slick, technological cityscape (set in Cleveland but generic enough to be almost anywhere in the U.S.) that draws from years of similar movie futures. Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi take considerable liberties with Bradbury’s story, introducing a hunt for a meaningless sci-fi doodad, and crafting a half-hearted romance between Montag and resistance fighter Clarisse (Sofia Boutella). Those elements bring Fahrenheit in line with other modern dystopian stories, but they don’t add anything to the themes or the character development.
Jordan is a charismatic performer, but he seems lost as Montag, who remains a cipher with unclear motivations for his transformation from authoritarian true believer to idealistic freedom fighter. Michael Shannon plays Montag’s mentor/adversary Captain Beatty with the same bug-eyed intensity he brings to nearly every performance, and while that makes Beatty credibly menacing, it also makes him less distinctive, just the latest in a long line of Shannon sadists.
As a filmmaker, Bahrani started out with small-scale naturalistic dramas (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) that took personal approaches to sociopolitical issues, but as the scope of his films has increased (in recent movies like At Any Price and 99 Homes), his social commentary has gotten broader and more didactic. Fahrenheit is his most ambitious and least subtle movie to date, and while Bradbury’s story deserves a large-scale production to match its legendary status, Fahrenheit’s glossy, inconsistent take on the material just makes it seem unconvincing.