While Netflix and Disney are publicly at each other’s throats as their streaming war gets more and more contentious, HBO is quietly expanding their library of films in a form of healthy competition. After the success of Paterno earlier this spring, HBO hoped that their update of Fahrenheit 451, the classic story from Ray Bradbury, would be a nice piece to fuel drive subscriber growth — and spotlight two stars in the industry.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Ramin Bahrani
Written By: Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi
In a dystopian future, firemen don’t put out fires, they do the burning. More specifically, they burn books, and society is clouded by opiate-like medication and massively sized televisions — and they’ve claimed all forms of written literature as harmful to people looking for happiness.
However, one fireman named Montag (Jordan) begins to have the suspicion that something is amiss, and he slowly begins to defy his captain (Shannon) in search of the truth.
Even if you’re not keen on reading (my mother still bugs me for my lack of reading on occasion — it’ll never go away I suppose), odds are you read Fahrenheit 451 in high school along with other classic tales like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher and the Rye, and many, many more. Although you probably groaned as a teenager when you frantically search for the Sparknotes summary of Fahrenheit 451 the night before you had a reading check in your high school English class (we’ve all been there), there’s a reason that we all had to read this story: it’s really, really important.
Like some of the best films of classic Hollywood, Fahrenheit 451‘s themes continue to ring true more than sixty years after they were first published.
Naturally, the book has already been adapted a few times into other mediums before, including but not limited to a film directed by the legendary Francois Truffaut back in 1966 as well as an interactive fiction computer game. Regardless of HBO’s version of Fahrenheit 451, it’s legacy will live on for quite some time, just like its story would want.
Fahrenheit 451 is as Timely as Ever
Sometimes, studios remake properties just for the hell of it. More now than ever, producers are looking for intellectual property to make into films, effectively raising their earnings floor due to the built-in fan base that will almost certainly see the film. They don’t even care if it’s worthwhile some of the time as long as it makes them a quick buck. But, in the case of Fahrenheit 451, it actually has a purpose in today’s greater discussion of issues — even if it still might be a cash grab in some regard.
If you’re well-read, Fahrenheit 451 will be heart-breaking as you watch as classic stories are burned before your very eyes. Kafka, Twain, Poe — all their works are burned to ash, and they’re replaced as passive-living, brainless individuals sit and stare at massive TVs that are the size of skyscrapers. It might become a bit on the nose, but Ramin Bahrani tackles the issue in such a way that it aligns perfectly with today’s discussion of thought, media, and individuality. In a time where fake news reigns and political division is at an all-time high, Fahrenheit 451 shows a society where only one train of thought is allowed due to fear of a possible anarchy. That’s pretty heavy stuff.
This version of Fahrenheit 451 also updates the timeless story in another manner. Namely, by showing cocky soldiers acting overly aggressive in front of thousands of onlookers. Brutality is a serious problem, and watching men inflict their will (while loving every second of it) is brutal in its own right.
Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon Command the Screen Per Usual
There’s a lot of testosterone in Fahrenheit 451, primarily from Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon as Guy Montag and Captain Beatty. As the film sets up, these two have been linked for quite some time with Shannon as Jordan’s mentor. And as friction begins to mount between the two, it makes for some classic Shannon staredowns and great moments of intensity from Jordan.
These men are two of the best actors working in the industry today — no one is disputing that (at least I hope not). They’re a pair that you never really thought you wanted, but you’re happy that Fahrenheit 451 brought them together. To be honest, the material they’re working with isn’t necessarily stellar, but it’s obvious that they’re passionate about the material. The intensity of these men drips from them like their sweat in the heat of burning books. It’s almost as if they’re testing each other just to see how far the other one will go. On a visceral level, it’s pretty great.
A Few Updates Go a Little Too Far
But with any remake of a classic tale, a few changes to the plot are necessary. You can’t redo the exact same format of the movie that came before and expect it to work just as well.
Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi took a few liberties with this story when updating it for today’s audience. In my humble opinion, they mostly succeed, but there’s one major problem with one of the story’s plot devices. It’s difficult to discuss this issue without diving into spoilers, but I will say this: it’s incredibly far-fetched. It gets to the point where it might ruin the movie for some (judging by the Rotten Tomatoes score of the film, it definitely did for many critics). Discussing difficult themes saved Fahrenheit 451 for this critic, but I can’t say I blame others for their derision towards the film.
It might not quite live up to the legendary source material, but HBO’s version of Fahrenheit 451 captures the spirit of the novel with incredibly timely commentary on the nature of entertainment and mental stimulation with a few new wrinkles to make the update worthwhile.
At the center of it all is Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon, two industry mainstays that elevate fairly standard material into captivating stuff.
Despite its flaws, it’s stylish, powerful, and important. What more could you ask for?
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