Every few years, HBO takes a real swing for the fences with their original films. This decade, the network has scored with “Too Big to Fail,” “Game Change,” and Cannes favorite, “Behind the Candelabra.” HBO’s newest adaptation draws from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” a novel about censorship and the dangers of passive entertainment. This is not the first time the iconic novel has been adapted for film, with Francois Truffaut delivering a strong enough take for Bradbury to change the story when he adapted it to stage. The new version, from director Ramin Bahrani and HBO, takes some cues from Truffaut’s and Bradbury’s new vision. However, while the film attempts to put its own spin on the story for the digital age, Bahrani’s film does not measure up to the source material.
The story of “Fahrenheit 451” follows Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan), a fireman in a future dystopia where firemen burn books. He’s mentored by Beatty (Michael Shannon), a cruel and dangerous man. As the two burn books by the thousands, Montag observes a woman commit self-immolation to stand up to the firemen. He begins to question his worldview with the help of Clarisse (Sofia Boutella) and other “eels,” or people who save books. Eventually, Montag is forced to choose to help the Eels or continue down his path of destruction.
Ultimately, the film’s narrative and negative views toward social media feel heavy-handed and drag down the film. There’s a recurring visual image throughout the film as likes, emojis, and messages from “fans” of the firemen scroll across live feeds on skyscrapers. The concept is much better in theory than in practice, and as the film continues to jump back to the visual device, it distracts to the point of halting momentum in scenes. This is often problematic because the visual is most often utilized during moments that should feel intense to the audience.
Another problem that exists through the film is the way the film uses Clarisse. Frankly, her storyline doesn’t really make a ton of sense and creates more destruction than it helps. Her role as a snitch greatly harms the ability to keep books safe, even if it is an easy way to introduce her into the story. It’s not Boutella’s fault, who does a pretty solid job in a thankless role. However, her character’s written hypocrisies are tough to reconcile.
Michael Shannon is the standout from the film. Once again, Shannon’s intensity makes him one of the most interesting actors on screen. His own hypocrisy is extremely interesting as we explore the background of his character. Shannon brings each element of the character to the screen, and his rage burns bright. Despite tipping into a mustache-twirling villain at times, he imbues a sense of honor into the character that makes you buy in on his character flaws.
Michael B. Jordan is solid, but this is far from a top performance from him. It is interesting to see him pull back and not pump his own intensity into the film. However, he’s not quite developed enough as an actor to fully pull off some of the subtle moments in the film. He’s getting there, and some moments in the film he’s a solid performer. However, others are laughable, including a montage showing him and Clarisse reading a book. It’s an uneven performance, and surprisingly Jordan does little to elevate the material.
Finally, the tech units in this film need some real love. Most of the film’s best elements come from the craft crew, including really strong cinematography from Kramer Morgenthau. Morgenthau has become one of the best cinematographers on television over the past decade and continues to add to the resume here. The way he shoots the book burnings is gorgeous and conveys a visual style similar to the work on “American Gods” or “Hannibal.” It’s very slick and adds considerably to the film. The production designers, despite the misguided skyscraper live feeds, bring the world to life in an interesting way. The books they choose to showcase and the way the dystopian world is built becomes visually exciting for good stretches of the film. These elements make what you’re watching an interesting visual story. Despite this, the other pieces struggle to come together.
While “Fahrenheit 451” will not become an all-time HBO film, it’s a fairly fun an enjoyable TV flick. Ultimately, audiences wishing to check out a strong version of the story should continue to default to Truffaut’s definitive version. Still, modern audiences will enjoy elements of the film we get. Visually, it’s an exciting film to watch. Shannon’s performance could be the strongest piece when it comes to the Emmys. Despite this, the film struggles to be truly great, a shame considering the pedigrees involved.