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Josh Reviews the HBO Adaptation of Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one of my very favorite books.  The novel, written in 1953, is every bit as relevant today as it was all those decades ago when it was first published.   When I first heard that HBO was working on a new adaptation, featuring Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Black Panther) and Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, Midnight Special, The Night Before, Man of Steel), I was very excited to see it!

Michael B. Jordan plays the fireman Guy Montag, a man whose job it is to burn books.  In the world of Fahrenheit 451, firemen don’t put out fires, they start them.  (Even more frightening: in the sanitized history available to Guy and his fellow citizens, they don’t believe this has ever been different.)  Guy loves his job, and he’s good at it.  But as the story unfolds we discover that, perhaps, Guy harbors secret doubts about what he does.  Michael Shannon plays Captain Beatty, Montag’s fire chief and father figure.  Sofia Boutella plays Clarisse, a young woman who informs to Beatty on those hiding books, but there’s more to her than meets the eye.  After she and Guy cross paths, Guy is inspired to make some dangerous decisions, decisions that put him on a collision course with Captain Beatty and that will change his life forever.

I quite enjoyed this HBO adaptation!  It’s got a nice visual sense, and it’s a decently faithful adaptation of the novel.

The film is anchored by three terrific performances by its leads.  Michael B. Jordan is inspired casting as Guy.  Guy is a bit of an everyman cipher in the book (even his name is generic, I believe intentionally so on Mr. Bradbury’s part), but Mr. Jordan fills him with a rich inner life.  He is great at playing Guy as the fierce true believer in book-burning, and he’s also great at showing us the conflicted Guy.  We follow this story through Guy’s eyes, and for the adaptation to work we have to be right there with Guy as the illusions he has so carefully constructed for himself slowly collapse, one by one.  Mr. Jordan takes us carefully along every step of this journey.  It’s a fierce, compelling, emotional performance.

Speaking of fierce and compelling, I am also incredibly impressed by the brilliant idea of casting Michael Shannon as Captain Beatty.  Mr. Shannon’s intensity is perfectly served by this role.  Captain Beatty is the head Nazi in what we see of this world, and Mr. Shannon shows us his terrifying power.  But Mr. Shannon also keeps his performance very human and small-scale, and his work, and the smart script, allows us to peek inside Beatty’s head.  Mr. Shannon can be sympathetic in one moment and horrifying the next.  (Human monsters are often like this.)  It’s a very careful balancing act, which Mr. Shannon executes perfectly.  I loved watching him and Mr. Jordan bounce off of one another.  I like that the film decided to play up the idea that Guy is like a son to Captain Beatty.  That adds many additional layers to their complicated relationship, which we see fray and break as the film unfolds.

The third side of this triangle is Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret ServiceStar Trek Beyond).  Ms. Boutella really impressed in those two sci-fi spectacles.  Here in this film, all of the crazy costumes and makeup are gone, and Ms. Boutella is every bit as engaging and convincing, showing us that she is a truly talented actress in any type of film.  She has great chemistry with Mr. Jordan.  I loved their scenes together.

I was happy at how faithful, for the most part, the adaptation was to the novel.  I was happy that even small details from the book (such as the symbol of the firemen being a salamander) were translated into the film.  The film makes its most major deviations from the novel in the third act.  I can understand why they felt they had to find another way to end the story than a mechanical dog chasing Guy across the city (which probably would have been way too expensive for this production), but the weakest part of the film are some of the additions they dropped in towards the end.  Specifically, I didn’t like the sci-fi macguffin of the idea that the text from libraries of books has been hidden microscopically on the DNA of an animal.  I far preferred Mr. Bradbury’s original, simpler solution that scores of dissidents were each committing to memorizing great works, word-for-word.  There’s also a whole business with a special boy and his bird that doesn’t seem to go anywhere.  I wish they’d had more faith in Mr. Bradbury’s original ending.  (On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the changes they made to who lived and who died at the end.  The film has a darker ending than the novel, which surprised me!  But it works and makes sense.  I won’t spoil everything, but I will say that one specific change that I enjoyed was the different fate given to Clarisse.  Clarisse in the book is not much more than a plot device to send Guy on his journey, but here in this film adaptation, she has a lot more agency.  That was a good development.)

The film looks good.  This was clearly not a film with a huge production budget, but what’s on-screen works 95% of the time, and I was reasonably convinced by the futuristic world they created.  I was happy with the way they depicted the wall-sized screens that are a big part of the novel, and I enjoyed the way they depicted those screens as very connected to the internet culture and our phones of today.  That all worked very nicely.  I liked the look of the sets and the costumes.  (Though is the 451 on Guy’s badge meant to be his badge number?  Is that a joke?  It’s a weirdly on the nose reference to the book (and film’s) title, considering that they do mention in the film that Fahrenheit 451 being the temperature at which books burn.)

I am struck (and am saddened) by how of-the-moment Mr. Bradbury’s story is today.  Fahrenheit 451 is a searing story of a world of censorship gone awry, when people are content to sit in front of giant screens and be pacified by drivel, while those in power work to eliminate any hint of writing or thinking that dares to diverge from the what they have decided is the accepted mainstream.   Does any of this sound familiar?  This story is perhaps even more relevant today than it was back in 1953!!  We’re living in a world that is frighteningly close to that described in the novel!  What might have seemed outlandish and futuristic back in 1953 feels shockingly close to our screen-obsessed society of 2018.  Today’s world of “fake news” and “alternate facts” is one in which we can readily see the scary elusiveness of “truth.”  The world of Fahrenheit 451 warns us of what is right around the corner — of what will happen if we allow “truth” to slip through our fingers and to be shaped by men with selfish goals.

If you haven’t read Mr. Bradbury’s original novel, stop right now and go read it.  It’s short, it won’t take you much time!

After that, I invite you to sample HBO’s adaptation.  It’s a solid piece of work anchored by three terrific lead performances.  I’m glad to have seen it.

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