Studio: HBO Films
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writer: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi
Producer: David Coatsworth
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella, Lilly Singh, Khandi Alexander, Keir Dullea, Daniel Zolghadri, Martin Donovan
In a dystopian future where free thought is suppressed, a disillusioned fireman questions the practice of burning books.
What constitutes a “fair” microscope for examining a film adaptation of a novel? Should the movie be largely regarded as a standalone work, or should source material faithfulness be carefully considered among other evaluation criteria?
For something such as Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” one might more readily argue to favor the former. Not to imply that King’s book doesn’t have its own inherent thematic merits. But a thriller geared straighter toward entertainment allows organic leeway for artistic license with respect to justifiable alterations for visual storytelling.
At the other end of that spectrum, Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of “Fahrenheit 451” has a harder time disassociating itself from Ray Bradbury’s celebrated novel. Bradbury’s book has been required classroom reading for seven decades. It’s certainly subject to individual interpretation. Yet to play loose with its authorial intent of specific censorship cautions is to court controversy at best or completely miss the point at worst.
Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi don’t miss Bradbury’s point. But their take pours a lake’s worth of water on the book’s concepts to make them modern and “movie-like.” By attempting to turn a treatise on government suppression into a sci-fi spectacle palatable with popcorn, Bahrani’s film comes off Frankenstein’s table as a lumbering brute built from mismatched parts that don’t work well in unison.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job isn’t to extinguish flames, but to ignite them whenever his superior Captain Beatty sends their crew to destroy contraband media, be it on paper or a hard drive. Like the novel, the screenplay originally included Montag’s wife, although she ultimately didn’t make the movie. Montag instead gets mixed up in a lukewarm love affair with Clarisse, an informant involved in an underground uprising. When a raid results in a woman willingly choosing to burn with her books, Montag turns to Clarisse to sort through his growing doubts and disillusionment before becoming a rebel himself.
As a Cleveland native, I couldn’t help but be amused by the movie’s futurization of the Northeast Ohio city where this dystopian story is centered. In reality, Cleveland is a predominantly blue-collar burg with just three skyscrapers. In “Fahrenheit 451,” Cleveland resembles some impossible offspring of “Blade Runner’s” Los Angeles mated with the electrified action of Las Vegas.
That’s not an altogether awful metaphor for “Fahrenheit 451” as a whole. The movie desperately wants to have slickness similar to Ridley Scott’s contemporary classic. It also fabricates a false façade of cheaply replicated grandeur momentarily appealing to inebriated tourists while harboring bankrupt hollowness on its interior.
I’m being harsh for the satisfaction of having a colorful turn of phrase. Restating it simply, “Fahrenheit 451” virtually defines a bare minimum movie. Not in terms of effort, which is adequate. But in terms of achievement, of which the best to be said about anything in particular is, “it’s alright” with little need for elaboration.
Michael Shannon leans on experiential instincts for playing Captain Beatty like one of his characteristically charismatic powder kegs of conflicted villainy. Shannon doesn’t seem bored, though undemanding direction happily leaves him on autopilot to be more basic than bold.
Ditto Michael B. Jordan, whose stiffness stems from a rigidly rote script that makes Montag out of preloaded protagonist templates. His connection with Clarisse comes from a single sequence of taking turns reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” while enrapt in each other’s arms. Montag’s other introspective musing comes from flashing back to a father whose symbolic function doesn’t establish meaningful exposition.
It’s no wonder Montag’s wife didn’t make it into the mix since “Fahrenheit 451” affords neither the time nor the space to dig any deeper into the book’s layers. The film instead recycles routine setups aimed at hitting the finish tape in a direct line. Putting itself on a pedestrian pace, “Fahrenheit 451” feels like one of those studio movies written by a committee following formula, not the seminal work of a vaunted visionary.
Production design similarly concerns itself with matters other than narrative. Someone thought it looked cinematic to project digital video broadcasts on buildings, yet failed to apply logic to why random emoji expressions bubble up alongside imagery. There’s an incomplete idea here to apply some semblance of social media relevance even though it doesn’t fulfill a practical purpose within the film’s realized fiction.
“Fahrenheit 451” isn’t as misguided about Bradbury’s content as it is about smartly utilizing sci-fi cinema staples. The film’s desire to be stylish regularly distracts from social commentary, resulting in a movie that only flirts peripherally with being an intriguing adaptation. More functional than memorable, “Fahrenheit 451” settles for the simplicity of having acceptable acting, standard cinematography, and okay everything else, despite having a timely opportunity to tell an important tale.
Review Score: 50