Fahrenheit 451

“Fahrenheit four five one is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and starts to burn”
― Guy Montag, “Fahrenheit 451”

Now is the era of television. We’re in the heyday of the long-form medium, where the quality of television surpasses most feature films by a long shot. It’s a medium that allows for a slow burn, where you get to know a character and their environment over the course of months instead of just hours. Gifted storytellers and talented actors are allowed breathing room to develop their craft and develop their personas. That aspect of television just doesn’t compare to a two hour film that needs to progress through a beginning, middle, and end in that particular timeframe, in order to the leave the viewer satisfied. There will always be a place for film, no matter where television takes us, but in this particular moment, television reigns supreme.

I mention all this because originally I believed that “Fahrenheit 451” was being released as a television series. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, and Sofia Boutella, I was anticipating, at the very least, eight episodes with these characters in this world where books are burned to keep people from reading and forming their own ideas. Instead, it turned out to be a feature produced by HBO Films that, although is well acted, nicely paced, and full of interesting ideas, characters, and motivations, it barely scratches the surface of the potential in this particular world.

“Have you ever thought, even for one second, why you do what you do? You should try reading before burning.”
― Clarisse McClellan, “Fahrenheit 451”

Based on the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel of the same title, the concept is that ideas are what sends the world into chaos. Why give someone two choices, when you can give them one… or none, as Michael Shannon’s Captain Beatty says. No one has access to books and, if they do, the books are publicly burned by “firemen” and those in possession are brought to justice. The internet is called the “9” and it is heavily edited and heavily monitored. People’s homes are monitored by a system called Yuxie, much in the same vein as Siri or Alexa. Facts of history have been erased and altered, with firemen being taught that the first fire department was established by Benjamin Franklin to start fires and not to put them out, while, in fact, the opposite is true.

Michael B. Jordan plays the protagonist, Guy Montag, who is one of the top firemen, working as a protege to Captain Beatty (Shannon). Working off of tips from their informant Clarisse (Sofia Boutella) in exchange for years off her sentence, the firemen hunt down people called “Eels,” who are trying to smuggle literature and their knowledge through the internet. The catch is, most of the firemen have never actually opened a book, and when our protagonist does, it sets him on a new path. These Eels are working on a huge “virus” called OMNIS which will release such a wealth of knowledge to the public all at once and so fast it will be impossible to contain.

“The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal.”
― Captain Beatty, “Fahrenheit 451”

“Fahrenheit 451” doesn’t have the luxury of a slow burn as it would in a series form. Our protagonist does not get to evolve naturally from subordinate burner to his literary awakening, even though that is what this material begs for. The relationship between Montag and Clarisse does not get time to develop and blossom naturally, the eventual turn toward rebellion is not subtle, and the eventual face-off between student and teacher seems stunted.

Credit where credit is due, Michael Shannon delivers one his most captivating roles with his multi-layered portrayal of Beatty. A troubled leader, his multiple sides makes him the most captivating character in the entire piece. Shannon is able to toil over quotes that he’s read in private, but then hold “firemen” accountable for not going through with their job. Again, you want his development to happen over a longer period of time, because even by the end of the film, you’re not entirely sure where his intentions lie. Giving him eight to ten episodes to develop would have lead to a much bigger and more fulflling climax.

“Fahrenheit 451” ultimately adapts the Ray Bradbury novel in a way that makes it plausible. You simply wish there was more of it. These characters are ripe with turmoil. These settings and hunts for books to burn are such fodder for a procedural type element which could easily drive episodes. Plus, it feels unlike anything currently on television. In an age where every network is looking for their next big television series, why this one wasn’t developed and distributed as a series seems like the missed opportunity of the year.

Release Date
May 19, 2018
Director
  Ramin Bahrani
Screenplay
  Ramin Bahrani
Amir Naderi
Based On The Novel By
Ray Bradbury
Distributed By
HBO
Drama, Science Fiction
TV-14
101 minutes

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