BY CHRISTOPHER HASKELL
MAY 27, 2018
“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 TV 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 for 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 doesn’t compare to a two-hour film that needs to progress through a beginning, middle, and end in that particular timeframe, to leave the viewer satisfied. There will always be a place for film, no matter where television takes us, but at this specific moment, TV reigns supreme.
I mention all this because initially, I believed that “Fahrenheit 451” was going to be 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 any individual ideas. Instead, it’s nicely paced and full of interesting ideas, characters, and performances. Unfortunately, it barely scratches the surface of the potential in this particular world.
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 provide them with one, or none, as Michael Shannon’s Captain Beatty says. No one has access to books and, if they do, they are punished, and the books are publicly burned by “firemen.” The internet is called the “9,” and it is heavily edited and heavily monitored. People’s homes are supervised by a system called Yuxie, much in the same vein as Siri or Alexa. Facts of history have been erased and altered, with firefighters taught that the first fire department was established by Benjamin Franklin to start fires and not to put them out, while 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.
“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 to his literary awakening, even though the material begs for that. 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 final face-off between student and teacher seems stunted.
Credit where credit is due, Michael Shannon delivers one of 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 can 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 more extended period 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 fulfilling climax.
“Fahrenheit 451” ultimately adapts the Ray Bradbury novel in a way that makes it plausible. You only 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 they didn’t develop and distribute this one as a series seems like the missed opportunity of the year.
May 19, 2018
“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury
Michael B. Jordan