A Rare Underwhelming Experience from the Premium Cabler
What would happen if, an immensely talented director/writer, cast, and production crew, assembled and made an extremely technically proficient adaptation of a science fiction literary classic? One would expect the answer to be laudatory in nature, i.e. “This was a marvelous reimagining/new interpretation of the source material’. Alas, HBO’s take on Fahrenheit 451, adds nothing significant to Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel. Nonetheless, taking risks is indicative of HBO’s brand, and one can appreciate the effort.
The Film Itself
Michael B. Jordan is Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is not to extinguish fires but to utilize fire to burn illegal information. Montag is a prodigy of Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon), the lead for the fire station in ultramodern Cleveland, Ohio. Firemen have been conditioned to believe that founding father Benjamin Franklin, commissioned the first fire department, to protect the nation from false ideologies. The fire team frequently raids the quarters of criminals that the provisional government has named ‘eels’. Eels are a motley crew of hackers and literary experts that attempt to preserve, protect, and distribute unregulated knowledge. One of the characters, Clarisse, portrayed by a sleepy Sofia Boutella, is a former eel turned government informant. This version of the character is a hybrid of the novel’s rebellious Clarisse, and Mildred, the latter being Montag’s wife in the novel and 1966 film. Without divulging too much spoiler content, 451 makes the too obvious decision to have Montag and Clarisse share beyond platonic moments. This alone does not glaringly damage the film but adds zilch to a story. As Montag increasingly questions his place and role in society, the closer he levitates towards Clarisse, who has returned to eel roots as a result of interacting with Montag. The fireman Lieutenant is eventually suspected of defying the very laws that he enforces.
Montag is now a contemporary Benedict Arnold. An enemy of the state. The scenes involving the alluding of the law is a grand showcase of the near feature-length movie quality aesthetics expected from HBO. Ontario, Canada made a beautiful palette that showcased practical effects and convincing CGI. The lensing by Terminator Genisys, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau is captivating without being distracting. One of the best shots in the film is an aerial sequence that frames an inferno in Cleveland’s background, with 3D holograms projected from skyscrapers in the foreground. The film in its entirety is technically proficient; think Fox Searchlight or A24 films – this is feature-length movie production standards. But, the narrative and characters are inefficient. The stellar cast is seemingly under ill-advised direction and spewing dialogue copy and pasted from an internet chatroom hosting a debate on freedom of speech and expression. Michael Shannon appears to be on autopilot from The Shape of Water, giving an overly austere performance to a character that is presented to be a conflicted father figure for Montag but ultimately serves as a disgruntled drinking buddy. Jordan has his moments but lacks chemistry with Michael Shannon and Sofia Boutella. Ultimately, most of the cast comes off as caricatures and plot devices, rather than compelling individuals that have a collective purpose with the surrounding cast. If you beg to differ, there is the Comment section below.
Compared to the Source Material
It is inevitable, that no matter how well an adaptation of highly revered literature is executed, there will be complaints. Not all literary passages work in screenplays. And Ramin Bahrani’s modernization of a five-decade-old novel is expected and suitable. However, Bahrani’s decision to merge Montag’s wife with the Clarisse character was a missed opportunity to show that systematic oppression can overpower something as sacred as marriage. Perhaps Ramin Bahrani believed that making a composite character would make for a faster-paced story, and make room to add scenes that showcase a 21st Century take on 451. Again, updating the environment is expected and suitable. Any intelligent viewer would expect additions of communication that Ray Bradbury did not foresee at the time of 451’s publication. However, the presence of internet and hologram projections in this film does not have the exposition driving presence of tech-based films such as Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and Minority Report. Seeing humanity release emoji’s that are projected on Cleveland’s buildings is intended to show a brainwashed society, but instead serves as an upgrade to grasp the attention of the millennial generation. The millennial generation that has read the novel will balk at the missed opportunities in the 2018 television film. That is if there are readers of the work nowadays.
Can Fahrenheit 451 be Adapted Properly?
In short, yes. The novel Fahrenheit 451, in all of its revering and constant analysis, has not been placed on unadaptable literary works lists; unlike Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Blood Meridian, to name a few. Yet, a solid adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 still alludes filmmakers. Earlier this month, HBOWatch assessed the significance of the literary version of Fahrenheit 451. Although society has more ways of sharing information, and access to books than during the time period that Bradbury’s work was published, the cautionary tale of 451 is no less powerful. 451 argues that it is up to society to assess knowledge, not some regulatory force. Society should scrutinize knowledge by trial and error, and learn from the outcomes. Having a military state decide what acceptable learning is only creating systematic bias, thus creating fallacies. This is a novel that deserved a worthy screen version. The 1966 film contained cardboard performances, timid direction, and a meek budget. The last offense is certainly forgivable, and the one aspect that the 2018 version did not fall short. HBO supplied the appropriate budget, but the programming executives, in all of their astuteness, simply did not see that Bahrani’s vision substituted many of the novel’s most profound elements for mere technological upgrades.
Lastly, a proper adaptation would have never foregone the Montag-Mildred-Clarisse triangle, and the absolutely haunting nuclear scenario near the novel’s conclusion. Again, not to divulge too many specifics, but imagine a nuclear fallout (inferno, radiation, seismic waves) third act, replaced with birds migrating. That baffling pause in processing the illogicality of a true dystopian conclusion, being replaced with a scene that should be used as stock footage for a National Geographic special, is the same pause that this HBOWatch reviewer experienced at the end of the 2018 version of Fahrenheit 451. But what do you think?
About The Author
Travlis is a government contractor, Naval reservist, and aficionado of film, premium television, and literature. A viewer of HBO for nearly three decades, Travlis just completed the first draft an outline and script for a documentary titled "On a Dark and Stormy Night". The intentionally cliché’ title serves as a double entendre’. For Home Box Office aired its first wave of programming on November 8, 1972, during a thunderstorm, and the premium cable giant‘s nearly five decade run of quality programming is anything but cliché’.