Ramin Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 is a self-conscious attempt to strip-mine, sex-up, and fashionably politicize Ray Bradbury’s seminal dystopian novel of the same name. Watching this film, one is less attuned to government-sanctioned book burning orchestrated by futuristic firemen than to the sleek leather uniforms the firemen wear while carrying flamethrowers that suggest machine guns. Armed to the nines, these men evoke our contemporary militarized police force, and have a similar habit of homing in on poor people of color who’re demonized as “eels.” Bahrani favors slick compositions that rely, as so many current sci-fi films and TV shows do, on lingering glimpses of gaudy, neon-lit cityscapes and omnipresent advertisements, making an inherent comment on society’s rapid dumbing down.
The film isn’t an indictment of our society’s addiction to sensation, but rather an inadvertent symbol of it. The firemen of the novel were staid proletariats who were understood to be partaking in their own oppression while their wives sat at home addicted to increasingly immersive television programs. (Bradbury even predicted the rise of the self-cocooning earbud.) While the novel’s domestic scenes belong very much to the 1950s, the notion of oppressors as drab every-people looking to get through the day hasn’t aged one iota.
Such a premise, however, doesn’t implicitly flatter audiences in 2018. Fahrenheit 451’s firemen are now reality TV stars, whose book-burning exploits become sensational and action-packed propaganda for authoritarianism. Which is to say that Guy Montague (Michael B. Jordan) is no longer a poignantly forgettable cog in a machine, but a sexy alpha who leads his men to chant and fight and engage in other frenetically photogenic exertions that keep the film thrumming at a fevered pitch. This new Fahrenheit 451 is as terrified of individual contemplation as the repressive regime it envisions.
It could be reasoned that Montague’s evolution into a phenomenon represents a desire to satirize how our society presently distracts us: with “empowering” entertainment and enraging news that lulls us with an illusion of agency. But this Montague truly indicates modern entertainment’s paralyzing fear of ordinary people. Film protagonists in this age where YouTube, Snapchat, social media, and superhero movie reign supreme can’t merely go to work and quietly wrestle with the implications of what they’re told; they must implicitly glorify our hang-ups with their glamour and their devotion to forward momentum. Bahrani imbues Montague’s stardom with little critical texture, as it’s merely a sop to current sensibilities.
Bahrani’s revisions are superficial and appear to have been made for cynical reasons. Montague is no longer married because that would prevent him from making doe eyes at Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), a member of an underground cell that’s found a way to turn books into a DNA strand that’s meant to spread literacy across the world like a virus. This conceit is the obscene antithesis of Bradbury’s writing: Books, objects of totemic reverence for the author and for those who haven’t yet lost their heads to their smartphones, are now a disease designed for the purpose of rendering brainwashed idiots literate against their will. No wonder the right hates intellectuals.
François Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 honored the immense importance of memory—of willing oneself to carry knowledge as a beacon of hope. Bahrani renders reading passive without any sense of irony, reducing books to a bland MacGuffin. Unsurprisingly, Bahrani fashions a classic into a futuristic chase film with endless torrents of exposition, which represents every culturally bastardizing tendency it pretends to decry.