The world our 45th president wants is imagined in the HBO Films release Fahrenheit 451, and it is unsettling and frightening and honestly doesn’t seem that far off from what we’re currently living. Words don’t mean what they once did. Certain languages, and by extension certain types of people, are banned. Everything is a performance for social media consumption. And the depth of thought that books, film, and music used to possess and portray—they’re all just kindling.
Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani gives the iconic Ray Bradbury work Fahrenheit 451 the terrifyingly contemporary update it needs with his version, which premiered on HBO on Saturday, May 19, and is now available through HBO on demand and on HBO Go. Starring a game Michael B. Jordan and an unhinged-as-ever Michael Shannon (I remain ashamed that I forgot to include him in my “actors with crazy eyes” list), Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 drops Bradbury’s misogynistic characters, adds in a social media angle that seems scarily feasible, incorporates a female-led uprising, and ends in a way that offers a glimmer of hope without the original nuclear armageddon Bradbury imagined. So … progress!
As an Iranian-American, I like to pretend all Iranian filmmakers and actors are basically somehow related to me (Asghar Farhadi is an uncle! Golshifteh Farahani is a cousin!), and I was ecstatic years ago when Roger Ebert called Bahrani the next great American filmmaker and conducted his final interview with the director. Bahrani has made a career of exploring corners of the American dream (most recently: the failures of agriculture in At Any Price, starring a just-fresh-from-Disney Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid; the catastrophe of the American housing crisis, with Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, and an especially villainous Shannon, in 99 Homes), and so Fahrenheit 451 seems in line with his particular interests.
There is no way this movie isn’t intentionally addressing Trump, the myriad factors that led to his election, and the continuously disastrous effects of his presidency; the fact that the Salamanders chant “Time to burn for America again” before their destructive sprees, call resistors “terrorists” and themselves “natives,” encourage people to “see something, say something” to protect “our nation,” and identify the Bible as one of only three books worth reading makes this pretty damn obvious. And yet it’s pointed and chilling and effective, especially because realistically this is all familiar and because cinematically we all know how harrowing Shannon can be. When Shannon’s Captain Beatty yells at his fellow Salamander burners, encouraging them to “make it rain kerosene,” as his commander says, or when he whispers subtle threats to Jordan’s Guy Montag, you understand how his zealotry has consumed and invigorated him. He only knows how to burn, and he only wants to burn.
This largely takes the place of Bradbury’s original text, much of which was focused on the relationship between protagonist Guy Montag and his vapid, superficial wife Millie; that’s all abandoned here, and Bahrani’s film is better without that often-misogynistic subplot. Instead, the film is broader, more inclusive, and more interested in the idea of resistance as community. Gone is Montag’s first-person narration and in its place is more focus on Beatty, who develops a paternalistic relationship with Guy; a bigger role for the character Clarisse (Sofia Boutella, bucking her own career trend by not having one fight scene in this whole movie), who isn’t just a random teenager Guy interacted with a few times but a fully fledged person with her own mistakes and motivations; and an exploration of how our modern technology is barely veiled surveillance, which we have invited and accepted in lieu of true privacy.
That last one isn’t a new idea—it’s been a central focus of films as varied as the Captain America trilogy, particularly Winter Soldier, and new classic Blade Runner 2049, but Bahrani puts his own spin on it here, switching to fish-eye lenses every so often to suggest illicit tracking and overlaying live video feeds with emoji reactions and comments that appear as reactions to the events happening in real time. Viewers cheer on the burns, have their favorite Salamanders, and call themselves “fans” of these agents of the state who incinerate culture and history and entire lives within moments.
It’s in this environment that Montag and Beatty are famous. A second-generation fireman who remembers his own father doing the same job before his death, Guy is dedicated and unwavering. He’s being groomed by Beatty to take over his top spot: they visit schools together to encourage children to report anyone they think is suspicious, and they round up “eels,” or people who are in illegal possession of books, records, or music, and delete them from “the 9,” or the future version of the Internet, basically wiping out their lives. And Beatty is a particularly zealous mentor. He somehow links racism and burning together when discussing books like Huckleberry Finn (“The whites knew you blacks were offended, so what did we do? We burned it!”); has his own opinions on certain authors (“Kafka, a pornographer and a sexual pervert. I like that about him”); and won’t even entertain the idea of probable cause (“They try to say there’s no evidence danger exists; well, then show me the evidence danger doesn’t exist”).
But things begin to seem off to Montag. He has memories of his father that don’t sync up with what Beatty has said about him. One of Beatty’s informers, former eel Clarisse, provides a tip that leads to a situation that rattles Guy. And as he begins to seriously consider the nature of his work, Guy wonders if this kind of recklessly proud annihilation is what his father would have wanted—if it’s even what he wants.
“Damn, it’s a pleasure to burn,” Montag says, and Jordan plays the character well, bringing a mixture of cockiness and woundedness similar to what we saw earlier this year during his phenomenal turn as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. There are some lines of dialogue that fall a little flat, but Jordan gets the emotional beats right, and the way he and Shannon play off each other is particularly effective—the former trying to be so controlled, the latter so nearly unhinged, and the contrast works.
What is most revelatory—and beautiful, even—is what Bahrani does to show the breadth of art, history, and culture in the world and how worthy it is of acknowledging, cherishing, and saving. He does something similar to what Ava DuVernay and Mindy Kaling did with Mrs. Who in A Wrinkle in Time, demonstrating a wide canon of essential works: texts in Arabic, Chinese, and Persian, by Rumi, Darwin, Oscar Wilde, and Jorge Luis Borges; portraits of Sitting Bull and Frederick Douglass; Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” on vinyl; Taxi Driver on VHS; As I Lay Dying, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Song of Solomon, Anna Karenina, White Teeth, Harry Potter, and Half of a Yellow Sun. A book in Braille is bathed in light like a holy text; the look on Jordan’s face as he reads the first few words of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is transcendent.
It’s staggering to see all those works destroyed, and how Bahrani and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau present the flames—beautiful, entrancing, eerie, violent—brings to mind Melisandre’s famous words: The night is dark, and full of terrors. Fahrenheit 451 is a construction of paranoia and fear, curiosity and hope, and in some scenes its themes are almost overwhelmingly sincere. But Bahrani has skillfully and creatively adapted this classic text for a modern audience, and its relevance is a reminder to resist.