Can an adaptation of a 65-year-old book feel too futuristic? That’s the dilemma that HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451” TV movie, directed and adapted by “99 Homes’” Ramin Bahrani, presents to us.
On the one hand, much of the world it presents is familiar, especially to those who read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel. The core story is there: Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) works as a fireman in a dystopian future where, instead of putting out fires, he starts them. He, alongside a team led by Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon), seeks to find remaining books and scraps of literature in the country, and burn them in a spectacle of fire. The fires are broadcast to the citizens, who watch and cheer as the written word is destroyed.
Guy, as our protagonist, grows increasingly skeptical of this, and an encounter with a book-hoarding woman who burns herself alive leaves him questioning everything. Assisted by a passionate informant, Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), Guy takes aim at the fire department and the government in an attempt to stop the erasure of history.
But beyond the shared plot, much of Bahrani’s adaptation is designed to make this world feel separate from our own. Several Newspeak-esque terms have been created: Members of the rebellion are “eels.” Their attempt to save world literature and artwork is through something called the “OMNIS.” Their opponents are not just known as the government, but the “ministry.” All modern communication takes place on “the Nine,” where people can watch book burnings live and read emoji-fied versions of the Bible and “Moby Dick.”
The result is a version of “Fahrenheit 451” made for the “Hunger Games” era. In contemporary films, dystopia is regarded almost exclusively as heavily technological. Odd, invented terminology only makes this new world feel foreign. You can hear similar terminology in franchises like “The Maze Runner” (“Gladers,” “WCKD”) and “Divergent” (“Factionless,” “Dauntless”).
But unlike those properties, “Fahrenheit 451” desperately wants to connect our present to its own future. An eel bemoans how books became less popular when “nobody was reading anymore — they were just glancing at the headlines.” In other words, this world is not as far away from our modern times as we think. But then why create such distance with the strange terminology? Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” does this, too, but closes the gap with flashbacks that show just how Gilead came to power. All we hear in “Fahrenheit 451” is references to a Second Civil War that left 8 million dead. Details of how the ministry rose from the ashes are scarce.
Jordan is the saving grace of this TV movie, breaking out a flashy, villainous veneer for the book-burning scenes, then scaling back to his raw humanity during quiet moments. Between this and his “Black Panther” performance as antagonist Killmonger, the actor is quickly becoming top of his craft at sculpting sympathetic, anti-heroic men.
Shannon, whom Bahrani directed to a truly fantastic performance in “99 Homes,” is less impactful here. As he was in Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water,” Shannon is too much snarl, not enough human as Beatty. His role, beyond opposing Guy, is to present most of the pro-burning ideas in the film. During one scene, he points out that racist literature died with the burnings, a fact that seemingly resonates with Guy.
“We are not born equal, so we must be made equal by the fire,” Beatty says. It’s a line that would likely land better were Shannon not delivering it like a threat.
It’s tough to determine whether something changed about Shannon as an actor, or if he just hits the same notes too often, and it’s tiresome to watch over and over. He’s at his most compelling when he takes his typical growl and gives it some genuine humanity, as he did in the otherwise-abrasive “Nocturnal Animals.” Generally speaking, Shannon’s best performances come when he’s not the loudest actor in the room.
Here, however, Shannon is loud and proud, and it makes what is effectively a duet of a film something of a slog. Less time with Beatty might have been better spent with the ensemble cast, many of whom shine in smaller moments (Khandi Alexander especially, as one of the eels whom Guy works with in the film’s second half).
There’s enough good, though, especially in Jordan’s performance, to recommend “Fahrenheit 451,” but it’s not the slam-dunk you’d expect of a prestigious adaptation of a great American novel. The end result, with all its eels and OMNIS and emojis, is just too affected — and indeed, somehow too futuristic.