It’s hard to adapt Ray Bradbury. Kind of. Not really. The thing about the late author that works for any visual medium is that his writing is so damn cinematic. Reading his prose is often like staring at a painting, particularly the way he illustrates these sweeping portraits of Midwestern America, not too dissimilar from Norman Rockwell, only with an edge. His greatest triumphs in this respect are his jaw-dropping odes to autumn in both The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Rolling hills, falling leaves, dying suns, and youthful abandon are all across each page, and they’re a delight to revisit.
Bradbury’s award-winning schoolhouse classic, Fahrenheit 451, is hardly bereft of this beauty. That’s why it’s not too surprising that one of the strengths of Ramin Bahrani’s slick adaptation for HBO lies in the visuals. It’s a good looking film, chock full of crisp frames by Game of Thrones cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, that captures a dystopian world that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever walked downtown through a major American metropolis. Large screens advertise the “firemen’s” noble work like a shitty CBS game show. Night clubs are glazed in hyper-sexual neon lights. Tech is everywhere.
Sadly, the movie is about as hollow as a prop book. Save for two inspired performances by Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon, who reunites with Bahrani after his impeccable turn in 2015’s 99 Homes, the movie doesn’t offer much but some visual candy and a cursory take on the themes embedded in Bradbury’s book. Born out of Cold War paranoia, Fahrenheit 451 has long been seen as a timeless salvo against censorship, even though the author intended for it to be a biting commentary against the marginalization of literature. Oddly enough, this movie does exactly what Bradbury feared.
That’s not to say it doesn’t at least try. There’s an intriguing scene between the two principal forces, Shannon’s Captain Beatty and Jordan’s Guy Montag, where they’re both meditating on a hidden fortress of books, which Beatty describes as a Tower of Babel find. It’s a little expository, but he starts to digress on the reasoning behind why the government burns books, contending that works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Native Son or authors like Henry Miller or Ernest Hemingway had to be removed because they offended particular sections of society. Hey, now there’s something!
This little bit is arguably the movie’s strongest thematic bridge between Bradbury’s novel and today’s society. Because, in an age where even the most liberal institutions are allowing censorship, Beatty’s spiel hardly feels like fiction. It’s the most haunting moment in a story that should be filled with them. Yet rather than lean on that idea, the film opts to capitalize on cheap thrills, such as fire, fire, and fire, or lame MacGuffins like a DNA subplot that only serves to embellish a character turn that’s never quite earned. By then, it’s mostly a retread of every dystopian sci-fi movie released in the last five years.
It’s a shame because the talent here is outstanding. Bahrani said so much in 99 Homes with so very little, and this should have been a total cake walk for the guy. Instead, the screenplay is a soggy pile of kerosene-soaked pages, waiting for a spark that never comes, leaving Jordan and Shannon to do all the extra legwork — and they do. In fact, if there’s anything remotely revelatory about the film, it’s that the pair work well together. (One early boxing scene even suggests Shannon could make an ideal Creed 2 villain.) Even so, that chemistry isn’t worth seeking out, let alone revisiting.
Just read the goddamn thing.