“It was a pleasure to burn,” is one of the greatest opening lines in all of fiction.
I felt like an idiot for not keeping my expectations managed. HBO seduced me into a false sense of security, banking on its reputation of creating engaging and gritty content. And to be honest, all the promotions led me to believe this was going to be a series, not a movie. A show set in a dystopic future world that was originally created by literary great Ray Bradbury equaled Fuck Yes in my book. And the source material has as much relevance today as it did when it was written, as most of the greats do.
Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 in 1953 during the height of the McCarthy Era, when the ideas of burning books and limiting free thinking were very real threats. Bradbury also stated that the book was a commentary on how mass media had reduced interest in reading literature. In the novel, books have been banned and fireman now burn any they find, turning their typical role of putting out fires on its head. The main character, Guy Montag, finds himself questioning his work, and its impact on society.
The book is one of the most well-known novels in literature and gets bonus points for writing about burning books, which provides a degree of delightful angst for readers and aspiring writers alike. Taking on a classic is risky, trendy and ambitious. And with few exceptions the results are mixed at best.
Although disappointing overall, it wasn’t all bad. I only feel like half my time was wasted.
Let’s start with the intro. HBO is known for creating visually striking cinema for the small screen and they designed an intro that drew the viewer right in. The close shots of famous titles being burned interlaced with footage of the Nazi book burnings created a narrative without using words. It drove home how relevant the themes from this book are in this fucked up Fox News era we live in.
Also, having television projected onto skyscrapers with the fireman looming larger than life, looming over society, while the social media emojis and likes streamed upward was essentially an indictment of our infatuation with the 24 hour news cycle and our obsession with social media. This is actually given voice in the film when Clarisse says “We did this to ourselves, we asked for this.” New forms of the same thing Bradbury was railing against in 1953, advancing my theory that writers of dystopic fiction are just prophets in disguise.
The old woman who burns herself alive with her books after being caught was incredibly striking and served as a terrific turning point in the narrative. That being shown on those larger than life screens reminded me, in many ways of the news footage of huge protests for Black Lives Matter and March For Our Lives, the counter-culture to talking heads and status quo.
And the Alexa-esque AI essentially serving as big brother (and stand in for Montag’s wife) coupled with the shot of an old videotape with the Blockbuster logo and “Be Kind Rewind” written on it highlight the dangers of moving completely away from an analog world and into something completely digital (as I type this on my laptop, with my TV on in the background, a show streaming from my Amazon Fire Stick, my smart phone and Kindle closer to me than my bookshelf).
Lastly, Michael Shannon does creepy very, very well. Whatever he channeled into his role as conflicted and creepy prohibition officer Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire he brought with him as conflicted and creepy Captain Beatty. Playing creepy takes talent. Playing creepy and conflicted takes superior talent. This talent made the line “I’ve been burned so many times I don’t know where the scars end and my body begins,” one of the most memorable of the movie. His stoic expression only slightly betrayed by his tone. That takes nuance, something that stands out in a movie with such spectacularly brazen themes and actions.
After getting all of these elements to stoke the flame, they went ahead and poured water on the whole fucking thing and pissed on the ashes.
The most polite way to describe Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Guy Montag would be to call it wooden. The only time he seemed alive is when he was playing for a crowd and burning. He never sold me on his internal conflict, and his character’s chemistry with Clarisse McClellen was as disjointed and awkward as two preteens during their first slow dance. And when he meets the members of the resistance, he doesn’t steal scenes as much as he chokes the life out of them. I guess that second part would be the less polite way to describe him.
I also never bought the plot point of the group memorizing books so that the knowledge doesn’t die in the ashes. I know it’s in line with what happens in the novel, but it has a shitty transition to screen. I’m a big proponent of preserving the integrity of the source material, and often rail against shows and movies that take too many liberties. But some liberties are okay, even necessary. The director had already replaced Montag’s wife with Alexa and turned Clarisse into an informant rather than a neighbor to help fit the medium, there was probably a way to change this plot point to something that worked better visually while preserving the integrity of the work. A scanner with an air gapped computer. A microfilm machine. Something. Anything would have been more engaging.
And the ending, with Montag and Beatty and all the burning was phoned in on a rotary phone rendered obsolete in a digital age. Not even Michael Shannon’s skill could save such a poorly designed scene. Even with the filming going on and Jordan’s opportunity to play to a crowd, it was less electric and more power outage.
HBO wrote half a movie and Bradbury’s warning to us all deserved better.