Television Review: 'Fahrenheit 451'

May 19, 2018
Originally published on May 19, 2018 7:44 am
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Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon star tonight in HBO's version of "Fahrenheit 451." BJ Leiderman, who does our theme music, has no role in the production. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says the movie transforms Ray Bradbury's classic novel for life in the age of social media and fake news.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: HBO's movie upgrades a lot from its 65-year-old source material to look futuristic in the era of Instagram and Snapchat. Fake news and video from social media are plastered across giant skyscrapers dominating Cleveland's glittering skyline. Citizens live in plush, antiseptic spaces serviced by a Siri-like artificial intelligence called Yuxie, and information comes from The Nine, a version of the Internet heavily regulated by the ruling ministry. Michael Shannon excels at playing verbose villains with a fierce tortured humanity. And he does it again as John Beatty, a captain of the firemen who hunt down unauthorized information, especially physical books, to burn. Here, he gives a typically intense speech explaining why philosophy books are so bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAHRENHEIT 451")

MICHAEL SHANNON: (As John Beatty) Here's Spinoza - one expert screaming down another expert's throat. We have free will. No. All of our actions are pre-determined. Each one says the opposite. And a man comes away lost. Now, if you don't want a person unhappy, you don't give them two sides of a question to worry about.

MICHAEL B. JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) Just give them one.

SHANNON: (As John Beatty) Better yet, none.

DEGGANS: The voice chiming in at the end was Guy Montag, Beatty's prize protege. He's played by Michael B Jordan, and some of the best moments an HBO's film come from watching him and Shannon show off the father-son bond between these two characters. They're so close that when Montag later develops doubts and tries to quit the job, Beatty can't quite believe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAHRENHEIT 451")

SHANNON: (As John Beatty) I just submitted your name to replace me as captain.

JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) It's not about that.

SHANNON: (As John Beatty) Oh, so you're willing to throw away the 16 years that I've invested in you.

JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) I have 16 years of the ministry [expletive] my head. And I want to know why we burn.

DEGGANS: This is a moody film, centered on the struggles each character faces living in a hypocritical society where happiness is equated with freedom from information. It's obvious Beatty knows more than he's saying about books and about Montag's past. Montag just wants to know why he feels so empty. Like the novel, HBO's movie uses book burning as a compelling allegory for the rejection of inconvenient or troubling facts. And when Montag meets a rebel trying to preserve books named Clarisse, she reveals exactly how the ministry came to dominate America.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAHRENHEIT 451")

SOFIA BOUTELLA: (As Clarisse McClellan) During the second civil war, the old tech companies developed systems to predict our thoughts. Then they became the ministry, or the ministry joined them. And they sold us what we wanted - self and happiness.

JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) You're telling me people wanted it this way.

BOUTELLA: (As Clarisse McClellan) The ministry didn't do this to us. We did it to ourselves. We demanded a world like this.

DEGGANS: If you know Bradbury's novel - or the clunky 1966 film made of it with Julie Christie - then you know Montag eventually teams up with Clarisse to fight the ministry. In truth, the predictability of this storyline is the film's biggest weakness - perhaps the built-in hazard of adapting a book that's inspired so much of our modern dystopian science fiction. Still, it's also a sleek, ambitious reimagining that gives two talented actors a lot of room to show their stuff. This is a good, not great, film, and to some, its message on the impact of distracting superficial media may seem obvious and heavy handed. But when fake news can affect real elections, there is no better time to consider the lessons of this modernized "Fahrenheit 451." I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.