How do you use wall-size televisions as a sign of cultural decline in a movie destined to be seen on big, modern, flat-screen TVs? And how do you depict book burning as a horrific act of erasure in a world of tablets, smartphones, e-books, and the cloud? That’s the problem faced by any modern adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book whose anti-censorship message remains timeless even as investment in words on paper has depreciated. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, HBO’s new Fahrenheit 451 adaptation doesn’t always work as a piece of storytelling in spite of strong performances by Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon. But its attempts to bring Bradbury’s 1953 version of the future in line with the 21st century we know feel chillingly plausible.
Fahrenheit 451 was first adapted as a film by François Truffaut in 1966 and it’s had a hard time making a return trip to the movies ever since. That’s not because Truffaut made the definitive version. His take, though compelling, is rarely mentioned alongside his best work. And it’s not for a lack for interest, either. Mel Gibson long talked of doing a version that never came to pass. But changing times and new technology have likely played a role as well, especially in recent years.
Bradbury’s novel drew inspiration both from the censorship pushes of Hitler and Stalin and the rise of media he saw as jeopardizing the primacy of reading, particularly radio and television. Enemies of free expression remain as strong as ever, but presenting television only as a tool of distraction and oppression now seems a little off.
Not that TV’s not in the mix in Bahrani’s vision of a totalitarian near-future America. It’s just become a worst-possible version of the television we know. When not serving as a kind of video wallpaper—projecting images of nature that seem alien in the midst of the film’s bleak, urban vision—it’s a tool of the state, broadcasting propaganda that makes heroes of the “firemen” charged with destroying what books remain after a purge that’s destroyed most of the physical books in the United States and has since moved on to cracking down on the underground culture that tries to keep books alive electronically. Their burnings become live events, and their actions subject to Facebook Live–like insta-reactions.
Books, we learn in an early indoctrination session led by Jordan’s Guy Montag and Shannon’s Captain, still exist. Well, “books,” do, anyway. They’re still available on what passes for the internet in this obviously post–net neutrality world, but the examples they show—the Bible, To the Lighthouse, and Moby-Dick—have been reduced to a jumble of small words and emojis.
Bahrani’s version pushes other pieces of emerging technology to grim extremes, how they could help us tumble into a world in which free thought is dangerous. Siri and Alexa have evolved into Yuxie, an electronic assistant whose role extends to advising users on moral conundrums and the amount of drugs you need to take to stop worrying and love the new world order—and one that doesn’t always stop watching when told to turn herself off.
The world of Fahrenheit 451 is often more interesting than the film itself, which, after a brisk start, gets bogged down by sluggish pacing and a confusing new addition involving DNA storage; Bahrani never tops the staging of one of the book’s most famous scenes, in which a bibliophile chooses to go up in flames rather than give up her collection. The movie also serves as an impassioned defense of physical media, emphasizing what can be lost with the transition from ink on a page (or images on celluloid, and so on). Digital media can be easily copied and widely distributed. It’s not restrained by physical limitations. If information wants to be free, an e-book seems like a logical step toward that freedom. But digital media can also be overwritten and reshaped. It can disappear. Your favorite website might be erased with the push of a button. Your cloud could be emptied.
In one scene we see that Montag, beyond stealing the occasional book, keeps a small cache that includes a postcard, a videotape (formerly the property of a Blockbuster), and a reel of film from a print of Singin’ in the Rain. For all their fragility, physical media has a concrete presence lost in the digital world. It can be destroyed, but it’s also real and unchanging, and it’s a comforting backstop to the idea that Woolf, Melville, and the word of God can’t be reduced to just another string of words and pictures sure to be drowned out by a flood of distraction and misinformation. The world might have changed, but Bahrani’s film keeps finding ways to suggest Bradbury might have been right all along.