IIRC, before I found out HBO was making an adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, I had said that we don’t need one because we are bloody living it already in Trump’s puss-filled Darkest Timeline America right now. Anyone who knows me knows I’m also extremely wary of not only novel adaptations but remaking American staples in fiction. Most of the time, it’s done for either banking on nostalgia or as a weak attempt to “update” something to make it more palatable to today’s audience. Well, as you’ll see in my review, Fahrenheit 451 sort of straddles the fence in those aspects as well as those of its overall quality.
To tell you the truth, I hadn’t planned on watching this movie. I didn’t even know it was premiering. I happened to subscribe to HBONow because the second season of Westworld recently began (and to my utter exasperation, God, until we hit Maeve’s storyline again, it’s been boring as hell with nothing to say) and I had a Saturday to myself on the couch, so I decided to give it a shot.
And here’s where the fence-straddling starts.
The first half of Fahrenheit 451 is amazingly strong. Good visuals, great music, and the performances we get out of Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon are jaw-droppingly emotional in spots. In the first half, there are still noticeable changes that I assume were added for the whole “update” thing that Hollywood is obsessed with as of the last two decades. Some of them work well, like the social media component that wasn’t around when Bradbury wrote the novel, but others fall rather flat like having a black actor portray Montag without once (at least not that I noticed) bringing up any sort of possible conflict that could have been explored by this change. The social media component is very heavy-handed, but it’s still at least relevant and the film does a good job discussing how many people would much rather just be happy than be informed. Social media is excellent for that argument. We’ve molded ourselves into an unhealthy obsession with being heard and loved, myself included, and it’s a conversation worth having, so much so that before we hit the halfway point, I had recommended this movie to my mother.
The other reason the first half of the film is so strong is Jordan and Shannon’s performances. These two feed off of each other extremely well. The partnership and parenthood aspects shine like a diamond here. I joked with my brother that Michael Shannon has thus far played the same character in everything he’s in, but he’s so damned good at it that no one cares. He is excellent at being a closed off, intimidating, seemingly cold antagonist, but here he actually is split between the antagonist and a supporting protagonist. I admit I adore the fact that the bonding moments between Montag and Beatty were so powerfully acted. Nothing is more boring than a one dimensional evil character. Beatty has depth, and his depth lends depth to Montag. I found myself getting upset since I knew what would be in store for their relationship later on, and that’s a good thing. They both don’t have anyone else and it genuinely tears at the heartstrings once things start to fall apart.
There are smaller positive things of note, like the cinematography. I actually had to pause the film a couple times because I had such an emotional reaction to seeing books being burned. I’m not nearly as much of an avid reader as I was in the past, but I still love literature. I have two bookshelves overflowing with books. I love having them around me. I love just flipping open something and just flying off into another world for a little while. Seeing those stories burned and supposedly being lost forever did a damn good job of unsettling me, and I think any intelligent person would squirm as well. For the most part, the film has a great atmosphere. It’s harrowing and eerie throughout.
The first major change to note is they removed Montag’s wife Millie. I greatly disliked this change. As soon as I saw Clarisse, I knew why—they aged her up to be a (soft) love interest for Montag during his awakening point in the story. Even with folding Clarisse into that role, it’s a bad idea. First off, Clarisse’s character is never really that explored so she still ends up much like how she was in the novel: just a person-plotpoint for Montag to start to awaken and realize his natural instincts to resist. Second off, Millie also gave weight to what Montag had to lose and was an example of how much of the ignorance that destroys the mind can come from your very own home. Millie was completely uninterested in any of the things he cared about and eventually ended up leaving him once their home was burned to the ground. We don’t see anything of material value for Montag in the film, so when he’s forced to burn his own home down, it makes us ask “who cares?” The disgrace he suffered was more potent, being shamed in front of the whole country, but the actual house going up in flames did nothing for his character nor his character development. In the novel, he had something to lose, and here all he loses is his status.
The second major change is the real reason I ended up incredibly disappointed in the film: they changed the ending. I know, right? What kind of screenwriter thinks they know better than Ray freaking Bradbury? This is not to say Bradbury is untouchable, but there is a reason we’re still talking about and adapting a novel that came out in 1953. There are so many reasons why the ending of this film doesn’t work and broke my heart after the second half started.
To start, Montag dying rather than Captain Beatty. What makes the least sense about this change is that the film, for the most part, adapts the novel rather faithfully up until the second half. We see Captain Beatty at home writing small quotes from books and struggling with his growing suspicions about Montag. It strikes me as if they were going to go with the original ending but then some smart guy decided it wasn’t good enough and changed their mind. It’s set up with no payoff with Montag sacrificing himself and Beatty killing him. In the novel, Beatty goading Montag into killing him makes sense. He can’t reconcile what he knows to be true and what he’s supposed to do in life and it’s time for it all to end. It also robbed us of what could have been a devastating blow on an emotional level to see Montag kill Beatty.
As mentioned above, Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon play off each other ridiculously well. It would have hurt so much to see Montag kill him, and yet we’re given this Stupid Sacrifice moment, capped off with the fact that Beatty had a flamethrower and could have roasted that stupid bird no problem before it got away. (Side note: Have you ever seen how fast feathers burn in heat? The fire wouldn’t have even needed to touch the freaking thing—the convection alone would have roasted it like KFC. And don’t get me started on the continued Hollywood fable of being able to run into a wooden barn that is 90% on fire and you can not only see perfectly, but you don’t even cough. It is the worst kind of myth. Talk to a firefighter for five minutes before y’all keep writing these stupid scenes. Fire is no joke, and smoke kills a lot of people long before the fire does.) Montag shouldn’t have become some kind of Messiah figure. It wasn’t needed. It’s just someone’s bizarre artistic choice. Montag is supposed to represent a lot of things in the book, but a sacrificial figure is not one of them. It doesn’t add anything to the film but a sad ending. We didn’t need it. Montag’s character development has lasted through the ages for a reason. He’s a small beacon of hope that it is possible for someone who was ignorant to see the light and give up his earthly possessions and his false happiness and open his eyes to the world falling apart around and have the desire to stop it even at great cost. This adaptation completely misses the point by turning him into a sacrificial lamb.
Secondly, the entire DNA info bird thing just sounded nonsensical as hell. I hated it. It didn’t make any sense and it sounded like it was just an excuse for them to rattle off book quotes and make the rebels seem grander. It was overcomplicated and it hinged on some amazingly ridiculous things for this plan to work at all.
Thirdly, Montag burning the jealous coworker rather than Beatty also left a bad taste in my mouth, because we had already established that he was disgraced and there was zero weight to that one douchebag tattletale burning to death instead of Beatty. We didn’t’ know him, we didn’t like him, and Montag had zero relationship with him, so it wasn’t shocking or poetic or anything. It’s just a body count. It made Montag a killer, but it didn’t reveal anything about him that we didn’t already know from better elements in the story. It’s just for shock value, and it wasn’t even shocking.
Fourthly, Clarisse’s awkward and sudden departure from the film at the end. Just…why? Why build up the relationship between the two of them and then just drop it cold? She just brushes him off and disappears. Well, what is she going to do? Why did they act like she was central to the story when it completely ignores focusing on her? It honestly would have made more sense to keep it the way it happened in the book with her dying off-screen. Unlike Rando Salamander’s death, it would have greatly affected Montag. Hell, I’ll give you another change if you insist on being so artistic, movie: why not have Beatty force Montag to burn Clarisse? That’s harsh, but it’s another instance that would have left a powerful impact on the viewers and the character. Let’s have Beatty make it ‘either she burns or you burn’ and Montag can’t pull the trigger, so Beatty burns her anyway to teach him a lesson. That still would have given her more agency and a better finish than her just waltzing away from him as if he meant nothing to her.
Lastly, Montag hoarding books but the film doesn’t really get into why. This sounds like the creator’s vision and the book bumping heads once more. Montag appears to hoard them…just to hoard them. The film never explores why. We understand he’s having doubts and we understand his own father was disgraced for hoarding and reading them as well, but the film puts too much distance between the audience and what Montag is thinking. We don’t see into his thoughts and so it just comes off as tossed in there to hint at a deeper meaning that never fully gets addressed. There are other ways Montag shows us that he’s not a mindless robot like the rest of society. The film should have taken time to discuss what these books he kept meant to him and why he risked keeping them.
All in all, it’s not as if the film isn’t trying. The problem is that it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of concepts, cobbled together from Bradbury’s work and the writers/director’s vision. The two don’t perfectly come together as they should, so the message is bungled even though there are superior performances. I don’t know that it’s possible to recommend only half of a movie. I suppose weirder things have happened. It’s mostly worth the botched ending to see Michael B. Jordan act his ass off alongside Michael Shannon, but if you’re a book nerd, the ending will likely drive you crazy. Keep that in mind should you decide to feel the heat.
Kyoko M is the Amazon bestselling author of The Black Parade and the Of Cinder and Bone series.