#SGWatch4U: Fahrenheit 451, Michael B. Jordan’s shakily adapted, lukewarm sci-fi thriller

#SGWatch4U is our screen review column where we tackle anything from film to TV/Netflix.

It’s always risky adapting a novel for film. You run the risk of offending the legions of fans behind the original; and if you dare veer off the path for a new narrative, you’d best make sure the finished product works as an all-new standalone. The newest contender Fahrenheit 451 from HBO Films leaves us a little wary about embracing all future adaptations. 

HBO’s made-for-TV film starring Michael B. Jordan is based on the 1953 dystopian novel of the same name, written by Ray Bradbury—and the esteemed winner of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and a “Retro” Hugo Award, amongst others. Unfortunately, Fahrenheit 451 fails to live up to the expectations set by its award-winning source material; instead flailing around with stiff performances and a regrettable desire to critique current-day politics.

Fahrenheit 451 reimagines Cleveland, Ohio in the distant future—a highly efficient city run on a sleekly designed central surveillance system and the idea that books are bad. All books are outlawed to the extent that fire departments exist solely to burn them; notably, the fires are cranked up to 451 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which book paper catches fire. Anyone who reads or attempts to archive texts in any form are deemed “Eels”, versus the compliant majority of “Natives” who are happy to have their lives subtly dictated for them. Protagonist Guy Montag (Jordan) is one such “fireman”, who begins his journey a dutiful soldier that takes pride in his work and bathes in the ensuing admiration of an adoring public. But with any good character development, something in the pit of his subconscious nags him against his actions, and he starts to question all he’s been taught, meeting other rebellious individuals along the way.

It’s on this exciting premise that the film enters, before taking liberties with the original plot. Bradbury’s novel, initially based in a post-1960 era, is updated here with hallmarks of modern-day culture—from live-streaming and emojis to obnoxious Trump-y slogans. It makes for a visual treat most science fiction fans will appreciate; but the marvels of technology are not the point of the story, and so they stagnate at a superficial level.

There’s no going downhill to speak of, because that would suggest a point of successful elevation in the first place. Almost instantly the movie burdens itself with the weight of politics and social issues, trying to critique modern America wherever it can. On top of censorship and an untrusting government are themes of surveillance, police brutality, racism, and inequality; even fake news. They pummel you into the ground, a Hollywood-esque form of emotional blackmail, and yet Director Ramin Bahrani never takes the time to sensitively develop any one issue. Guy’s superior Captain Beatty (a permanently sneering Michael Shannon)’s “We are not born equal, so we must be made equal by the fire. And then we can be happy” sounds like a provocative quote—until you realize it doesn’t really mean anything at all.

, #SGWatch4U: Fahrenheit 451, Michael B. Jordan’s shakily adapted, lukewarm sci-fi thriller
Michael Shannon and Michael B. Jordan fanning the flames of state-based censorship

The film also parades one-dimensional characters that do nothing to connect with the audience, and leave our subconscious just as vaguely as they enter. Michael B. Jordan, whose lead role was probably the film’s biggest draw for most people, seems unfortunately typecasted after his mass-market Black Panther breakthrough. Guy’s overtly alpha male character overcompensating for a bleak childhood hides tones of Erik Killmonger; his emotional release at the end is neither gratifying nor truly surprising. Still, what a bod!

Don’t get us wrong; we’re all for creative exploration in adapting movies—but any reworking should be a worthwhile change. Even without reading the book it falls a little flat, and is made worse by messy morals and poor pacing. Fahrenheit 451 does have its satisfying moments—like the many scenes of literary classics burning furiously in the flames, which seem to have been taken straight from a school-assigned reading list. You might feel a part of your soul die as you watch the esteemed titles melt away into the fire, but there’s some fun to be had when you can geek out and mentally check off titles that you’ve read. Ironically though, despite the many glorious fires in the film, the embers of a successful dystopian thriller fail to catch spark.

Fahrenheit 451 will be available for streaming on HBO GO and HBO May 20, 8am.