‘Fahrenheit 451’: A Classic Dystopian Tale Throws Sparks — but Fails to Rekindle — on HBO
By: Robert Sarwark
I’m not going to lie: I almost always like the book more than I like the movie (or, increasingly, streaming series). Shocking thing for a librarian to say, right? However, in recent years I’ve been forced to eat my words with marvelously produced and acted streaming series based on popular books such as The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Game of Thrones (HBO).
It’s not that I would say that these adaptations are better than their source material, it’s just that such care and hard work have been put into them that they are now in their own, separate categories as works, perhaps even somewhat incomparable to the great books that spawned them. In both cases, the books and the series can each be considered on their own, as separate things tied deeply to each other but worthwhile in and of themselves.
One might take the case of director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an ideal model. Though the film was released first, in 1968, the subsequently published novel and the film’s script were created almost entirely in tandem by Kubrick and novelist Arthur C. Clarke. While most works are not created within such an intertwined dynamic, a good film/series adaptation of a book can successfully suspend the disbelief caused by any departures from the original text.
Sadly, the made-for-HBO film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) does not fit into this category of symbiosis.
Though I was probably assigned the novel for a class at some point in my education (I honestly can’t remember), I had never actually read it until right before the HBO adaptation was released last month. That said, I entered into consideration of both the novel and the HBO series with, I think, an entirely open and unbiased mind; I knew very little about the plot other than it was about book burning. I began reading the novel about a week before the series was released and, by the time I watched the latter, was more than halfway through reading the former.
The series, with Black Panther and Friday Night Lights star Michael B. Jordan as protagonist Guy Montag, falls flat for several reasons, though not for Jordan’s lack of acting chops. The source material of the novel is indeed a sci-fi classic, but it is also quite abstract and philosophical at times. The result is that the action-heavy film adaptation felt like enough of a stretch that it quickly lost my deeper interest. And while co-star Michael Shannon, as the malevolent Fire Captain Beatty, is always superb in such roles, his performance here also comes across as almost cartoonish in its brooding darkness. After Fahrenheit 451 and, just prior, his prominent supporting role in A Shape of Water, Shannon may want to consider a few sunnier parts in order to avoid being typecast as “Evil Boss.”
All performances aside, the changes to the story itself are drastic enough to break from what makes the novel so profound. For one, the novel has the conflicted “fireman” (i.e., professional book-burner) Montag briefly befriend a young girl named Clarice, who seems untouched by the oppressive intellectual constraints of a near-future America. Though both iterations challenge Montag’s entire worldview, the HBO series first makes Montag single (he’s unhappily married in the book) and then ages Clarice into his sexy and mysterious girlfriend (Sofia Boutella) who, frankly, is unconvincing as a freethinking catalyst to the fireman-turned-revolutionary.
Nevertheless, certain elements of the adaptation are spot-on, especially considering all of the technological advancements since 1953. For example, an all-encompassing, interactive television and gaming system occupies many people’s waking hours (sound familiar?), including Montag’s wife’s. This is expanded in the film with “the 9,” an internet-based, OS platform akin to 2001‘s “HAL 9000,” from which you can get government-approved information, though the only books available are an emojified Bible, Moby-Dick, and Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. (It’s implied that nobody reads these anyway.)
Ray Bradbury has argued over the years since 451 was published that this is one of the novel’s main lessons: that television and other distracting modern media will destroy our ability to appreciate literature. We may not burn books very —often in the U.S., but this leaves us with one question: Was Bradbury right about losing touch in this sense?
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but personally I still love reading books as much, if not more, than I do watching TV, movies, shows, or using the internet in general. I was reminded of this once I finished the HBO version and, the next day, got back to finishing the novel. It continued to be a great read.
Robert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.