FAHRENHEIT 451 is the seminal text in Ray Bradbury’s massive bibliography. The sci-fi dystopia imagines a world where firemen burn books instead of putting out fires, and the people are so numbed by mindless entertainment that they gleefully let the books burn.

Originally published in 1953, the book is eerily prescient about modern technology. Parts of FAHRENHEIT 451 feel as if they are directly addressing 2018, making a new film adaptation of the novel inevitable. However, director Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation struggles to find ways to thematically update the story to address contemporary concerns about censorship and free-speech in 2018.

The FAHRENHEIT 451 Cast

Fahrenheit 451
Courtesy of HBO

The film’s greatest asset is its cast. Bahrani managed to find two perfect actors to portray Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) and Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan). Bahrani’s adaptation ties the two characters closer together with a warped surrogate father-son relationship. The sheer charisma of these two actors keeps the film moving even when the propulsion of the film’s plot begins to sputter.

The third major player of this film is Clarisse McClellan (Sofia Boutella). Boutella does a decent job with an underwritten part. Though Bahrani expands on the role far beyond Bradbury’s original text ever did. Clarisse is probably the biggest departure from the book. Here she is part of the underground resistance, attempting to protect the cultural artifacts of the past.

Ultimately, Bahrani made her an amalgamation of her character in the novel and Professor Faber. The filmmakers also aged her up significantly, erasing the uncomfortable Lolita-esque elements of her friendship with Montag in the novel. Ironically, it’s this very idea of “uncomfortable, problematic” content in media and how we respond to it that forms a major crux of Bradbury’s original novel. It’s also this very concept that Bahrani’s adaptation struggles the most with.

The Problem with Problematic

There is an important divergence Bradbury makes in FAHRENHEIT 451 when compared to other dystopian novels. The world of FAHRENHEIT wasn’t forced on the populous by any totalitarian government or dictatorial villain. Instead, the people of American gradually shaped this world of unchecked censorship. In the novel, Chief Beatty explains to Montag how burning books was the result of wanting to keep people complacent:

Ask yourself, What do we want in this country above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right?…Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, to the incinerator.”

The film adapts this scene more or less the same way, but with one major twist added. In the film, Beatty explains the objections to THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER’s use of the n-word, so the book was burned. He then explains that Richard Wright’s NATIVE SON offended white so it was burned. Montag, confused, asks why. 

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An Equal World

Here’s where the casting of Michael B. Jordan provides an interesting thematic ground. There’s an implication that Montag has lived in a world where he has never known or had awareness of the horrors of racism. His lack of awareness of the racial injustices portrayed in NATIVE SON suggests that the fireman’s actions have worked.

They’ve succeeded in making a world free of prejudice by erasing the awareness that it ever existed in the first place. “We are made equal by the flame,” Beatty tells Montag. However, this scene is the film’s most thematically confusing. Is the film suggesting that the only way American society can live without racism or prejudice is to erase centuries of artistic accomplishments?

Banning Books

Fahrenheit 451
Courtesy of HBO

This moment in the novel struck a sour note with me on a recent re-read of the novel and it does here as well. It implies that modern awareness of social injustices means a desire to erase the artistic works that we would now deem that catch-all term “problematic.” The film’s biggest flaw is that Bahrani seems totally uninterested in grappling with the questions raised by Bradbury’s ideas.

Bradbury’s observations have proven themselves to be true in a sense. THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD have repeatedly been banned from schools since FAHRENHEIT 451 was first released. When Bradbury wrote the novel in 1953, he feared a lack of critical thinking.

However, in 2018, people with racist, intolerant views are claiming they’re being censored. Their logic is similar to the one presented in Bradbury’s novel: they believe their bigoted views are valid in the realm of public debate. The film’s greatest missed opportunity is its failure to address this.

The Paradox of Tolerance

Philosopher Karl Popper once explained that there is a paradox within the concept of tolerance. He believed that in order for a society to truly be tolerant, it would have to be intolerant of intolerance. Your head might be spinning after reading that sentence, but just stick with me.

Let’s take a look at the case of Richard Spencer, alt-right political figure, and punchable face haver. After months of spouting racist, neo-Nazi rhetoric leading up to the 2016 election, someone finally did what a lot of us had been thinking about and punched him in the face.

Following that, the left-leaning people in our society begin to hem and haw over whether or not it was justifiable for someone to punch Spencer in the face. Does punching him in the face mean stooping to his level or invalidating his freedom of speech?

No.

We have the freedom of speech, but we don’t have the freedom of consequences of that speech. We as a society must be intolerant of intolerance.

But what does that mean for the art that already exists?

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Looking History in the Eye

What ultimately makes Berhani’s adaptation so frustrating is that it does not address the way that “cultural blindness” keeps us from learning from the racism of the past and also homogenizes our culture to the point where it removes all individuality.

Famously, Warner Brothers released numerous cartoons from the Looney Tunes catalog that contained offensive cultural portrayal for the sake of a cheap joke. Before each cartoon, they inserted a disclaimer acknowledging the problematic content and explaining the historical context that was acceptable at the time but was not morally right.

Looney Tunes has done a more efficient job of confronting its racist past than the entire country of America.

FAHRENHEIT 451 is about more than the loss of books; it’s about the inability to confront and learn from the mistakes of the past. This is perhaps most emblematic in the way Berhani’s film ends. Montag sacrifices his life instead of surviving from the ashes to rebuild a new world. While the movie does end on a similar note of hope, it loses its sense of rebirth. To Bradbury, the most resilient thing in the world is a human thought.

But maybe some thoughts are better off left in the past.

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