Might a desire to stock the arsenal for the oncoming streaming wars lie behind HBO’s attempt to adapt Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel about a not so distant future in which firemen no longer put out fires but use them to burn banned literature? Maybe. It would certainly go some way to explaining why director Ramin Bahrani (a more than capable filmmaker) has chosen to take that perfectly simple allegory about the value of inherited knowledge and bring it kicking and screaming into our digital age.
The result is a cluttered and remarkably misjudged film that shoots for–and will no doubt miss–the YA audience. Taking place in a near future where, following a 2nd civil war, the powers that be (a mix of old government and tech mega-corps) decreed to do away with the chaos of warring online voices in order to maintain a status quo, Fahrenheit stars Michael B Jordan as Guy Montag, a prominent “fireman” who, alongside his chief (Michael Shannon), naively goes about his job of tracking down and scorching hard-drives full of illegal files called “graffiti” (it seems the authorities in this world have yet to consider the cloud). That is until he meets an illegal citizen named Clarisse (Sofia Boutella) who reads him Dostoyevsky and opens his eyes. One thing leads to the other.
There are enough interesting ideas here to suggest that a complete revamp of Bradbury’s text might have actually worked. A new social network (part Google home, part big brother) called “The 9” has replaced the Internet. Old media has been banned but algorithms now produce new entertainments. News is broadcast like reality TV on the side of skyscrapers and so on. The problem here is that, by sticking to the text, 451 never really acknowledges the simple fact that the firemen’s war against words might already have been won.
At one point Jordan holds up two books for a group of children and asks, “have you ever seen a real one of these before?” 451’s greatest flaw might be that it fails to see the irony in that.
Fahrenheit 451 airs on 20 May at 10:10pm on Sky Atlantic.