There are many changes from book to screen in “Fahrenheit 451,” the new HBO movie based on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel of the same name, but one of the simplest is also one of the most critical: Though there are still books to burn in this dystopian future, most of them aren’t made of paper; they exist online. So the firemen assigned to find and destroy all outlawed written works aren’t always lighting physical pages on fire, but smashing hard drives and building bonfires out of confiscated computers.
It’s a well-reasoned update on an older story, especially as Ramin Bahrani’s (“99 Homes”) adaptation shifts from a discussion of ideals to an escape film. And yet it’s the world-building that’s done well and the ultimate impact that feels unfulfilling. The upgraded universe in the new “Fahrenheit 451” is exquisite, as news stories (aka propaganda) are broadcast on the sides of skyscrapers and little Alexa-like devices (called Yuxies) obey their owners’ beck and call while monitoring everything they do. Yet once the new story’s conventional structure reveals itself, the resulting chain of events can’t live up to the grand importance of Bradbury’s original work.
“Fahrenheit 451” opens in a dark, metropolitan state you’ll soon learn is Ohio — yup, Ohio. Plenty more has changed in this version of the future, too. Firemen are modern day heroes, worshipped by an adoring populace who watch them work via newscasts that play on bathroom mirrors and walls of buildings. Little hearts and smiley faces float across the video feeds as people react to what the book-burning fire-starters do in real time.
Chief among them is Chief Beatty (Michael Shannon), a stern leader and veteran of the force who hasn’t missed a step, but is already thinking about retirement. That’s in part because his protege, Montag (Michael B. Jordan), is both well-groomed and immensely popular. The people love Montag, as his Yuxie reminds him when he posts a new photo before work. He’s a hype man for the destruction of unauthorized information, and he carries out his job with great enthusiasm.
That is, until a book-burning raid goes awry. Montag and his crew try to clear the building, but some members refuse to leave. From that point forward, he’s a changed man. He wants to know more about the books they’re forbidden to read and about American history that’s been (re-)shaped for them. Along the way, he meets an informant named Clarisse (Sofia Boutella) who pushes him toward a new way of thinking.
In the book, Clarisse was a far different character, and her new role fits the adjusted narrative even if it detracts from the weight of our protagonist’s arc. Robbing Montag of his tragic backstory streamlines things in a way that may have been necessary in cutting the book down to a two-hour film (“Fahrenheit” actually clocks in at just 1 hour and 40 minutes), but what’s left as motivation for his change in behavior doesn’t feel like enough. (Hint: The scene is already included in the book, indicating Bradbury knew it couldn’t stand on its own.) Jordan does his best to convey the weight of the moment in his performance. He conveys so much with his eyes, and the camera gravitates toward him time and time again to do just that. Whether it’s a contemplative stare or a fretful glance, Jordan can emote well minimally.
Shannon, meanwhile, has the same fire you’ve seen him toss around in everything from “Premium Rush” to “The Shape of Water,” but his best scenes are also entirely silent. Captain Beatty’s role is beefed up, and he’s far more complex accordingly. Contradictory in words and actions, it’s a bit difficult to get a read on his motivations, but Shannon grounds him in a position of dutiful subservience that explains a lot.
Ultimately, the changes aren’t really the problem with the 2018 take on “Fahrenheit.” As a story, it holds together well enough, if a bit too neatly. Even if you haven’t read the book, there’s a lack of urgency to the film because it fits so snugly into generic expectations. Bradbury’s novel makes bold choices that run in direct contrast to the censorship that plagues his characters. There’s an immense amount of pain there, which functions as a call to action for the rebellion. In the book, it’s necessary. In the film, it’s a choice.
Perhaps that’s more fitting for our times: When no one can agree on anything, individuals have to make decisions on their own, based on whatever drives them to do so. Unfortunately, “Fahrenheit 451” isn’t hard-hitting enough as a film to be a proper motivating factor on its own.
“Fahrenheit 451” premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. HBO will debut the film Saturday, May 19 at 8 p.m. ET.