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Fahrenheit 451 review: How tech, ignorance exploit us

HBO's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 warns us about the rise of tech.

farenheit-451-4
Firemen torch books, not put out fires. 
Michael Gibson/HBO

When Ray Bradbury's classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, it must have been unsettlingly familiar.

After all, a story about firemen who set books ablaze wasn't that outlandish. We were only 20 years out from Nazi book burnings in Germany and Austria that targeted anything ideologically incompatible with Nazism. Bradbury's tale was set in the future, but a future ever brushing up against nearby reality.

In the decades since, Fahrenheit 451 has become one of those books we read in school as an inoculation against empty promises from powerful people that being happy is achievable by being dumb and docile.

HBO's new adaptation, premiering May 19, also seeks to show us a future branched off from a world we know. But instead of just sounding the alarm about the narrowing of thought, the movie adds something tailored for the audiences of 2018: When it comes to tech, we're serving ourselves up on a platter, and we're going to be sorry.

In an age where getting on the internet feels like a liability at times — with data breaches, manipulative bots, the mere illusion of control over our privacy— Fahrenheit 451 tries to update the book's message, warning us not only of the dangers from ignorance, but apathy that stems from our reliance on technology. Fittingly, tech is as much an antagonist in this film as any authoritarian government.

Tech Troubles

As the movie starts, we meet Fireman Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan), a promising book burner who projects a zealous bravado but has been batting around misgivings about why he does what he does.

He's under the tutelage of John Beatty (the always steely Michael Shannon), who is part boss, part father figure and part captor. They're indoctrinating an auditorium full of kids in the evils of books— objects these kids have never even seen.

A lot has changed since 1953. While the novel incorporates plenty of future tech, such as wall-sized screens and earpiece radios, the movie takes it further, casting technology as background villains.  

For example, everyone has a spying voice assistant named Yuxie that looks a little like an egg timer from the Tron universe mounted on a stick. People isolate themselves in public using virtual reality headsets. The populace watches the Firemen in action via a livestream with real-time emoji reactions much like Facebook Live. Writing bots have replaced journalists.

And in a moment of on-the-nose exposition from Clarisse McClellan (Sofia Boutella) a conflicted informant, we find out that the tech companies of old built dangerous systems and either morphed into or joined up with the authoritarian governing body called The Ministry. It's not the tech companies' fault though, we did this to ourselves.

Books contain insanity

There's a key beat from the book that the movie skirts over. While it takes place in an intentionally grim future version of Cleveland, Ohio, that's perpetually night and neon, it never illustrates the way society is drowning in its own shallowness.

Compressed into Beatty is the idea that despite having walked away from those pesky, feeling-inducing books, society isn't free from existential angst. To the contrary, it gnaws harder in the absence of the books that could guide people through it.

The movie also struggles with just how to flesh out a book that's less than 200 pages. Filmmakers changed the arc of the ending to pack in some more action, and they take a stab at fleshing out Montag's backstory, but it feels thin.

There's also a love story tossed in — Montag and Clarisse bond over some harmonica playing and Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (been there!). And as far as Montag's intellectual awakening, mostly, we get a lot of Jordan furrowing his brow and clenching his jaw while he torches yet another pile of recognizable literary treasures.

The new version isn't the first time Bradbury's classic has been adapted for the screen. Francois Truffaut, one of the fathers of the French New Wave, directed Oskar Werner and Julie Christie in a 1966 movie based on the book that influenced a young Martin Scorsese, who said he'd duplicated the film's close-up technique often in his own work. Truffaut was also chosen by Steven Spielberg to appear as a scientist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Much like 1984 and Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 is a story that always seems to offer something prescient and relevant to the world we live in. Though heavy-handed, HBO's version carries on in that spirit, underlining that it's usually worthwhile to question what's become normal.

Just don't tell my smart speaker I said that.