I’ll admit it: I haven’t read Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in years. All I could remember was that in some horrible dystopian future I shudder to contemplate, “firemen” exist, not to put fires out, but to burn books.
Understandably, the story needed an update, considering the enormous impact the digital age has had on our culture. Society is encouraged to “Stay vivid on the Nine”, the Nine being a combination of Twitter and the only TV channel in town, broadcast on the sides of skyscrapers, with cascading emojis and viewers texting comments. Our protagonist, the firefighter Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) has become a kind of action-hero reality star, charging into homes and buildings suspected of harboring books and other unapproved artwork, with unquestioning battle-frenzy and egged on by viewers comments: “I love you Montag!” “You’re a hero!”
In this America, life operates under the premise of whatever makes us unhappy must be destroyed. Books make us examine ourselves, question our motives, and shed a light on the darker aspects of ourselves. Eww! The quest for knowledge and meaning is uncomfortable and icky. Better to just pop some eye-drops into the eyes (containing, I assume, some kind of anti-anxiety drug–and the symbolism of blindness is not lost on me here), and watch the Nine. Yay!
Montag basks in this adulation, and is currently being groomed by his superior, Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) to replace him. Life is looking pretty good for our hero, until a couple of things happen that cause him to start questioning. First, he meets the enigmatic Clarisse (Sophia Boutella), a snitch for Beatty, and a former “eel” (someone who gathers and hides contraband books). He’s intrigued and attracted. Then he watches as a woman allows herself to be burned along with her books rather than live in a world without them. She utters a word, Omnis, before she dies, though the word is dubbed over when it’s broadcast. He’s horrified, and wants to understand why someone would sacrifice their life for books. What the heck is in them, anyway? And what is Omnis?
He steals a book from the woman’s vast pile (Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground) and adds it to his collection of contraband he’s been keeping in a secret place in his home. He has to hide it from Yuxia, a kind of souped-up Alexa that interacts with (and spies on) the occupants of every home. “What are you doing, Montag?” it intones when he tells it to “go blind”. Creepy.
Captain Beatty tries to stave off his protege’s doubts. He’s been around books long enough to be familiar with some of them (intriguingly, when he’s alone he writes down quotes from books–from memory, so you know he’s read them more than once–onto small slips of paper, then burns them all together). He states that “We are not born equal, but the fire makes us equal.” I found Beatty’s ambiguity, his knowledge of books but his subsequent rejection of them, interesting and hoped to go a little deeper into his psyche. He’s the most realized character in the film, but unfortunately, precious little has been spent on characterization here.
After reading a few passages of Notes From Underground with Clarisse, Montag decides he doesn’t want to burn books anymore, he wants to read them, and to save them. He’s suddenly willing to risk his life on something he barely knows anything about. It didn’t ring true for me; and the whole premise became even more questionable when we find out what Omnis is: all of the world’s literature encapsulated into some DNA and injected into a bird, to be released and to hopefully make its way to Canada, where it can be retrieved and preserved. Huh? If literature is NOT outlawed in other countries, just the US, then what’s the urgency here? Why are “eels” taking it upon themselves to memorize whole books so they won’t be “lost to humanity”, when they presumably exist in some form or another in the rest of the world? I don’t get it. And DNA in birds? Wah?
There’s so much potential in the ideas presented in Fahrenheit 451, but this film did not even scrape the surface. Mostly, the logic simply fell apart, and nothing could hold it up. It’s too bad; I suppose it’s best just to go back to the source, and enjoy Bradbury’s book about censorship, free-thinking, and the dangers of technology dumbing us down.