And why does it matter?
Ray Bradbury’s formative classic Fahrenheit 451 was published in full in 1953, and since then it’s sparked two films. The first, directed by François Truffaut, came out in 1966. It was about time for an update, and HBO was willing to provide it. But was it time for this update?
This long-overdue redo, starring the undeniably excellent Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon, is meant to be a modern, gritty retelling of a classic. But those gritty and the modern elements both fall short, something I’ll get to shortly. And even the retelling gets addled, because [SPOILER ALERT] the film kills off the wrong person.
Or maybe I should say, people. Because there’s a lot of death in the book. And while there’s some in the new film, it manages not to overlap almost completely. There are book spoilers to follow, but as it’s been taught in almost every high school for the past 65 years, I’m declaring the statute of limitations over.
In Bradbury’s book, the list of the dead includes Clarisse (mowed down by a car in the first 50 pages) and almost all of the human race, blown to bits in the last pages in a war between superpowers that’s been brewing while no one notices.
I can forgive the lack of the bombing — modern global events may be in a bad state, but it’s nothing like the Cold War certainty of annihilation you find in so much fiction from Bradbury’s era. And I can forgive the extension of Clarisse’s life — her print counterpart is the prototypical manic pixie dream girl (eat your heart out, Zach Braff), who encourages Montag to look at the stars and smell the flowers and then gets done in faster than you can say “male protagonist development.” There was no way to make this film today and leave Clarisse’s storyline untouched.
But what I can’t forgive, or even thoroughly understand, is the film’s inversion of the two leads, Montag and Beatty.
In Bradbury’s book, Guy Montag kills Captain Beatty. Let’s just get that out there. Just like in the film, Montag is forced to torch his own house, then realizes the flamethrower he’s holding can be used as a weapon. He turns it on Beatty, and Beatty is toast. He then escapes the city to live out his days in the forest. Not a bad deal.
In the HBO version, Montag considers killing Beatty, but he can’t go through with it. He runs away, and Beatty hunts him down and flamethrowers him.
So why the switch? It can’t be to make us feel empathy for Montag — we still get to see him murder his coworker Douglas. And poor Douglas is neither dead nor alive in the book. He doesn’t exist. The film creates him as a buffer: someone else to betray Montag, someone else for him to kill.
Which means the film is actively attempting to distance the two leads, holding them off until a final confrontation. This makes a reasonable amount of sense. This story has one real villain — it’s worthwhile to keep him in the chase until the final scene. But to have that scene culminate with his murder of Montag is, honestly, bizarre. What could be the reasoning behind it?
In 2017 I wrote a piece on Blade Runner 2049 and the new kind of hero Ryan Gosling’s character represents. The days of strong male leads at the center of it all are beginning to disappear. A different kind of story is starting to be told, about a male lead who thinks he’s the star of the film, only to discover that he’s not. Blade Runner 2049 does it beautifully. So does Ex Machina. Both films are about men (Ryan Gosling and Domhnall Gleeson) broadsided by the realization that their journeys are not the most important ones.
In both of those films, the surprise importance is found in women whose agency the male leads have mistakenly overlooked. In Fahrenheit 451, it’s in a bird. Literally.
The death of Montag is, most likely, a misguided attempt at this new hero phenomenon. The film doesn’t want Michael B. Jordan to be too much of a hero. It wants him to realize his insignificance and sacrifice himself for something greater. If he played a greater role in the survival of the written word, he’d be a classic hero in a story told a thousand times. It wouldn’t be new.
And that’s too bad because the novel’s original ending might have served the film better. At the end of the book, most of humanity is wiped out in minutes during the simultaneous bombing of two global superpowers. Montag has just escaped into the woods, where he meets a small band of people who’ve memorized books. They tell him there are more people like them. They promise to help him recover his memory of the books of the Bible he’s read. They set out to rebuild human civilization as best they can.
And that’s it. Montag is no hero — he’s just one man of a few who managed to read a couple chapters of a book, and that’s the best he can hope for. It’s bleak, sure, but it’s also hopeful, and it’s at least somewhat in keeping with the idea of the new hero.
Unfortunately, that was the old ending, and this film isn’t interested in the old. It’s obsessed with updating, and that’s its downfall. Here, Montag meets the band of memorizers in the woods, but he meets them at the end of the second act. What was the finale of the book is here just stage-setting for the final act? What was the salvation of human culture is here just characterization? It describes who these new people are, but it’s not what they want to achieve. They’ve sequenced all of humanity’s written works as DNA, they’ve injected it into a bird, and they’re going to spread it across the animal kingdom.
A few fragments aren’t going to survive in the heads of a few people — everything is going to survive everywhere.
It’s a bit of a muddled thesis: humanity is a lost cause, but we need to preserve its culture at all costs. But all that aside, it’s an unnecessary raising of the stakes and futurization of the material, and it shows. Bradbury’s book is 65 years old, and its future setting deserves an update. But the film has designed a near-future that’s tied to our present in cringe-inducing fashion. Words have been replaced by emojis. Bars are VR lounges (full of people who, incidentally, look like they’ve never experienced VR in their lives). The news looks like an Instagram live stream.
Bradbury’s book has endured for decades. This film already looks dated.
And it’s led to the near-future genome sequencing solution because simply memorizing books isn’t enough. Montag has to help along this modern, high-stakes salvation of the written word, but he can’t be too at the center of things. (Thankfully the film decided to stop short of Montag himself being injected).
So Montag has to die to facilitate this newer, grander ending. And what easier way for him to die than at the hands of Beatty? (Beatty who, it must be noted, lets the bird go. For such a mishandled film, Beatty’s character retains a remarkable amount of nuance).
Fahrenheit 451 has its reasons for killing the wrong person. It doesn’t do it by accident, and the change more or less fits with the statement the film is trying to make. Unfortunately, that statement is muddled and sloppy and, honestly, a little boring. It’s a standard skin of dystopian resistance stretched over the form of Bradbury’s book.
And its willingness to change so much of that form for the sake of the skin only adds to the disappointment.