Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 is a cautionary tale about the ramifications of a world where technology acts as an opiate. It explores what happens when people are so entrenched in groupthink that they balk at intellectual conversations and thought-provoking literature. In the book’s universe, the role of firefighters has been reimagined to make them aggressors instead of heroes. Protagonist Guy Montag is a firefighter whose job is to burn the possessions of anyone caught with a book, now considered contraband. Illiteracy has allowed the powers in charge to rewrite history and convince society that books are filled with dangerous propaganda to create hierarchies and division among people. Montag eventually becomes disillusioned with this world and goes through a mental and spiritual awakening. He rebels against his fire captain, quits his job, and joins a resistance group to spread knowledge about the world’s literary works.
Director/screenwriter Ramin Bahrani began developing an updated version of Bradbury’s novel in 2016 — 40 years after the original film adaptation made its debut. He later signed Creed star Michael B. Jordan as Guy Montag, with Michael Shannon (Fire Captain Beatty), Sofia Boutella (Clarisse McClellan), and Laura Harrier (Millie Montag) rounding out the solid cast. When Bahrani started tackling the script, the world had become a place that only Bradbury could have imagined in the early 1950s. People were spending more time in front of televisions and absorbing themselves in the endless rabbit holes of the Internet. Curated media, overwhelming sources of information, and social platforms were blurring the lines between fact, fiction, conformity, and individuality. Bahrani knew this movie would have to take media influence and technology into a higher regard, so he delivered an updated version that expands upon the current social and technological climate.
HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 had the visual appeal, futuristic Internet platform (The 9), and technological elements expected in the not-so-distant future. The brooding lighting juxtaposed with flames leaping from Montag’s torch as he turned books to ashes and the neon lights of screens posting real-time burns for likes, comments, and shares doesn’t feel too far removed from our society. Performative acts are a daily occurrence on social media as people post everything from private moments to gruesome footage for attention and validation. Jordan’s Guy Montag was a media celebrity and renowned hero, which only added to his initial pressure to maintain the status quo. He was a more aggressive and self-assured version of the protagonist, yet he displayed the needed emotional gravitas to show Montag’s conflicted thoughts about the world. The additions of memory-altering eye drops take the place of sleeping pills and the books featured in this movie are a smorgasbord of past and present classics like Native Son, Franz Kafka, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even a Harry Potter novel. Including electronic versions of books as well as other material stashed on hard drives made Fahrenheit 451’s story more plausible for a 2018 audience, and, the concept of stripping a “guilty” person’s identity on broadcast and sentencing them to become “eels” (read: illegal people) brought a fresh take on censorship. These new concepts combined with solid performances from Jordan, Shannon, and Boutella are Fahrenheit 451’s highlights.
Like his book counterpart, Montag started his journey as a dutiful soldier who helped maintain this hedonistic society. He was addicted to burning but his natural curiosity caused him to collect and mull over contraband content. Clarisse, an anti-establishment teenager, was used to plant the seeds of rebellion in the book. The movie made a smart decision to age Clarisse up and give her some similarities to the book character Faber, a former professor who sparked Montag’s interest in books a year prior to meeting Clarisse. He helped Montag devise an initial plan of revolt and then later helped him flee the city. Clarisse’s free-spirit and curiosity were supposed to contrast his wife Millie Montag, whose obsession with technology made her oblivious to their oppressive society. Laura Harrier's scenes as Millie, however, were removed from the movie shortly before its debut to save time and allow Clarisse room to the shine. Clarisse’s expanded role added interesting elements to her characterization by making her a double agent who was providing information to Beatty about “eels” and also working with a resistance group, but she still wasn’t a completely fleshed out character and the relationship she developed with Montag should have been afforded more screen time. They were brought together by guilt and questions over a woman’s suicide, but the romantic aspect seemed out of place. Millie’s character is an important part of the Fahrenheit 451 narrative and would have clarified several things for viewers who are new to the story.
The 9 features a bunch of messages from unidentified commenters who praise and later demonize Montag. A few of them are seen in the background and a school class being groomed to hate books is shown in the movie, but viewers don’t get to know any of the “everyday” people in this world. Millie would have given them a face and a story. She represents the “sheep” of this society — complacent loyalists who are willing to forgo choice and happiness in exchange for tangible things. People like Millie find bliss in disconnecting from reality and succumbing to daily routines dictated by technology. They are so detached from others that death and destruction have become their nightly entertainment. They exist vicariously through TV characters and celebrities to the point where they aren’t invested in their own lives. Willful ignorance, brainwashing, and fear all play a role in their obedience.
In the novel, Montag sees the results of his actions as a firefighter reflected in Millie’s persona and realizes his responsibility to choose a new path. As he begins to dive into books and think freely, Millie’s absorption in technology and lack of connection to other humans both angers and saddens him. She is the person he wants to see him, love him, and grow with him, but her shallowness and fear won’t allow her to face reality. Millie’s naivete due to lifelong social conditioning along with her natural lack of depth is the true antithesis of Clarisse, who was raised as a freethinker and has a heart for others. Without Millie in the film, Montag didn’t have the additional motivation to rebel outside of watching a woman commit suicide. This event occurred in the book as well, but it was coupled with the increasing discomfort of seeing his wife continue to deny the truth. Beatty cannot fill this role because he is a person who is well-read and using his knowledge in an oppressive position. The Alexa-like home system Yuxie questions Montag, but she’s also a part of the same system. Montag’s dilemma and mental unraveling were a core piece of the novel and Mille played an important role in his decision-making and thought process. Even after she exposed him and fled their home, he still sympathized with his wife. The book later implied that Millie stayed in the city, which was hit by an atomic bomb. She likely paid for her compliance to the rules with her life. Their relationship strengthened his character arc and her absence in the film leaves a gaping hole.
Fahrenheit 451 took a novel filled with intellectual commentary and emotional depth and crammed it into a 101-minute film. Montag’s journey has a unique trajectory that would have been better explored in a miniseries format. The original book was broken up into three acts to show the specific evolution of Montag — his loyalty to society broken by his questioning moments, his acquisition of knowledge that led to his outing, and his intense escape toward freedom. A similar format would have given them more time to dive into Montag’s psyche as he started to reexamine the world and his role in maintaining the status quo. One of his most compelling moments in the film was him explaining how the words of his first book flowed through him like how sand went through his sieve as a kid. This brilliant metaphor made him feel more layered and shows how additional exploration into his past would have provided better context into his personality.
A miniseries would also have allowed for an updated version of Millie Montag. Her love for technology would have shown her in the bathroom mirror, carefully choosing photos for her online profile. She would have been more invested in Montag’s social celebrity than he was, checking his posts for reactions and comments. Viewers would have uncomfortably seen a portion of themselves in Millie’s love for social media. The building tension between the Montags would have spiked as he began to seek knowledge from Clarisse. An interaction between Millie and Clarisse would have been an unprecedented occurrence and allowed for some rich dialogue between the opposing minds. Perhaps Clarisse could have broken through Millie’s emotional wall and given an actual face to social outcasts. Either way, there would have been ample room for both women in the story. A miniseries could have opened up the door for so many possibilities and made room for a less disjointed and confusing third act, which included Montag meeting a group of outcast book-lovers who had a bird injected with OMNIS, a DNA strand that could “cure” humans lost thirst for information. Why did they choose animals? How exactly would this information spread to humans? So much information felt lost in an effort to save time.
Fahrenheit 451 took a major diversion with Beatty burning Montag alive, which was opposite from the book. Montag’s demise would have been more impactful if they had shown a bit of the aftermath of his death. How did it affect Chief Beatty, who viewed Montag as his greatest accomplishment? Did he begin to see the light or did he cover Montag’s death and go about business as usual? Where did Clarisse and the rest of the resistance gang go? And, if Millie was included in the narrative, how could his death change her life? Viewers didn’t necessarily need to see a “happy” ending, but there could have been one that hinted at a future trajectory for the remaining characters. The abrupt ending showed the OMINIS DNA bird flying to find other birds. It was perhaps meant to be poetic sci-fi twist, but it left more questions than answers for viewers.
Fahrenheit 451’s rushed plot and exclusion of Millie Montag led to a movie that felt disjointed and incomplete in some aspects. There were several moving parts, but none of them seemed to flow together despite the timely message behind this story. The actors and updated changes were promising, but the missing pieces didn’t allow this adaption to maximize its potential.