×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘Fahrenheit 451’

100 min.

Can an adaptation of a 65-year-old book feel too futuristic? That’s the dilemma that HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451” TV movie, directed and adapted by “99 Homes'” Ramin Bahrani, presents to us.

On the one hand, much of the world it presents is familiar, especially to those who read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel. The core story is there: Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) works as a fireman in a dystopian future where, instead of putting out fires, he starts them. He, alongside a team led by Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon), seeks to find remaining books and scraps of literature in the country, and burn them in a spectacle of fire. The fires are broadcast to the citizens, who watch and cheer as the written word is destroyed.

Guy, as our protagonist, grows increasingly skeptical of this, and an encounter with a book-hoarding woman who burns herself alive leaves him questioning everything. Assisted by a passionate informant, Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), Guy takes aim at the fire department and the government in an attempt to stop the erasure of history.

But beyond the shared plot, much of Bahrani’s adaptation is designed to make this world feel separate from our own. Several Newspeak-esque terms have been created: Members of the rebellion are “eels.” Their attempt to save world literature and artwork is through something called the “OMNIS.” Their opponents are not just known as the government, but the “ministry.” All modern communication takes place on “the Nine,” where people can watch book burnings live and read emoji-fied versions of the Bible and “Moby Dick.”

The result is a version of “Fahrenheit 451” made for the “Hunger Games” era. In contemporary films, dystopia is regarded almost exclusively as heavily technological. Odd, invented terminology only makes this new world feel foreign. You can hear similar terminology in franchises like “The Maze Runner” (“Gladers,” “WCKD”) and “Divergent” (“Factionless,” “Dauntless”).

But unlike those properties, “Fahrenheit 451” desperately wants to connect our present to its own future. An eel bemoans how books became less popular when “nobody was reading anymore — they were just glancing at the headlines.” In other words, this world is not as far away from our modern times as we think. But then why create such distance with the strange terminology? Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” does this, too, but closes the gap with flashbacks that show just how Gilead came to power. All we hear in “Fahrenheit 451” is references to a Second Civil War that left 8 million dead. Details of how the ministry rose from the ashes are scarce.

Jordan is the saving grace of this TV movie, breaking out a flashy, villainous veneer for the book-burning scenes, then scaling back to his raw humanity during quiet moments. Between this and his “Black Panther” performance as antagonist Killmonger, the actor is quickly becoming top of his craft at sculpting sympathetic, anti-heroic men.

Shannon, whom Bahrani directed to a truly fantastic performance in “99 Homes,” is less impactful here. As he was in Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water,” Shannon is too much snarl, not enough human as Beatty. His role, beyond opposing Guy, is to present most of the pro-burning ideas in the film. During one scene, he points out that racist literature died with the burnings, a fact that seemingly resonates with Guy.

“We are not born equal, so we must be made equal by the fire,” Beatty says. It’s a line that would likely land better were Shannon not delivering it like a threat.

It’s tough to determine whether something changed about Shannon as an actor, or if he just hits the same notes too often, and it’s tiresome to watch over and over. He’s at his most compelling when he takes his typical growl and gives it some genuine humanity, as he did in the otherwise-abrasive “Nocturnal Animals.” Generally speaking, Shannon’s best performances come when he’s not the loudest actor in the room.

Here, however, Shannon is loud and proud, and it makes what is effectively a duet of a film something of a slog. Less time with Beatty might have been better spent with the ensemble cast, many of whom shine in smaller moments (Khandi Alexander especially, as one of the eels whom Guy works with in the film’s second half).

There’s enough good, though, especially in Jordan’s performance, to recommend “Fahrenheit 451,” but it’s not the slam-dunk you’d expect of a prestigious adaptation of a great American novel. The end result, with all its eels and OMNIS and emojis, is just too affected — and indeed, somehow too futuristic.

TV Review: 'Fahrenheit 451'

TV Review: ‘Fahrenheit 451’  TV movie: HBO, Tues. May. 19, 8 p.m.   

Crew: CREW: Directed by Ramin Bahrani; produced by David Coatsworth; screenplay by Ramin Bahrani. CAST:  Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, Khandi Alexander, Sofia Boutella, Lilly Singh, Laura Harrier, Martin Donovan, Andy McQueen, Dylan Taylor, Grace Lynn Kung, Keir Dullea.

More TV

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    SAG-AFTRA Commercial Negotiations Set for February

    With no fanfare, SAG-AFTRA and the ad industry have set a mid-February start for negotiations for a successor deal to the union’s master contract, Variety has learned. The current three-year deal — which covers about $1 billion in annual earnings — expires on March 31. SAG-AFTRA and the Joint Policy Committee of the ad industry [...]

  • FILE - In this April 5,

    Eliza Dushku Received $9.5 Million Settlement Over Misconduct on 'Bull' Set

    Eliza Dushku received a $9.5 million settlement from CBS after the actress alleged she was the subject of several inappropriate comments on the set of “Bull,” according to the New York Times. Dushku appeared in the first season of the procedural, initially being brought on for a three-episode arc with plans to make her a [...]

  • Jingle Punks Jingle Player

    Jingle Punks at 10: How the Production Music Platform's Player Works

    Though its primary function is creative, Jingle Punks is built on a foundation of technology and administration. The patented Jingle Player that lets customers search for music using pop culture terms is both intuitive and efficient. Typing in “Reservoir Dogs” or “Starbucks” generates suggestions. Queries are monitored “so if there isn’t an exact match, we’ll suggest [...]

  • Star Trek: Discovery

    TV Roundup: 'Star Trek: Discovery' Season 2 Premiere Date Set at CBS All Access

    In today’s TV News Roundup, the premiere date is announced for season two of “Star Trek: Discovery” on CBS All Access. FIRST LOOKS “Relics and Rarities,” a new RPG series based on the classic game Dungeons & Dragons, will premiere on subscription service Alpha in February 2019. Hosted by Deborah Ann Woll (“Daredevil,” “True Blood”) [...]

  • Logan Lerman

    Logan Lerman in Talks to Star in Jordan Peele's 'The Hunt' at Amazon

    Jordan Peele’s upcoming Nazi hunter drama at Amazon, “The Hunt,” has potentially found its lead. Logan Lerman is in talks to star in the drama series as Jonah Heidelbaum. When his grandmother is slain by a mysterious intruder in their apartment, Jonah sets out to track the culprit, only to find himself swept up in the [...]

  • Milo Ventimiglia'Second Act' film premiere, Arrivals,

    Milo Ventimiglia on 'This Is Us' Golden Globes Snub

    “This Is Us” critics and fans were shocked when the NBC hit received no love from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association earlier this week with zero Golden Globes nods. The show, after all, was nominated for three Golden Globes last year, including best television drama. Plus, Sterling K. Brown won the 2018 statue for best [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez

    Jennifer Lopez 'Absolutely' Wants to Direct Film and Television

    Jennifer Lopez epitomizes the phrase “she’s done it all” — but there’s still more that the superstar would like to do. Lopez recently directed her first music video, “Limitless,” the track featured on her new rom-com “Second Act,” and it seems the multi-hyphenate has caught the directing bug. “Absolutely, absolutely,” Lopez responded when asked by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content