What is truth? How do we deduce facts? What can we trust when it comes to news, information, and history? These are all questions that have been asked in the so-called "post-truth" era, where emotion has overtaken logic and conspiracy has enveloped coherent analysis.
Compounding this is the slow descent of literature and novels. As Hollywood and visual mediums continue to grow and make more money, the print industry is falling behind. Some newspapers are entirely online, while others are siphoning off money to support their online entities. Book sales are down, magazine subscriptions are largely a thing of the past, and many Americans (roughly 30%) haven't read a single book in the past year, according to a recent Pew survey.
These two issues are what drives Ramin Bahrani's new film, Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's groundbreaking novel published in 1953. However, the message of that book, and the story of Guy Montag, has taken on new meaning in the past few years. With the ascent of Trump, the near ubiquitous usage of the term "fake news" and the consistent assault on the free press, on logic, and on truth these themes have become more important.
Bradbury's novel, according to his own words, was a response to the threat of book burning during the age of McCarthyism. He also explained that the book was a commentary about mass media and its role in the reduction of interest in literature.
For these reasons, and many more, it is easy to understand why the novel -- and any adaptations of it -- would be an important response to our current dilemma when it comes to truth and literature. So does Bahrani's film live up to this?
Sadly, no. Fahrenheit 451 does a lot to visually express a country that no longer cares for truth or books (long shots of the city, seemingly ripped from Blade Runner, as looming images of wolves and eagles tell citizens: see something, say something). However, as much as it attempts to make its authoritarian world as dark and scary as possible, it never feels original. We've seen this world before, in almost every film that deals with authoritarianism. No amount of fire, slow motion, or blue and purple shadows will change that fact.
The narrative of the film is lacking, too. All of the character moments (especially towards the second act, where character depth is crucial) fall flat, feeling forced and inorganic to the narrative. There are a few twists and revelations revealed throughout the 100-minute runtime and none of them have any gravitas or punch.
Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon do their best with the script they have. But, without any real character depth or internal conflict for them to express, they feel like cardboard cutout characters, lacking any semblance of realism. Even worse, they're not very interesting to watch.
This is worsened by the discordant first act, which presents characters in a certain way, only for those same characters to betray their motivations and actions in the second act. While it is not uncommon to start your character somewhere that is completely different from where they end up (think about the trajectory Walter White went on in Breaking Bad) the transition is especially important. We have to feel these characters genuinely struggling with who they are and who they are becoming, otherwise the switch feels forced and inorganic. That's exactly what happened with Michael B. Jordan's character.
At the end of the day, Fahrenheit 451 has a lot of good intentions. I appreciate the attempt to update Bradbury's book, giving the themes more power in a modern context than the source material does. However, unfortunately, the execution of these themes is not there. Both due to the script and due to unoriginal visuals, there is not much here that works.
For now, ironically enough, I recommend you read Bradbury's novel instead of seeing of seeing this film adaptation.