Dystopian stories are often described as warnings, but they can also be Rorschach blots. Readers dive in with specific fears — about technology, society, or the future — and find an allegory to validate them. And Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 novel, is a perfectly adaptable cautionary tale. It’s an elegant high-concept story backed by a complicated web of broad social complaints, critiquing everything from social justice to the zipper. This might be why it’s produced two dramatically different films: one from French auteur François Truffaut in 1966, and the other from 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani, premiering this weekend on HBO.
As many readers likely know, the novel Fahrenheit 451 is set in a future in which books are illegal, and instead of putting out fires, “firemen” hunt down caches of literature and burn them. The protagonist is a fireman named Guy Montag, who one day smuggles a book home and reads it, setting himself on the path to knowledge and, ultimately, rebellion.
The most overtly ideological target in Bradbury’s original novel is essentially identity politics. Firemen exist because racial minorities fought to ban books that insulted or dehumanized them, then other people adopted “minority” labels to ban books that insulted them, and soon all books were considered offensive. Like most “political correctness run amok” commentary, it’s frustratingly glib, suggesting that any attempt to curb racism is a slippery slope that leads to dangerous places. But that backstory is also isolated to a small section of the book, which people often ignore when they talk about Fahrenheit 451 — perhaps because Bradbury’s takedown of mass media is so much more vivid.
Bradbury’s future is intellectually vacant, but endlessly stimulating. While the government has banned books, few people in Bradbury’s vision of the future would choose to read them anyway. Multi-wall screens play sensational variety shows or programs starring an inane fictional “family,” which captivates Montag’s wife. Thrill-seeking kids entertain themselves at destruction-themed fun fairs. “Talking politics” means discussing which presidential candidate is more handsome. (This was a whole seven years before the famous televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, the future “TV president.”) Imagine all the most annoying aspects of television and teenagers, both of which were relatively new developments in the 1950s, and dial them up to unbearable levels.
But Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 isn’t just aiming at clearly vapid forms of media. It criticizes the practice of learning as rote self-improvement, where people churn through ever-shorter news stories and Reader’s Digest condensed novels out of a solemn duty to keep up with the world. “Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals,” says Montag’s superior Beatty, explaining the process of social control. “Chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.”
Bahrani wrote in a New York Times essay that Bradbury’s concerns about headline-scanning and hyper-condensation make Fahrenheit 451 “the book for our social media age.” Readers can certainly use the book as a cudgel against Wikipedia and Twitter, if they’re so inclined. But that’s just one potential set of targets. Any system that encourages frenetically acquiring knowledge without stopping for reflection is fair game — and that covers large swathes of American cultural institutions, past and present.
Truffaut’s version of the story, on the other hand, doesn’t spend a lot of time on this kind of media commentary, and the world of his film doesn’t feel like a society spinning out of control. It’s almost the opposite. His version of Fahrenheit 451 is a more straightforward depiction of suburban malaise, where people are not just distracted, but miserably numb. Truffaut draws out the book’s most surreally boring moments, devoting an entire scene to a hypnotic faux-interactive soap opera about assigning guest bedrooms. He expands a subplot about Montag’s free-spirited neighbor Clarisse, who is given a larger role as a young teacher resisting her school’s stifling educational curriculum. New technology plays a role in the film, but old-fashioned peer pressure and oppressive bureaucracy are the greatest villains.
Behind a striking near-future aesthetic, Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 outlines an extremely 20th-century problem: bourgeois men who chafe at their meaningless jobs and shallow wives, and can only be saved by leaving respectable society with the help of a beautiful young woman. (In this film, that’s literally Montag’s wife with a hipper haircut, since actor Julie Christie played dual female lead roles.) His cultural anxiety feels almost like a punchline today. Wow, remember when people were scared of having an excessively stable lifestyle?
Bahrani’s version of the film doesn’t even try to make that particular anxiety seem relevant. His version of Montag (played by Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan) has no wife and no suburban home. He lives in a sterile apartment with a virtual assistant who’s bristling with surveillance cameras, more like a talking appliance than a friend. Instead of being mid-level functionaries, firemen are stars in a COPS-like internet reality show, where they can bask in waves of floating emoji during busts. His viewers aren’t numb or thoughtless — they’re furious at book-hoarders, who function as a generic hated underclass. And since there aren’t many books left, firemen have turned to torching things like films and old computers, even though the fumes would be incredibly toxic and the whole practice completely unnecessary.
This new Montag is a futuristic e-celeb, but he’s shaped by problems that long precede social media. Older versions of the character had middle-class blue-collar jobs, in eras — or at least, futuristic versions of those eras — when that was relatively unremarkable. Those jobs seem almost mythical today, so the best Jordan’s character gets is a nonsensical, performative simulacrum of one. Beatty (The Shape of Water villain Michael Shannon) is grooming Montag to take over his department and lead a new generation of firemen, but it’s not clear that people need their services anymore. The livestreamed performance is all that matters — which is presumably why they still get awesome flamethrowers for destroying computers, instead of, say, very strong magnets.
This might make Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 sound unduly interesting or pointed, because its main social commentary is that every hyped-up tech trend from the past several years is awful. Emoji? They destroy literacy, obviously. Virtual reality? Isolates people. Livestreaming? Encourages mob mentality. Alexa? Spies on you and gives you drugs. Social media? Ate the internet. Algorithms? I’m still piecing the reasoning together, but you’d better believe they’re bad.
“Technology is horrible” is hardly an unusual premise, but Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t even stay consistently technophobic. (Without spoiling a weird and complicated new subplot, let’s just say that DNA data storage is improbably good.) There’s no grounding to any of its social commentary, just a lot of jumbled slogans, as thoughtlessly distracting as Bradbury warned television might be. And for an adaptation of a book so full of possibilities, that’s almost as bad as just burning the thing.
In 1953, Ray Bradbury created a mirror for our worst fears about mass media, conformity, and anti-intellectualism. And we’ve kept those fears alive, updating them to reflect how the details of society have changed from decade to decade. In the 1960s, Fahrenheit 451 reflected a barren world of complacent suburbanites, longing to feel anything at all. Today, the same story in a new form reflects a world where people are trying to recapture a purpose they lost years ago, doing too much and thinking too little. If only that description didn’t apply to the film, too.