Fahrenheit 451 movie review: This is exactly the sort of film the CBFC likes to burn
Director - Ramin Bahrani
Cast - Michael B Jordan, Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella, Lilly Singh
Rating - 3/5
Fire is the most searing image in Fahrenheit 451, director Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel about so-called ‘firemen’ whose job it is to burn every book in existence. The film begins and ends with images of flames, slowly magnifying from a harmless sparks to all-consuming destruction. We see the flickering fire burn flesh, we see entire buildings reduced to rubble, and most potently, we see pages of books - everything from Dostoyevsky to Rowling - curl into ashes.
Only three books - the Bible, To the Lighthouse and Moby Dick - are allowed in this world, a world where an authoritarian - no pun intended - government called the Ministry has decreed that all books must be burned so as to stop independent thought. “Anything else,” as one ‘fireman’ played by Michael Shannon says to a classroom full of children he’s brainwashing, “will make you sick.”
He then proceeds to conduct a ritual of sorts - you get the sense the firemen have delivered this ‘seminar’ before - in which he commands his number 2, Guy Montag (our protagonist, played by Killmonger himself, Michael B Jordan), to burn two books in front of the kids. They’ve never seen physical books in their lives, so when Montag lights a couple of hardbound, unmarked, clearly obvious props on fire, they gasp in shock, and then they cheer, successfully converted.
The primary reason physical books are hard to come by in this dystopian future is that the ‘firemen’ have been largely successful in their book burning drive, and second, rebels called ‘eels’ have been uploading every piece of literature they can lay their hands on onto the internet. The ‘eels’ are the biggest threat to the Ministry’s plans, which, if successfully implemented by the ‘firemen’, will mean that future generations will never even know that books ever existed.
The idea was initially sold as a means to propagate world unity and peace after a Second Civil War divided the United States unlike ever before, but before long - as things tend to - it turned into a power move. And in the ‘firemen’ the Ministry has unquestioning pawns. But when Montag discovers a hidden library during a raid, a spark ignites within him, and before Beatty (Shannon’s character) can carry out the purge, he smuggles a single book out.
This sends him on a journey of self-discovery not unlike that of Ryan Gosling’s character in the recent Blade Runner 2049. Both films are essentially stories about individuals lashing out at the system from which they were born, the system they have sworn to protect.
But to get to this point in the film, you have to survive what feels like pages upon pages of exposititory dialogue, which, even though its delivered by top actors such as Shannon and Jordan, can’t help but feel tiresome. And this, largely, is the problem with Bahrani’s film - he can’t decide where to stop, and ends up overstuffing his screenplay to the point that it explodes with information.
Sure, there is a lot waiting to be unpacked - contrary to what is happening in our country, Donald Trump’s presidency has emboldened filmmakers to directly challenge it, and Fahrenheit 451 is clearly an updated adaptation designed specifically with Trump in mind. In one early book-burning scene, Montag yells one of the many tenets of this regime: ‘Time to burn for America again.’
Him and the other ‘firemen’ were once the same children that they routinely try to convert now. They’ve grown up with strong white men - represented in the film by Beatty - telling them that books are bad, that all form of free thought is just a distraction from the happiness they stand to achieve if they were just to follow orders. They’ve been fed lies about their past and no matter what the last remaining historians tell them, all they do is blindly carry out their orders.
And the film does an admirable job of highlighting these ‘alternative facts’ as the US media popularly calls some of the incorrect statements that emerge from the Trump administration. And while on the surface it may seem like Bahrani’s film is making a statement against a peculiarly American problem, we mustn’t forget that in our country, ministers have claimed - more than once - that mythological texts are rooted in science. In our country, those in power feel that they can rewrite history books and the government appointed chief of the Central Board of Film Certification can decide what information is fit to be shared publicly, and has the power to burn the rest.
In 2009, the great critic Roger Ebert declared Bahrani the director of the decade. He had long been a very vocal supporter of Bahrani’s films, and had awarded each of his four features up to that point his highest rating of four stars. Poetically, Bahrani was the last man Ebert interviewed before his death in 2013. I wonder, after having seen Fahrenheit 451, what Ebert would have made of it.
Certainly, it isn’t a film about outsiders in America, like his earlier ones - Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo and Chop Shop. Although, in a strange way, it could be. Bahrani’s multicultural heritage - he was born to Iranian parents - puts him in a unique position to comment about America. He has experienced firsthand the disintegration of the foundation upon which the USA was built, and he has the outsider’s perspective that is so necessary to understanding it.
Fahrenheit 451 isn’t quite the success of speculative fiction that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale TV series is, but it is an important film, one that we can learn from, because whether we like it or not, it is as much about us as it is about them.
Fahrenheit 451 is an HBO film and is available to stream on Hotstar.
Watch the Fahrenheit 451 trailer here