Adaptation is a difficult process. You have to handle fidelity to the text you’re adapting in equal measure with the necessity to create an independent and self reliant piece of storytelling absent fans of the source material. I won’t pretend it’s easy.
That said, when a film like Fahrenheit 451 (2018) comes along it feels like shooting fish in a barrel. This HBO TV-film might serve as the best example I’ve seen in years as to how to NOT adapt a source material in a way that respects the ideas of the original.
Granted, I wouldn’t go as far to call the film “bad”. It’s a moderately well produced low budget TV film. I wasn’t expecting something ambitious. This movie can look like cheap schlock for all I care.
I was however expecting something with slightly less embarrassing reliance on modern day “woke” culture. I don’t use that term lightly. This is every bit a “woke” and “diverse” adaptation of the beloved Ray Bradberry novel as some of the worst bits of modern “woke” retellings of proper genre franchises. It’s just flown under the radar since it’s not as huge as Star Trek or Doctor Who.
Like most dystopian fiction such as 1984, Brave New World and The Giver, the novel it’s based on has been interpreted by decades of leftist academic analysis as a metaphor for right-wing authoritarianism. As with all of the novels above, Fahrenheit 451 isn’t that shallow.
Anyone who’s read the book can tell you simply what it’s about. Fahrenheit 451 is a story about book burning and the horror of a society that abandons truth and beauty. The story is actually an anti-anti-intellectual screed against the malaise of the a culture that’s happy to forgo the greatest works of art in world history in exchange for cheap thrills and empty happiness. This isn’t a problem rooted to partisan/reactionary whims.
Naturally this nuance is lost of generations of intellectuals and English majors. It’s not surprising then that this intellectual laziness would come full circle and wind up in the newest film adaptation.
The HBO version of Fahrenheit 451 is an absolutely shallow rendition of its source material. It dresses up it’s bad guys like Nazi gimps, makes shallow pretenses about the evils of social media and casts it’s rebellion of radical readers as a collective of multicultural young people mourning as works of propaganda like “Marx” are burned next to great works of literature.
This film is Fahrenheit 451 retold for the age of antifa and the 1619 Project…
My problem with the film isn’t just that it’s progressive. My problem is that the progressive reframing of the narrative of the book has undermined the strengths and themes of the book and left us with very a shallow anti-fascist screed when the book had so much more to say.
Take how the film portray’s the book’s infamous book burners as an example. These “firemen” aren’t just men doing their jobs. These men are sociopaths obsessed with destruction, pain and death. They brag about their bravado and their ability to tolerate pain. They relish in destruction. They’re essentially a death cult.
This depiction of fascism SCREAMS the pop-psychology version of Nazis that progressives love to hand around wherein Nazis are just conservatives who want to purify the world by force because of some psychosexual repression or toxic masculinity.
For good measure, the film even seems to tie the firemen into everblooming spectre of Trumpism by implying that this near future totalitarian takeover was caused by some kind of Second Civil War that overthrew the country and put an ultra-nationalist tyrant in charge. The firemen even say something to the effect of “Make America Burn Again”.
This portrayal does raise further questions. Why is this tyranny based on book burning and anti-intellectualism PRIMARILY and not as an incidental side effect of a society succumbing to comfort and ease? Aren’t there more efficient ways to enforce a fascist dictatorship rather than arbitrarily deciding to ban ALL books?
I assume the film’s answer is that tyrants depend on pulling the masses into an anti-intellectual frenzy and enforcing it at the point of the gun (flamethrower?).
That wasn’t the case in the novel. People turned others into the government to have their homes burned just because they had books on their premises. The book’s tyranny is enforced by the masses who don’t want to go near books. The police aren’t even necessarily more powerful than your average policemen today. The technological apparatuses of mass media merely aid in society’s dissolution.
The film’s extrapolations are all just sound and fury. While it’s true fascist societies in the past have engaged in book burning, it never looked like this. Nazi Germany encouraged it’s citizens to go about their daily lives, reading the RIGHT books, seeing the RIGHT movies, watching the RIGHT plays and listening to the RIGHT music.
There’s no introspection. There’s no honesty about our own culpability in creating dystopia. There is only the horror of man’s degeneration and the consolation that you’re on “right side of history” for having the right beliefs. Leaning into the progressive rhetoric only turns the story into a regressive power fantasy.
As obnoxious as all of this rhetoric is, the real victim is the story itself. Fahrenheit 451 is not a story that’s meant to be easy to frame your political enemies with. It’s about the ways WE personally abdicate societies responsibility’s and fuel anti-intellectualism. Instead of challenging its progressive audience, it just converts the story into another generic 1984 retelling about a secret society of diverse women and men of color working to resist fascism.
The irony sinks in deeper when you realize just how little the story seems to understand the moral of anti-totalitarian novels. At one point in the film, Guy Montag steals a copy of Notes from the Underground and starts reading it at home. For some reason, he’s taken aback by a sentence where the narrator reflects that “2+2 equaling five can be a good thing”. At this point, his home AI system scolds him for a thought crime…
Evidently the only thing this movie thinks books are good for is JUST being a means of challenging fascism by means of instigating radical thoughts like “objective reality doesn’t exist”.
Never mind the fact that 1984 satirized this very point by having it’s stand in for big brother stating that “2+2=5 because big brother says it’s so”. Evidently, it’s tyrannical when big brother tells you the truth…
If anything, this movie just confirms my working theory that society doesn’t understand anything about how fascism works and how it arises in the slightest…
Any honest understanding of the topic has to start from the premise that authoritarianism isn’t a fluke. The will to power exists in ALL people. The desire to remake society in our own image is a temptation for everyone. That’s the true root of fascist book burning. People burn books because they want the ideas in those books to go away.
Right now, that threaten is largely coming from the left. There’s an ever present threat on the American left to cease the reigns of power and destroy ideas that they believe create bigotry and intolerance. Even in the aftermath of the horrific capital hill protests, there’s no argument that the left doesn’t have the monopoly on cultural destruction when the last year has shown that the left revels in destroying statues and boiling away the great accomplishments of the past if they were done by “dead white men”.
The irony is lost on a group of ideologues so dense in the head that they can tell you Nazism is objectively wrong but they can’t tell you objectively that 2+2=4…
It’s ironic that this movie version spends so much time calling the books and art that need to be burned “graffiti”. That’s all this film is. Its a coat of spray point on a new car put there by some anarchist punk who wanted to make a point with a moment of cheap vandalism. A film like this is nothing but vandalism. Sadly, it’s progressive audience are the only ones who are being victimized by it. They will learn nothing from it.
Thankfully, a film like this washes off like all graffiti too.
That’s a shame too because they need to come to terms with their own book-burning tendencies. They tear down statues, remove great works of literature from school curriculums, rename buildings and remove portraits of Shakespeare from college campuses. They already believe every perspective that makes them unhappy or uncomfortable needs to be #Canceled or burned…