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'Fahrenheit 451' review: HBO update is a disappointing adaptation

Michael Shannon stars in HBO's "Fahrenheit 451."

Michael Shannon stars in HBO's "Fahrenheit 451." Credit: HBO /Michael Gibson

THE MOVIE "Fahrenheit 451"

WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) is a gung-ho fireman who serves his mentor Capt. Beatty (Michael Shannon) fearlessly. They lead a group of like-minded stalwarts, who spout slogans like “Stay vivid!” (think: Stay frosty) en route to burns. Oh, right, almost forgot: They burn books.

In this adaptation of the Ray Bradbury classic, this group is on constant vigilance for the “eels,” people still trying to preserve the printed word, mostly in the form of books. (Books have also been purged from the internet too.) At one burn, Montag hides a copy of Dostoyevsky's “Notes From the Underground” under his vest. Later, in the privacy of his home, he begins to read — and change. He later befriends “eel” informant Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), who leads him to a group of eels who have a plan to store all of human history into one strand of DNA. They enlist Montag's help.

MY SAY Along with so much else that apparently kept him up at night, Ray Bradbury feared the advent of TV, fast replicating in the living rooms of Eisenhower America. Who would read when all they had to do was watch? He was ultimately proved right, but only by half. “Fahrenheit” has since been force-fed to generations of high school students, including a current one that would rather not to be distracted from Snapchat, Netflix, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Even with that dog-eared copy stuffed somewhere in their backpacks, most students (or adults) still don't go on to read “Notes From the Underground” or “Remembrance of Things Past.” Both books are prominent in this film. Mention their authors, and marvel at the blank stare in response.

The world has moved well past Bradbury's prophetic 1953 warning, to the point where it's reasonable to ask: Why would anyone want to burn something that few have heard of? It's a challenge for any adaptation and ultimately insurmountable for this one. There's something (unintentionally) comical about a group of “eels” who have memorized, word for word, page for page, books from the Western canon, like “Remembrance,” “Song of Solomon” or “The Fire Next Time.” Another one straps copies of Steinbeck novels to her torso before she self-immolates. An eel who has committed Mao's Little Red Book to memory solemnly advises Montag, “The revolution is not a dinner party.” He looks puzzled. Well, he should be.

There remains that big familiar core idea in this film, about the way we've relinquished our collective memory to corporate superpowers — Facebook isn't mentioned, but doesn't need to be — and how that's allowed “alternate facts” or vapid slogans like “Stay vivid” to fill the vacuum. Beatty's book burnings are just metaphors for the emptying of our minds. Every high school student already knows that.

It flirts with deeper ideas too — also familiar — about how Montag ultimately wants the freedom to be able to say that “two plus two equals five,” like Underground Man, the protagonist from “Notes.”

But ideas and tangents and quotes (like this one) and literary allusions and one big, famous sourcebook can only go so far here before this all starts to feel like a smattering of Wikipedia entries. What's really missing is a film that engages and ultimately chills. By adding a new ending, this one throws a few curves at viewers who think they know the book. Some of Bradbury's female characters, notably Montag's wife, have also been excised — probably a wise move because they could be seen as misogynistic in a 2018 context. Clarisse, who has an early exit in the book, also survives. Meanwhile, Bradbury's famed Mechanical Hound — with eight legs and a bad attitude — is missing. No reason given, but its absence is keenly felt.

Hounds or not, expect to be underwhelmed, even with one of the biggest stars in the world in the cast. Flat, slow and turgid, no one — neither Jordan nor Shannon — can stir this gluepot.

BOTTOM LINE A disappointing adaptation that offers a new ending, when the old one worked just fine.

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