Film & TV

A Bogus Dystopia

Michael Shannon (left) and Michael P. Jordan in Fahrenheit 451 (Michael Gibson/HBO)
A new HBO film tries to make us believe book burning is a serious threat today.

HBO’s incessantly hyped new film Fahrenheit 451 illustrates the perils of trying to make a script out of a bingo card of anti-Trump (and anti-Bush) talking points. Fake news! Immigrant harassment! If you see something, say something! And here’s the movie’s central, withering catchphrase, the one that’s intended to bridge the gap between a dopey sci-fi prophecy and the latest chyrons on CNN. Are you ready? “Time to burn for America again!” No, really. Someone thought that was clever.

That someone is Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes), the co-writer and director of this woeful second film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel, 52 years after François Truffaut gave it a shot. Bahrani’s gambit is to throw away 93 percent of the book and rebuild around the catchy, marketable bit, which happens to be completely unworkable today: In the future, firemen with kerosene running through their hoses will rush around setting fires. Get it? They don’t know that they’re supposed to be putting them out. The books get roasted to perfection at a temperature of 451 degrees.

I picture every executive at HBO spraining her neck with delirious nodding as Bahrani told them, “It’s more relevant than ever!” It’s less relevant than ever. It’s completely beside the point. It’s a dystopia that depends on a 1953 idea that turned out to be the opposite of how things turned out. Not that current trends aren’t disturbing. Considering the present vectors of the i-conomy, though, it’s like being presented with an urgent warning about the flaws in stagecoach design as the fuselage of your rocket ship cracks.

In the future, after almost all of the physical books in America have been burned, Bahrani’s firemen, rising star Montag (Michael B. Jordan) and his ace boss Beatty (Michael Shannon), race around Cleveland catching malefactors surreptitiously uploading books to the Internet, only now the Internet is called “the 9.” “Drop the cord!” the firemen shout as terrified citizens fiddle with their gadgets. Huh? I picture Chinese state censors having themselves a hearty chortle. “Why do these dorks bust their butts going house to house trying to catch people in mid-upload? Why don’t they just do what we do and control the search engines and Internet service providers?”

Minus all of this manufactured drama of men with flamethrowers busting into people’s houses, though, there would be no cool visuals, hence no movie. You’d just have bored bureaucrats at desks. Yet what is the point of the movie if it doesn’t tell us something about ourselves? The whole point of the situation Bradbury feared was that information would remain decentralized, in books, whereas today it would be much easier to simply throttle information as it came sluicing through the Intertubes. Yet that isn’t the danger in the U.S. either. Today if a political leader simply called up his allies and campaign donors at FaceGoog and urged them to delete information he found dismaying, that information would effectively be hidden from America. Worse still, the tech giants could simply take it upon themselves to filter information according to their political goals, and call the stuff they’re leaving out “hate speech” or “fake news.”

Nah, they’d never do that. Let’s get back to the real threat, that thugs are going to come over and light up all your copies of Steinbeck and Proust.

Following Ready Player One, Fahrenheit is the second movie in three months to take place in a tech-saturated dystopian Ohio, this time the back story being that American disputation became so great that it led to a second Civil War, killing 8 million. In the wreckage, the tech giants became so sophisticated that they could precisely meet everyone’s needs, and then they merged with the state. Both state and tech wanted to keep everyone happy, so in order to ban future points of disagreements they joined forces to remove nearly all the substance from “the 9,” including most of history and all art (even non-representational forms such as instrumental music).

Fighting back to preserve and extend the reach of art and information are the “Eels,” the outcasts/rebels/intellectuals who stand for the Democratic-party coalition of immigrants, minorities, and pretentious grad students. Among the books they’re fighting to save are works are the works of Proust, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Chairman Mao. Because The Little Red Book is such an essential tool in the fight for truth and freedom.

They’ve loaded all of world literature and art on a DNA strand that can organically be reproduced if they can release it into the world. Learning this, the firemen hit the streets and beat up whomever they come across. Again, the scene is utterly pointless except to provide more dramatic visuals. “Somewhere in America there’s a ticking time bomb, fellas. Let’s go door-to-door kicking ass!”

Why bother to destroy what’s being forgotten?

It’s easy to look back at sci-fi dystopists of the past and marvel at how wrong they got it; I refer you to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. To be so obviously off-base as Fahrenheit 451 looks right now takes some doing, though, given that you could currently sell the TV audience on a thousand different catastrophe scenarios. You could more easily scare me into worrying about fiendish bands of homicidal koalas turning humanity into their slaves than about fascist firebugs coming to burn my copy of Notes from Underground. Even if the spiciest works from Czarist Russia posed a danger to the power structure in third-millennium America, why make them sexy by branding them as “graffiti” and publicly burning them? Why bother to destroy what’s being forgotten? Today any of us could download any work of Dostoevsky on our phones in a few seconds. Instead we use them for cat memes and porn.

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