The Irish writer Joseph O’Connor has a story about being on a bus in south Dublin in his teenage years. The bus paused next to the Martello tower in Sandycove, commonly known as the James Joyce Tower because the first part of Joyce’s Ulysses is set there.
On the bus, an elderly man beside O’Connor began to rumble with anger. He told the teenager that Joyce was “a dirty little gurrier who had run Ireland down for money.” And that Joyce “told lies about Irish history.” O’Connor was captivated, he explains. This Joyce guy was a serious disturber and, if the opportunity ever came to stir the anger that James Joyce did, he would seize it.
In a key scene in the new, passionate and angry adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (Saturday, HBO, 8 p.m. ET), there is a suicide bomber of sorts, an older woman with works of literature strapped to her waist to set alight. She knows the storm troopers of the fascist state will burn the books, and burn her to death. One of those books is Joyce’s Ulysses.
This adaptation of the Ray Bradbury novel is made by the Iranian-American writer-director Ramin Bahrani and it is as indignant as all get out. Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel was a paranoid take on the McCarthy era of poisonous attacks on intellectuals, and he imagined a United States obsessed with censorship, with books illegal and burned. Later, Bradbury suggested that his novel was also about a pop-culture industry eroding interest in books and ideas.
Here, the setting and story are vicarious in their depiction of a society in which all approved information is online and people’s lives are controlled by Amazon Echo-like devices that provide all approved information and tell citizens when to take the medication that keeps them happy and groggily uninterested in anything except mindless entertainment and state propaganda.
The emphasis on the dangers of totalitarianism is relentless. As relentless as the key figure of Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon), the leader of the “Firemen” who seek out and burn books and punish the owners and readers with savagery. As unsubtle as it is, this adaptation is quintessentially of the moment – it was made in 2017, in the first year of the Trump presidency and you can see every scintilla of anger about Trump-era half-truths and untruths bursting through the script. Beatty barks strongman slogans, such as: “If you don’t want a person to be unhappy, don’t give them two sides of a question to worry about.”
The official, state-run internet service resembles Fox News, and the treatment of political enemies is brutal. They are called “eels,” shorthand for “illegals.” The storm troopers resemble U.S. agents dealing with illegal immigrants. The leaders say writers and the media want people “to be deceived.” The lack of subtly is bracing.
The hero in the book, and here, is fireman Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan), who has misgivings about the state that he buries in the back of his mind. It’s about his race, his family and his longing for something more nurturing than a bunch of storm troopers raiding a home where a woman burns to death for reading novels. He steals a book, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, his way of attracting the attention of a slippery young woman, Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), who might be part of the underground resistance of book lovers and intellectuals.
Nothing goes well. Nothing truly hopeful happens until the final, cryptic scene. There is chagrin, rather than a soaring, optimistic conclusion.
For all its anger and barefaced rage, this Fahrenheit 451 is a ravishing experience to watch. It was made in and around Toronto and it is fascinating to see familiar places, including TTC stations at night, used to signify gloom and sinister melancholy. Man, the city looks macabre at times. It also features numerous Canadian actors, including Mayko Nguyen, Ted Dykstra, Joe Pingue, Joanne Boland and the YouTube star Lilly Singh.
There is another Canadian connection that transcends the physical filming. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, also made here, the narrative situates Canada as the next-door beacon of freedom and liberal thought. It’s where people want to escape to, and the contrast between the United States and Canada is totally explicit.
Some advance reviews of this Fahrenheit 451 have taken issue with its bluntness. A lack of sensitivity and poignancy has been cited. Well, this critic says never mind that. The film doesn’t allege or suggest anything. Instead, it blazes with rage, and that’s fine in the contemporary context. Yes, books, ideas and journalism make powerful people angry. Yes, there’s a guy hoping to be premier of Ontario who told this newspaper a few years ago that he’d close libraries “in a heartbeat,” and sneered at our prominent writers. The angry man on the bus in Dublin isn’t alone.