HBO’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ considers what might happen if we become too dumb

When all knowledge isn’t good

Michael Shannon (left) and Michael B. Jordan star in “Fahrenheit 451,” premiering Saturday, May 19, on HBO.

“Fahrenheit 451” may have been written during the McCarthyism era of the 1950s, but elements of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel about censorship and the destruction of knowledge in a future America certainly ring disturbingly true today.

Premiering Saturday, May 19, on HBO, the two-hour film of the same title follows life in a Cleveland of the near future, a time when the media keeps people in a permanent state of sedation, history is rewritten and knowledge is considered the root of all human unhappiness. And books, which are banned by the Ministry in this totalitarian society, are burned by “firemen.”

One of them is Montag (Michael B. Jordan, “Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”), who at first embraces his job of keeping America safe from knowledge, culture and literature. But after watching an old woman torch herself after he and his cohorts raid her book-filled home, he begins to doubt the Ministry’s mission, which puts him in direct conflict with his fire chief, Beatty (Michael Shannon, “Boardwalk Empire,” “Revolutionary Road”). Clarisse (Sofia Boutella, “The Mummy,” “Star Trek: Beyond”), a free-thinking young neighbor, turns him on to literature and reinforces his newfound views.

Sofia Boutella stars in “Fahrenheit 451,” premiering Saturday, May 19, on HBO.

Of course, there was no internet in the ’50s but here there is The Nine, where all government-approved information resides and can be accessed. As for the populace, they enthusiastically go along with this mass dumbing-down, even cheering when Eels, members of the resistance, are captured and book-burnings are broadcast.

In an era when addiction to media and technology is on the upswing and reading books isn’t, the film’s director, Ramin Bahrani (“At Any Price,” “99 Homes”), finds the story cuts uncomfortably close to what is happening today.

“Bradbury was very concerned about mass entertainment,” he says to a recent gathering of journalists in Pasadena, Calif. “He was concerned about Reader’s Digest. He was concerned about quick, short sound bites. He thought all that was going to destroy the concepts of reading, of thinking, of knowledge, and of course, we see it now. I just have to pull out this super-computer again, and we can get into tweets and wiki entries, which are basically even shorter versions of Reader’s Digest.

“I think we’re all guilty of reading the headlines,” he continues. “… And that goes to what I think is one of the things in Bradbury’s novel that’s different from the other classic ‘1984.’ Bradbury says, ‘We asked for this,’ which is a line that Sofia is giving to Michael Jordan. … It’s Sofia’s character that gives that dialogue where Bradbury says, ‘We asked things to become this way.’ ”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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