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Jeff Simon: Dark new version of 'Fahrenheit 451' hits 'Peak TV'

Jeff Simon

It's called "Peak Television." That's to distinguish it from a mere "Golden Age of Television."

It's the current stage of television history, i.e. television from a prodigious period where there's more interesting television than anyone could possibly watch in an ongoing life -- maybe even more "good" television if your definition of "good" is a generous one.

The brutal irony we live with is that all that impossible cornucopia of great TV requires the greatest ever need of discriminating critics to lead audiences through it intelligently at the exact moment when Digital Babel has watered and dumbed that community down hopelessly.

Exhibit A of "Peak TV" is this weekend, with its royal weddings, high-level NBA jams, both Showtime's "Patrick Melrose" (its second episode out of five) and HBO's "Fahrenheit 451" on Saturday nights and "Billions" on Showtime on Sunday night. "Fahrenheit" starts at 8 p.m., both "Billions" and "Melrose" at 9 p.m.

You'll just have to forgive me if don't throw Rotten Tomatoes at the new version of "Fahrenheit 451" that HBO got from Iranian/American director Ramin Bahrani and his co-writer born in Iran, Amir Naderi. Many are, but not all. I'm in the minority who think it's stunning.

You'll remember, of course, that Francois Truffaut made a version of Bradbury's 1953 classic in 1966 only 13 years after publication. If ever there was a book that required the Trump Years of the 21st Century, it's that one, it seems to me.

Bahrani's is a state-of-the-art 2018 version of Bradbury's dystopian apocalypse where burned books insure society's "happiness" and books that haven't yet been burned are dismissed as "graffiti" (which is to say human civilization's very own enduring version of "fake news").

This is a future world where there is no truth from knowledge because "happiness is truth." Grumblers in cafes call all "graffiti" fake. In this masterly nightmare, everything is supposed to be all smiles because a smile is supposed to be everyone's umbrella. The world's onetime supply of 6,000 languages has been winnowed down to 16.

In Bradbury's horrific nightmare, firemen don't just put out fire, they're the ones who set books ablaze, as well as people who insist on reading them -- or even just thinking conspicuously.

The two tormented firemen in the center of the tale in this terrific new version are played by Michael Shannon as Beatty, and Michael B. Jordan as his protege Montag who's been selected as Beatty's successor in a world of all-conflagration-all-the-time.

Montag is proud of his proficiency in the ultimate anti-intellectual tradition. He calls himself "the human incinerator." But he's tormented by doubts. Deep down, he knows there is something deeply wrong with so much ignorance and so little curiosity.

Bradbury's orignal novel comes from the dark, demonic dyslexia of the '50's and the paranoid witch-hunting world of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. This new version plops us down terrifyingly close to where we actually are, in the middle of digital hedonism and post-factual misinformation and disinformation. The select few know the most horrifying fact of all in this dystopia: "The ministry didn't do this to us, we did it to ourselves." ("Amusing ourselves to death" is what media theorist Neil Postman called it in his prophetic book.)

But misgivings, however buried, don't stop the "firemen" from torching the precious few buildings that are secretly full of books as well as their aged guardians who prefer to go up in blazes along with all that beloved paper.

It's the world view of these "firemen" of the "advanced" future that there's nothing that can't ignite at 451 degrees. It's the temperature where their "civilization" begins.

When the old woman in charge of a secret library that is the largest veteran book-burner Beatty has ever seen immolates herself along with her books, Montag, in equal parts horror and fascination, steals a book from her hands. What could possibly be worth her life? It is there this brilliant new version has an advantage over Truffaut and perhaps even Bradbury.

The secret text Montag steals is Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground," one of the truest revolutionary texts in the history of world literature, an eternally subversive book if ever there was one. (It is, I can personally testify, a dangerous book to read, too, if you're too young. My life would no doubt have gone much better if I hadn't encountered the book at the age of 13.)

This is a movie that knows, truly knows, where the edge is. It slices our world paper thin getting there.

The point, of course, is that books are so much more than paper or even the individual people who are their guardians, whatever their professions.

They are heart and soul and mind -- humanity itself.

Courtesy of this new first-rate version of Bradbury's prophetic nightmare masterpiece between covers, they're television, too.

Very, very good television.

That burns.

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