This is the nightmare world imagined in Ray Bradbury's novel, Fahrenheit 451, and later in the Francois Truffaut film adaptation of 1966. This is a world of the "future" (looks to be late twentieth century...) in which helmeted, storm trooper-style firemen start fires rather than putting them out; where they rush to the scene of a crime in their scarlet fire engines and then proceed to gleefully torch every book they can find. Books with titles such as Othello, Vanity Fair, Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, Plexus, Alice's Adventure in Wonderland and Madame Bovary. Even Mad Magazine does not escape the rampage of these authorized government officials. Even Truffaut's beloved Cahiers du Cinema is set aflame. Books are dangerous repositories of dissatisfaction, after all, at least according to the firemen, who are looked upon by the populace with a combination of fear and admiration.
How and why would a future world evolve like this? The Fire Chief in the film (played with fascist conviction by Cyril Cusack) explains it well after discovering a secret (and forbidden) library with his troops. Books, he explains, raise all kinds of uncomfortable questions. Some books even contradict each other. "Only I am right," some authors seem to say, "the others are idiots." Therefore, books clearly (and intentionally) upset a satisfied populace by making it think about things, and considering for itself which point of view is valuable. The very act of writing, according to the Fire Chief, is pure vanity because it is one person forcing his or her beliefs on the populace, and making it confront unpleasant things. "We've all got to be alike," The Fire Chief insists, explaining his distaste for the written word to the film's protagonist, fireman Montag (actor Oskar Werner). True equality, it seems, can only be achieved when everybody is exactly the same.
And the only way for everyone to be alike (according to the Government), is for everyone to be equally uninformed, I guess. Smoking is bad for people, the Chief explains, and but now -- in his world -- there are no written studies to prove it, and so there is nothing to feel bad about. This particular argument struck a note with me and seemed particularly timely as I watched the film last night. We've all heard how Bush Administration officials have suppressed NASA reports on global climate change, over the objections of the scientists who conducted them. These reports state facts, not opinions...but again they might make us feel bad about the state of things...so best just to suppress them; keep them away from the eyes of a populace that is happy buying coffee at Starbucks, watching American Idol on flat-screen TVs, and buying groceries at Wal-Mart. I mean, "why bother people with that sort of filth?" to paraphrase a character in the film. Perhaps this future isn't so far away after all?
But I get ahead of myself. Fahrenheit 451 tells the dramatic story of Montag, a fireman who does not question THE WAY THINGS ARE and happily goes about his business of destroying books. He's up for a promotion, in fact, and this is good, because his wife, Linda (Julie Christie) doesn't want a bigger house; she wants a second wall screen TV installed.
Then, one day, Montag meets a woman, Clarisse (Christie again), who asks him if he ever reads the books he burns. This lively, vivacious, passionate woman plants a seed in his mind, one that grows, as Montag begins to see how heartless, cold and vapid his society (a society without the printed word) has become. Then, one night, Montag breaks the law and reads a book for himself, David Copperfield (by Charles Dickens). It is an especially appropriate choice of tomes because it begins with the sentence "I am born," and then goes on to ask the question whether the book's protagonist will turn out to be the hero of his own life, or whether that important task should be left to another. This is the very crisis Montag faces at this juncture. Upon reading the first words of this book, Montag - if not actually born - is certainly re-born, into a world of possibilities. And what will he choose: the conformity he knows (and there is security and safety in conformity, right?) Or the opportunity to be a hero in his own life and confront this new Dark Age head on?
As you might guess, Montag begins to question the system that has nurtured him, but turned his wife into a pill-addled vegetable. "You're nothing but a zombie," he tells her angrily. "You're not living, you're just killing time." After reading his first book, Montag rejects the fascist system one piece at a time. He refuses to use the automatic fire pole in the fire station (better to walk on his own two feet than be carried up and down automatically, without thought). Then, on a search.raid for books in a public park, Montag permits a perpetrator secreting books in his jacket to escape with the texts. This important moment is highlighted by Truffaut in interesting visual fashion. The moment is heightened as half the screen goes black with a progressive wipe, leaving us only a view of the important action (the interaction between fireman and book person) on the right side of the frame.
Truffaut, heavily inspired by Alfred Hitchcock here (down to the pounding Bernard Hermann score), does not shy from visuals that augment the film's point. For instance, the opening credits are not flashed on the screen in the fashion we are used to; as printed words, but rather "read" by a narrator over a montage of shots (zooms, actually...) of ubiquitous TV antennae. This choice effectively denies the audience a glimpse of the written word, which is forbidden in this future world. More to the point, perhaps, the montage reveals in detail (as we see the antennae in close-up again and again) how ugly, inhuman technology (the antennae) has supplanted literary artistry, beauty and humanity.
Perhaps the best aspect of this film is something more subtle, however. Truffaut has seeded throughout his film (a genuine masterpiece, I'd say) various scenes of intense narcissism or self-love on the part of many characters. Early on, for instance, we see a female passenger on a monorail gazing at her reflection. She kisses it. Later, a medic gazes at his own face in a reflective medical case and he lingers on the image as if entranced by it. Linda, Montag's wife, is seen standing in front of a mirror touching her own breasts, obsessed with her "image" and "beauty."
Others on the monorail touch their own lips (as if to prove they still actually exist), and massage the collars of soft, fur coats. There are simply too many shots of this type for them to be a mere coincidence or a mistake. So what Truffaut is doing with these sequences and these shots, I believe, is selling visually the point that in a world where there is no consideration of philosophy, no history, no biography, and no imagination, the human psyche collapses into orgy of hedonistic self-love and narcissism. When thoughts lose currency and everyone is the same, each person receiving his or her 15 minutes of fame (witness Linda in the film getting to "play" with actors on a reality-type TV series), there is nothing but "self" to obsess on. A society of "Me" has grown-up here, at the expense of the community as a whole.
This is the most valuable aspect Fahrenheit 451; and surely the most prophetic. Bradbury first (and then Truffaut) saw that books -- with all their ideas -- were being supplanted by the callow, colorful world of non-stop television. They saw too, how a government could conceivably exert control over a population by employing this superficial medium (one where style is championed over substance). This too has come to pass. Remember how after 9/11, color-coded terror alerts were broadcast to make people jump, make people fear, (and in some cases, change the way people were likely to vote...)? Remember, how the Bush Administration (with your tax dollars!) released propaganda supporting their Medicare reform (in truth, hand-out to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries...), but made it look like an authentic news report ("This is Karen Ryan reporting...")?
What Bradbury and Truffaut understood so clearly was that television could be manipulated in a most dastardly way by those with a hidden (and malicious) agenda. I'd say they also realized how television could appeal to the baser "train wreck" instincts of people. At the end of Fahrenheit 451, Montag's "capture" by the State is orchestrated for the TV cameras (it's actually a sham), but it reminded me of how, in 1994, TV viewers were held captive by the "real-time" pursuit of O.J. Simpson in his white Bronco. This kind of thing is ever so much more entertaining than thinking about the important things (like, say, genocide in Rwanda...) isn't it?
The world of Fahrenheit 451 is also one in which citizens are asked to spy upon one another to keep the system intact. Outside fire stations are carefully placed hot-red "information boxes" where citizens can leave tips about law violators (anti-social elements organized in "cells", just like terrorists....) Again, this doesn't seem very futuristic today. Remember, after 9/11 the Bush Administration proposed Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) a program designed to help United States citizens report suspicious activity among their neighbors. In particular, the program suggested that workers such as cable installers and telephone repairmen should be reporting on what was in people's homes if it were deemed "suspicious."
Fahrenheit 451 saw all this coming, particularly how the ubiquitous nature of television (not religion) would become the opium of the masses. Now, it may seem supremely contradictory for me - who makes a living from reviewing television - to be noting the dangers of the medium, but I don't think that's actually the case. Television (as is the case with film), is -- universally -- what you decide to make of it. You can approach the medium actively, with curiosity, or you can approach it passively, as an opportunity to "veg" out. I submit that the world of reality television (about the ritual humiliation of other Americans) is the worst example of video rubber-necking or watching a train wreck. But watching and considering intelligent drama - of any genre- is something quite the opposite. Still, consider that in the world of Fahrenheit 451 you could not read this blog, even. That you would not be able to - with written words - analyze the events and characters you had seen on Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Lost, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, or anything else.
And this gets us to a point of importance, I believe. Even as TV news has become more biased and one-sided, telling only half the story (and usually the sensational half...); even as reality TV has grown more despicable and appeals more and more to the lowest common denominator, our society boasts an antidote: the counterweight of the Internet, which can provide free, instantaneous and democratic information. That's why our society, I believe, has not succumbed totally to the Orwellian tactics of the current Administration. As long as the Internet -- this series of "tubes," as one Senator described it -- exists, it allows dissent and investigation. Therefore, there is not total brain death, and the book burners and government fire men will never win. (Which is why the idea of "Net Neutrality" is so scary to me; it's basically the idea of removing the democratic independence of the Internet, making it the purview of - surprise! - the corporations.)
As a writer of books, I suppose I take Fahrenheit 451 pretty damn personally. The idea that the work of an artist's entire lifetime (Shakespeare, Joyce, King...) can be so easily destroyed is immensely frightening to me. Book burners, alas, are not merely the bailiwick of fiction. There have been book burners in Nazi Germany, in Stalinist Russia, and yes - here - in the United States. And the scary thing is those who burn the books often do so under cover of moral rectitude; hidden under the lie that they are protecting us from bad things (like, say, racism in Twain's Huck Finn, or witchcraft, as portrayed in Harry Potter or The Wizard of Oz). The end of Fahrenheit 451 offers hope, however, and it nearly brought me to tears. The climax of the film reveals a new sect of citizens called "Book People." Since books are illegal, these people have become the books they loved. They have memorized the one special book that means something to them, and so carry on the legacy of the writers. Every word. Every sentence. Every thought. All memorized.
As the film concludes, Montag meets someone who is Plato's Republic; someone who is Pride and Prejudice, someone who is The Martian Chronicles, even. There were Dark Ages before, periods in human history where knowledge was lost, and only some of it preserved. And the overall message seems to be here that we can survive another, should it happen. In Fahrenheit 451, the human spirit - the human quest for knowledge and truth is transcendent and indomitable - and man, even technological man -- finds a way to keep knowledge alive.
It makes me wonder. If you were to become a book, what would book would you choose? What book couldn't you live without? What book couldn't the world live without?