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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Great Book #9: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit_451Sierra and I knew we were going to be friends before we met, and I guess I’ve always the same way about the work of Ray Bradbury.

I know, I know. HOW have I not read Bradbury before now? Everyone knows he is a visionary, but he is also the author of some of the most staggeringly gorgeous prose I have ever had the chance to savor:

One time, as a child, in a power failure, his mother had found and lit a last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping that the power might not come on again too soon

There are no more such moments of wonderful newness and mystery in the world of Fahrenheit 451, in which firemen burn all books because literature makes people feel confused and inadequate. Feelings are messy and opinions only lead to nasty disagreements. Isn’t it so much easier to refrain from thinking at all? Instead, people while away their time with interactive reality TV on a screen that wraps around one’s entire living room. The government perpetrates atomic wars while people sit on their couches reading their lines in soap operas about nothing in particular. (Did I mention this book was published in 1953 and first appeared in short story form, as “The Fireman,” in 1951? Talk about visionary!)

Bradbury mentions in one of his introductions (written in 1993) that he did have the 1933 Bebelplatz book burning in mind as he developed the idea for this story, but Fahrenheit 451 isn’t ultimately a cautionary tale about censorship. It blows my mind that Bradbury could have foreseen the stupefying effects of excessive TV watching YEARS before televisions became a universal fixture in the American home.

How do you get so empty? he wondered. Who takes it out of you?

I know this is going to sound crazy, but the most disturbing passages in the novel aren’t the scenes in which a woman chooses to die in a blaze along with her books, or the novel’s protagonist, Guy Montag, torches his boss; they’re the scenes between Montag and his conformist housewife, Mildred. Bradbury’s satire is no less potent for its lack of subtlety:

No matter when he came in, the walls were always talking to Mildred.
“Something must be done!”
“Yes, something must be
“Well, let’s not stand and talk!”
do it!”
“I’m so mad I could
What was it all about? Mildred couldn’t say. Who was mad at whom? Mildred didn’t quite know. What were they going to do? Well, said Mildred, wait around and see

Yup. Ridiculous. And this is simply horrifying:

He felt her there, he saw her without opening his eyes, her hair burnt by chemicals to a brittle straw, her eyes with a kind of cataract unseen but suspect far behind the pupils, the reddened pouting lips, the body as thin as a praying mantis from dieting, and her flesh like white bacon. He could remember her no other way.

Montag’s transformation into a free-thinking individual happens through late-night walks with his teenage neighbor, Clarisse, who
triggers the thought process that will eventually unravel his sad sham
of a life. “You laugh when I haven’t been funny and you answer right off,” she tells him. “You never stop to think what I’ve asked you.”

He felt she was walking in a circle about him, turning him end for end, shaking him quietly, and emptying his pockets, without once moving herself.

Montag stashes books (he’s got a few already hidden in the air conditioning vent when the novel begins), reads them, attempts to prod Mildred into the same intellectual awakening, and contacts an old man named Faber with the tools and contacts to begin laying the groundwork for a rebellion. Meanwhile, the fire captain, Beatty, sends the eight-legged mechanical hound with its terrifying needle of death sniffing around Montag’s house, and the plot hurtles toward its inevitable conclusion.

Bradbury, as I’ve said, was frighteningly prescient, and not just about reality TV; at one point Montag nearly finds himself the victim of joyriding children, who run over pedestrians for sport. It’s not exactly The Hunger Games, but there’s no denying that growing up is way more dangerous than it used to be. And have I mentioned that this novel was written in the early 1950s?

There were a couple of head-scratching moments–daffodils in November, what? And how can these houses of the future be fireproof when Montag’s house goes down in a matter of minutes?–but whatever, it’s a masterpiece and I’m still kicking myself for not reading it years ago.

I watched the 1966 film adaptation the day after I read the book, and this comment from the IMDb forums sums up my thoughts pretty succinctly: The first film, although trying to be faithful in spirit, really was a mess of an adaptation in my opinion, more of a sixties pop culture film. (Apparently there’s a big-budget Hollywood remake in the works.)

Bradbury wrote in one of his introductions that he was actually satisfied with the adaptation, and looking on the upside I guess they could have thoroughly ruined it. The trouble with filming an inner awakening is that…um…you can’t. Take this great line, for instance:

He felt his body divide itself into a hotness and a coldness, a softness and a hardness, a trembling and a not trembling, the two halves grinding one upon the other.

There are so many more wonderful passages that are completely lost to the screen, and the actor who plays Montag doesn’t help his case when he can’t even pause to consider Clarisse’s simple question: are you happy?

Also, I missed Faber and his nifty “green bullet” that enabled telepathic communication between the two conspiring bibliophiles; in the film he appears in a public park for only a few seconds when Montag pats him down for illicit books (our hero finds something suspiciously book-shaped in the inner pocket of the man’s trench coat, and lets it slide). Instead, an older version of Clarisse becomes Montag’s partner in subversity, no doubt because Julie Christie is easier on the eyes than a retired English professor. Technology and budget constraints must have necessitated the omission of the mechanical hound, the result being a disappointing lack of tension in the climactic scenes.

I will admit, though, that the final scene of the film is pretty perfect: rebels of all ages ambling through the woods in the falling snow, reciting the books they have learned by heart.


So if you haven’t yet read Fahrenheit 451, do it! Read it NOW! It’s hands-down my favorite on the list so far.

1 Comment to Great Book #9: Fahrenheit 451

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    May 9, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate your retelling so now I feel I can be informed about a book I should have read (and think I might have although I have no recollection of it) without reading it. I just feel that I have read enough dystopian novels (is that ignorant?). I will give Bradbury points for the reality tv prediction.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.