Sunday, June 10, 2012

FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966)

In the future, possession of books is forbidden—imagination leads to unrest with reality and feelings of inequality—and since all buildings have been fireproofed, firemen are now enforcers, setting fires, burning caches of books that some poor souls have kept, and sometimes burning the houses in which they are found. Montag is a fireman who is unhappy with his family life; his wife Linda, like most people in this society, are perfectly happy not to read, and just to watch TV shows which present constant soap opera narratives in which the viewers themselves can sometimes play a part.  This has also led to him becoming curious about the content of these books (everything from Lolita to Dickens to Mein Kampf), and he has begun sneaking home a book or two from each fire he helps set. Just as he's about to get a promotion at work, he becomes involved with Clarisse, a young neighbor girl who, he soon discovers, belongs to a secret society of book-readers.  After his wife overdoses on sleeping pills—a common event in this society which is treated as a minor medical call by two technicians who pump her stomach and replace her blood—Montag participates in a book burning at which the woman caught with the books kills herself by dropping a match on the kerosene-soaked books. This shakes him to his core and when Clarisse's house is raided and she vanishes, he becomes a rogue fireman, on the run to find Clarisse and the book people.

When Ray Bradbury died last week, I was truly sad.  The first "adult" books I read were Bradbury short story collections, and his atmospheric fantasy novel Something Wicked This Way Comes remains one of my most-loved books. Oddly, I had never read Fahrenheit 451, maybe because I saw the movie when it came out—I would have been 10 or 11—so I re-watched this film, directed by Francois Truffaut, in anticipation of finally reading the book. Even when I was young, this struck me as an odd movie. For starters, it's set in England, not in Bradbury's beloved Midwest. It was Truffaut's first English-language film and has a very European feel that makes it feel even more distant from Bradbury. The futuristic visual elements are sparse—widescreen TVs, furniture—though the book burnings are shot nicely, and the powerful scene of the Book Lady starting her own fire (pictured above) is in many ways the climax of the movie, even though it comes about 30 minutes before the end. Oskar Werner (below) is fine as the closed-up, confused Montag, and Cyril Cusack is equally good as his boss, who always refers to Montag in the third person. Both Linda and Clarisse are played by Julie Christie, to neither the betterment nor detriment of the film, though Christie herself is fine in both parts.

The film (and the book, which I've just finished) remains relevant today for several reasons, one of which is the creepy way in which Bradbury "foretold" the coming of reality TV. The book is even more specific about the lack of imagination which has led to people wanting to be entertained in short bursts and only by "real-life" stories. It's not hard to imagine that today's viewers of Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, and Ice Road Truckers have no interest at all in reading at length about things and people and philosophies that are outside their own immediate sphere of interest.  In later years, Bradbury was quoted as saying that Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship as much as lack of imagination, and indeed, both movie and book are vague about the politics and history of the loss of books; in the novel, he says that official censorship wasn’t necessary—the people banned books themselves. Still, images of burning books will always conjure up battles of censorship, from Nazi Germany to Harry Potter, so I think on this one, Bradbury got it wrong: whatever he intended, it is about loss of imagination and censorship. A movie worth seeing, but don't be like me and wait 40 more years to read the book, which, of course, is better. [DVD]

No comments: