I’ve loved Ray Bradbury since my misspent youth. In fact, there was a very long period where I’d never actually sit down and read a book unless it was one he wrote. Despite this, I’ve always kinda hated Fahrenheit 451. The ideas and themes, while admirable, don’t justify the plot holes and and overwrought heavy-handedness. I guess my biggest problem, from the first time I read it*, is with the timeline. We’re to believe it takes places approximately 200 years in the future, and it’s strongly implied that the switch over from firemen who put out fires to firemen who burn is in the distant past—so long ago that the idea of firemen putting out fires is little more than a rumor. So, here’s a silly question: why do these people know how to read? If all books are outlawed, why teach them to read?
I’m annoyed that I can’t remember my other complaints, and that even after watching François Truffaut’s 1966 film version, I can’t recall them. Truffaut’s film, which I’ve just seen for the first time, has some key differences from the novel—some better, some worse—but unfortunately, it shares with the book the crappy “why do these people know how to read?” plot hole.
I guess the biggest difference is the incorporation of Clarisse (Julie Christie**) into more of the story. Her actions in the novel replace other characters’, and there’s a whole creepy, added section involving a school where she’s branded as something akin to a traitor after getting fired for (one assumes) her radical ideas. I didn’t hate this change, but I didn’t like it, either. Her mysterious disappearance in the book was effectively creepy, so having her become something of a love interest felt too easy. I seem to recall the character being much younger in the book, and Montag wasn’t in love with her so much as fascinated by the questions she asked. That’s a more interesting dynamic to the relationship than the blasé “Montag thinks she’s hot so he starts reading books.”
Another huge change is the ending, which the film vastly improves. You want goofy, graceless symbolism? Try Bradbury’s novel, where the city he just fled is destroyed before his eyes and Montag starts to remember quotations from the Bible. Subtle, huh? I much preferred the film’s more poetic idea that each of the people in the little reader refugee shantytown has selected a book to commit to memory, thus becoming the books. It’s actually kind of a subtle opposite to Linda’s obsession with her “family” on the television—while Linda strives to become the TV show, these people strive to become the book. It’s a little less obvious than the “ignorant, godless people were too busy watching TV to notice there’s a war going on” ending Bradbury chose.
I know I’m crazy for feeling this way, but I find there’s nothing creepier than an old, outdated glimpse into the future. It makes me think of alternate universes and such—if the ’60s had kept on going, this is what the future would have looked like. Movies like this one, Logan’s Run, even the Mad Max movies, in many ways, wear the period of their making on their sleeves, and it terrifies me even though I enjoy the movies. Much as I hate George Lucas for not letting me own the real trilogy on DVD***, I give him credit for creating a futuristic world that isn’t overwhelmed by garish ’70s-ness. Unlike, say, the Star Wars Holiday Special. I guess maybe I should credit this more to production designer John Barry than to Lucas himself. Fuck Lucas, man! The prequels sucked. Suuuucked.
Okay, I’m getting off-topic here. One other complaint about the film is the remarkable quality and condition of the books everyone keeps reading. It’s nitpicky, I know, but it bugged me to see mostly pristine copies of books getting tossed around in a future world where nobody reads. Where are these books coming from? The book hints at pirate printing presses, which is fine, but would they really bother with hardcover binding and glossy, full-color dust-jackets? Wouldn’t you be more likely to find a bunch of pulpy sheets of paper tied together with some string? Or, if you did find a real book, wouldn’t it be in horrible condition? I had a paperback copy of All the President’s Men from 1975 whose spine split in half the last time I tried to open it; I had to go and get a new copy. So, yeah, it’s a little difficult to believe pristine books would survive into the dystopia.
In the interest of fairness, here’s another switch I like: in the novel, the Captain humiliates Montag in front of a fireman card game to explain, in great detail, about a dream he had in which Montag spouted off book nonsense, and the Captain himself responded to each with quotations from books—thus showing their meaninglessness. In the movie version of this scene, Montag and the Captain are alone, in the attic library of an old woman who looks uncomfortably like Tom Bosley, and the Captain makes similar observations without going on and on with quotations and hypothetical statements from his alleged dream version of Montag.
I’d like to close by pointing out some irony. Bradbury has said repeatedly that the book is not about censorship, fascism, or anything truly political (Truffaut must not have gotten that memo); in fact, he wrote a book about how the then-new medium of television makes people stop caring about literature and would, at some point, make us stop caring about facts altogether. I don’t disagree with the sentiment (you can’t if you’ve watched any cable news channel for more than 30 seconds), but it’s hard not to point out that he personally worked on a TV anthology series, Ray Bradbury Theater, that converted many of his short stories into 30-minute episodes. Is this the pot calling the kettle black, or did he just realize 30 years later that money is awesome?
*Yes, I’ve read it four times, hoping each time that it’d improve with age. It hasn’t, and in fact, the most recent paperback version I read has an essay by Ray Bradbury, written 50 years after the novel’s original publication, that ruins the book even more. At first, I thought, “Finally, I can get some insight from the man himself on why he’d insert all these crazy plot holes when he’s normally such a careful writer.” Instead, he quotes extensively from a stageplay version he also wrote, which opens up yet another plot hole by showing the Captain having an extensive library of books. I guess he’s going after the same idea as the computer in “I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison: by keeping them around, he can remember why he hates them to begin with. Still, I think he could do that with no more than a dozen. A full library, powerful image that it may be, makes no sense. [Back]
**Christie also plays Montag’s wife, known as Linda in the film (Mildred in the novel). Though it’s an exceptional dual performance, it’s kind of dunderheaded and obvious in terms of symbolism, so put that under the the column of changes I didn’t like. [Back]
***A version of the Star Wars trilogy with the original version intact was released, but it contained comically inferior, low-resolution and low-bitrate versions taken directly from old Laserdisc releases (so the prints were likely sourced from VHS). Waste of money and an embarrassing way to treat a classic movie trilogy. Even more embarrassing than digitally inserting Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen. [Back]