In the future, we will have upturned rails, flat screen televisions paneling most of our walls and making ourselves a character in their never ending dramas, have telephones in every room and have to deal with faceless corporations. “No!” you say,”but this is the present”. In the fifties Ray Bradbury wrote a shot novel called Fahrenheit 451, which unfolded amidst an authoritarian society which believes that books make people sad and hence should be burned.
“It is the temperature at which book paper burns” Guy Montag the fireman informs his co-passenger when asked what 451 meant. Why would a society condemn books? What pleasure does one get in suppressing one’s fundamental way of life? Though not as well fought for as the right to speak one’s mind or the right to religion, reading is a natural tendency, a fundamental urge; it contributes at large to what we are and what we know.
Guy Montag is a fireman, he doesn’t put out fires from engulfing the neighborhood but he creates them to fuel his primary job of burning books. “Why would people even what to do something that is not allowed?” he asks to himself and silently to those whose books he has to burn.
Science fiction operates in devious ways, it uses the bleakest of our present to create most of our future, and we now know that nothing can be entirely lost in our society and that one form of media either feeds from or into another and that none of it erased, but there is a reduction no doubt and has given rise to endless “in our days we used to” lines from anyone who is even one year olden that you. Aye! The comfort of the past. In one strategic scene in the movie Montag is frustrated with life reads out passages from a book to an unwelcome audience, only one of them responds true to her emotions and is half surprised as to where these feelings had been inside her. “You are all zombies” he cries. Have they forgotten how to live? Have they been drawn into the web of stupid prosperity, its clutch on us so deep that they have forgotten the things that make us what they are?
It is very difficult to type in bold letters with conviction that the way the world is going isn’t right, but it is the duty of the artist to make a collective thread ball of all his thoughts and it is ok if there is not a solution, a thread ball that might not provide the ends to a needle but nevertheless an interesting journey unwinding it. The solution may or may not reach the reader. In a sense Fahrenheit 451 is a book about why we read books, often seen as anti-censor propaganda lit; the author himself has refuted such thoughts and that the book was a meditation on the reducing readership on the arrival of television.
The 1966 François Truffaut film is more or less a straightforward adaptation of the same, but certainly falls below ground in the character of Clarisse, the free thinking neighbor of the fireman Montag. Truffaut also further complicates it by casting Julie Christie in both the lead female parts; the film is saved by Bernard Hermann’s black music and Oskar Werner’s performance, Truffaut’s way of bringing words to visual is brilliant and he tops it with the ending.
The book was something I read during college and it raised more questions that I thought it would, I was living in a society in which books and movies were mere ‘dinner talk’; throwing out one word superficial opinions like Ok, ok-ish, arguing on logical points and giving into others taste; just so that I am in that social circle or as a show act of supposed intellect. Are books written to fill in the conversational blocks we have in life or do they have some other higher purpose? I believe they do, each book is one way of looking of what really is out there, and that answer was right there in those final pages and scenes.
Guy Montag finally leaves his job and city and vanishes into the forest to meet with ‘the book people’; people who rejected society or were rejected by it, “tramps outwardly libraries inwardly” one says, those few wandering in the forests who loved a book so much that, they became it. The men who became books.
In the age where the punching of a few plastic buttons would give you capsules of what were once volumes, I find it heroic to shout from memory an entire book into the wilderness.
Ray Bradbury died last Tuesday and Fahrenheit 451 was finally released in digital format late last year.