Tonight, HBO will be premiering a new film version of Fahrenheit 451, one that stars Michael B. Jordan as “fireman” Guy Monag and Michael Shannon as his boss, Captain Beatty. If one may forgive the expression, it’s a hotly awaited production.
That said, regardless of whether the HBO film lives up to the hype or not, don’t forget to read the book that inspired it!
Written by Ray Bradbury and originally published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 takes place in, what was then, the near future. It’s a world where the citizens are too shallow to realize that they’re living under an authoritarian regime. Everyone is kept docile through the use of pharmaceuticals and there is no culture beyond what’s televised on the “parlor walls.” (Actually, Bradbury’s near future doesn’t sound that different from our present.)
It’s a world where books are forbidden. Of course, some citizens still insist on trying to hide books in their attics and their basements but, fortunately for the government, there’s always somebody willing to inform. Whenever it’s discovered that’s someone’s been hoarding books, the firemen are deployed. Of course, these fireman aren’t used to put out fires. Instead, they burn books. Fahrenheit 451, we learn early on, is the temperature at which paper will burn.
Guy Montag is one of the firemen. Though he can’t always explain why, he doesn’t feel satisfied with his “perfect” life. Even when his wife Mildred survives an overdose of sleeping pills, Montag can hardly be bothered to react. Guy has started to have doubts. When he meets a teenage girl named Clarisse, he’s stunned when she says that she doesn’t care about “how.” Instead, she cares about “why.” Guy finds himself intrigued by Clarisse, even if he still finds himself wondering if she’s going to inform on him.
And then there’s Captain Beatty! Beatty is Montag’s boss but at times, he almost seems to be encouraging Montag to doubt the system. Beatty even reveals that he used to be an avid reader himself. Is he sincere when he encourages Montag to read or does he have ulterior motives of his own?
Fahrenheit 451 holds up remarkably well. True, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and things slow down a bit whenever Montag interacts with Faber, a former English professor. But, much like Orwell’s 1984, the book’s central theme remains relevant today. Right now, there are people on both the Right and the Left who would happily burn books if it meant doing away with ideas and opinions with which they disagree. (I imagine even some of our self-righteous centrists would be more than willing to burn a book or two in the name of bipartisanship.) Democracy dies not in darkness but in ignorance and the best way to keep a population ignorant is to not only burn anything that challenges the state but to also ridicule the very idea of thinking for one’s self. That is the society that Bradbury portrays in Fahrenheit 451 and it’s one that feels very much like our own.
One final note: I found my copy of this book at Half-Price Books last December. The copy that I found once belonged to a student named Ashley and she filled the margins with notes about her friends Taylor and Sidney. At the start of the book, they were best friends. About halfway through, she suddenly hated both of them but, by the end of the book, they were friends again. Yay!