With all the critical accolades given to Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it was inevitable we would see other attempts to cash in on the angst of the Trump era with film versions of other dystopian stories. One book in particular seems to have all the makings of a dark satire for the Trump era: Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451. And, sure enough, HBO seems to have been trying to scratch at least half of the nation’s anti-Trumpian itch in its recent adaptation of Bradbury’s vision of a dystopian future.
You could almost say Bradbury’s book about book burning was purposely built for flogging a President who has claimed (bragged?) that he doesn’t have time to read. (“I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time,” he told Megyn Kelly.) The America of Fahrenheit 451 is—again, just like the President according to some accounts—besotted with television. Mildred, the wife of the protagonist Guy Montag, spends most of the book fretting about when they will finally get around to buying a fourth TV wall for their parlor, so as to be fully surrounded by televised distractions.
It’s a shame, then, that HBO’s version, written and directed by Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop), fails so miserably. Even the otherwise excellent Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Nocturnal Animals) can’t rescue this filmic violation of the letter and spirit of Bradbury’s paean to the already languishing art of deep reading. We have here the same high concept (what if firemen set fires rather than putting them out?) and most of the characters from the original, but the story has been stripped down to its bare bones: a sci-fi thriller of the kind that wasn’t particularly fresh even in its heyday in the mid-1990s. It’s hard to see this film as anything other than evidence that the unfortunate social trends Bradbury’s story was intended to illustrate have continued to advance since the book was published 65 years ago. The violence this movie does to the premise of the book is best encapsulated in the fact that the first contraband items the firemen burn aren’t books but computer equipment being used by underground rebels to upload works of literature to the “dark nine,” the “nine” being the film’s ridiculous, science-fictiony name for their heavily censored internet. The ludicrous and unnecessary modifications to Bradbury’s original story continue to pile up from there. After his crisis of conscience, our hero works surreptitiously to safeguard Omnis, a secret rebel plan to encode the sum total of human art, literature, and knowledge into the genetic code of a bird, and thence to countless animals in the wild. (I’m not kidding about this, unfortunately.) Presumably, once the animals have had time to be fruitful and multiply, the firemen wouldn’t be able to burn them all, and anyone who had a hankering for Proust (and a genetics lab?) would be able to grab a bird and extract the book. This is thin gruel that has nothing to recommend it over François Truffaut’s 1966 version, but even there one can’t help but feel that something is wrong with watching a movie lamenting the decline of reading books.
Bradbury’s novel introduces us to Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is to root out books and other literary contraband and burn them, along with the house in which they were hidden. “It was a pleasure to burn,” the books opening line tells us, and Guy seems to love his job—at least until he meets Clarisse, a teenage girl and neighbor of Montag’s whose social oddity Bradbury establishes by the fact that she likes to take walks and doesn’t watch television. The character of Clarisse evolved from an earlier short story, “The Pedestrian,” which was in turn based on Bradbury’s experience of being stopped and harassed by a police officer who thought that his taking a stroll down the road at night was somehow suspicious.
A simple question from Clarisse—“Are you happy?”—sets Guy on a collision course with society:
He was not happy. He was not happy. He said the words to himself. He recognized this as the true state of affairs. He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back.
Up to that point, as we learn later, Guy had been secreting away books behind a vent in his house, but he hadn’t yet opened one up to look inside. So, the rubber band of his conscience drawn taut, Clarisse’s question finally snaps the band back violently, awakening Guy to his own desperate discontent and loneliness.
When his fire captain, Beatty, fails to bring him out of his angst with a pep talk, Guy eventually reaches out to a retired professor, Faber, whom he had once caught surreptitiously reading a book in a public park but hadn’t turned in to his superiors. He begs this professor, who’s old enough to have remembered a time when people still read books, to explain why they stopped reading. Faber describes the three things their world (and increasingly ours) lacks. “Number one: quality of information.” Information so detailed it has “pores,” he says elsewhere. “Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.”
This brings us to one of the many persistent confusions about Fahrenheit 451: that it is a book about censorship. Now, obviously, censorship is a part of the America that Guy Montag inhabits. Reading books is against the law, and the firemen are there to enforce that law and punish those who break it. But as Faber and Beatty explain, book burning arose not as the result of a totalitarian coup or in the chaotic aftermath of war (as Bahrani’s film has it). “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with,” Beatty tells Guy. “Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.” In the world of Fahrenheit 451, fire isn’t a means of oppression; it’s a tool for purging anxiety. As Beatty tells Guy, their job is to make “each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.”
A second common misperception is that Bradbury is concerned with prediction. Instead, he’s more interested in warning. Fahrenheit 451 is a last-ditch letter to bring a lover back from the brink, that lover risking the loss of not simply books but also deep reading and sustained thinking of the kind that various forces of Bradbury’s own time were doing their best to burn away, like Guy Montag and his fellow firemen were doing in the book.
But this makes the book’s actual predictive track record all the more impressive. To read it again today, after the social forces Bradbury identified have had almost 70 years to advance, involves an uncomfortable degree of self-recognition. They have four-wall television; we have ubiquitous smartphones and tablets. Mildred has her seashells; we have Bluetooth headphones and earbuds to keep us oblivious to the people around us. Mildred interacts with her televised “family” on the wall; we have parodies of friendship and debate on social media. The firemen burn books to keep people safe from offensive or troubling ideas; we have speech codes and “safe spaces” on college campuses, while Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council and its counterparts at Facebook and Google stand at the ready to protect our fragile minds from forbidden thoughts and “fake news.” Consider the fate of Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada who showed her communications class a televised clip of Jordan Peterson debating transgender issues: She was hauled into a closed door meeting with her superiors and accused of creating a hostile environment for transgender students, as well as potentially violating Canada’s Human Rights Act. Bradbury’s best-known quote says it all: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
Even the things that didn’t turn out quite the way Bradbury warned of strike a harmonic chord. The characters in the story are frequently described as being asleep. They barely register the not-so-subtle portents of imminent nuclear war: hints in radio news broadcasts, hypersonic bombers flying constantly overhead, and family members suddenly called to active duty. Today, by contrast, we are if anything perpetually agitated and aroused. People describe responsible political action with the sobriquet “woke” if they’re on the Left, or as “taking the red pill” on the Right. The point of the media-infotainment complex isn’t to keep us quiescent, but to make us obsessively engaged and enraged, click-click-clicking away our sanity and attention in pursuit of the kind of emotion-driven user-engagement that leads to healthy advertising revenues and vacuous political activism, but does little to provide context or understanding. Our politics is all heat and no light, and, as active as we superficially seem, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we are no more awake than Guy or Mildred at the beginning of the story.
Yet as much as his observations apply to our time, Bradbury’s primary concerns were for his own time. In his 1953 short story, “The Murderer,” we can see him working through his misgivings about technologies that keep us constantly distracted and “in touch.” In an essay in the Nation that same year, Bradbury worries about the sudden appearance of people walking absentmindedly down city streets with miniature radios held to their ears, the inspiration for Fahrenheit 451’s “seashells.” He wonders about the motives of the people or institutions feeding us information through these devices. Will the powers-that-be manipulate us for their own ends, or will they just feed us “mush,” reckoning that a populace that knows nothing is an even more useful outcome?
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the problem hasn’t mainly turned out to be that of a bad actor consciously spoon-feeding us mush or controlling our inputs so as to fix the outputs. To be sure, that goes on, but for every Russian psy-op or social programmer with an agenda, ten more programmers with conflicting agendas are trying to hijack our Twitter or Facebook news feed for no large, nefarious purpose, just lots of small, insipid ones. It makes more sense to pin the blame on the algorithms, primed as they are to feed us just what we like to eat, reinforcing our prejudices, cementing them in place to the point that we no longer think on a given topic but instead react by instinct. “You laugh when I haven’t been funny and you answer right off,” Clarisse tells Guy. “You never stop to think what I’ve asked you.”
But the problem runs even deeper than technology. Even Bradbury, through the voice of Faber, confesses that there’s nothing inherent in television or any other visual media that prevents it from having “pores.” Rather, the problem is to be found in human nature itself in the form of our appetites, and in a society arranged in such a way as to provide absurdly large rewards and societal approval to those who satisfy those appetites. As Kingsley Amis wrote in his study of dystopic science fiction, New Maps of Hell, the book shows us
how far the devolution of individuality might go if the environment were to be modified in a direction favorable to this devolution. The lesson to be drawn from the more imaginative science-fiction hells, such as Bradbury’s, is not only that a society could be devised that would frustrate the active virtues, nor even that these could eventually be suppressed, but that there is in all sorts of people something that longs for this to happen.
The most uncomfortable moment of recognition reading Fahrenheit 451 today comes when one realizes that we have indeed devised a society that seems primed to frustrate the active virtues. And who can honestly say that we didn’t want this?
Why don’t more people read and think? A better question may be, “When have they ever?” Few people have historically had the leisure time necessary to do so. Perhaps what’s different about our own times, from Fahrenheit 451’s beginnings in the 1950s up to the present, is that we no longer expect or reward our elites for reading widely and consuming media wisely. This isn’t a subtle dig at the President who doesn’t read or the people who voted for him who mostly don’t either. Quite the contrary: Our never-Trump elites are just as subject to the algorithmically fed id as are the masses—perhaps more so, because they are even more linked-in and arguably have more leisure time in which to consume political outrage porn and mass entertainment.
In a lesser writer, a story like Fahrenheit 451 would have come off as pompous. At times and in places, it may even be that. (Harold Bloom called it a “short, thin, rather tendentious novel” even as he praised it overall, especially for its ability to inhabit different time periods.) Perhaps the sign of Bradbury’s genius is his ability to check the inherent cynicism of a dystopian novel with his relentless joy for life, learning, and the human mind without it coming off as either jarring or sentimental. Perhaps that’s because Bradbury earned his appreciation for these treasures in an unusual way. He wasn’t Ivy-educated, or even college-educated; when he graduated from high school, “I went down to the local library and I spent ten years there, two or three days a week, and I got a better education than most people get from universities.” Libraries were his workshop as well as his classroom. Fahrenheit 451 was written in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library, where a dozen coin-operated typewriters would let you write as much as you could for a dime per half hour. When he needed a break, he would take a walk amidst the stacks, perusing whatever tomes struck his fancy.
As fervent as was his love for books and reading, Bradbury offers no deus ex machina, no assurances of the triumph of the human spirit or woolly notions of progress. Many critics have commented on the weak consolation of the ending of the story: Amid the ruins of a blasted civilization, Guy joins up with a band of human “books,” people who have committed selected great works to memory. In their camp, the candle of civilization flickers uncertainly in the winds of nuclear devastation. (Truffaut’s film retains this ending, but it somehow feels even less hopeful.)
Perhaps we are destined to chuck our own collective wisdom into the incinerator. It sometimes seems certain that we will, given enough time. That is how the unusual number of literate Romans must have felt just after the fall of the western empire, after which literacy rates for free adult males plummeted rapidly from somewhere around 30 to 40 percent to at most 3 to 4 percent in the so-called Dark Ages. It took hundreds of years, but Europe’s life of the mind recovered. Bradbury’s book shows us that learning, like life, is valuable despite—and because of—its sometimes fragile and fleeting nature. The hope he leaves us with is not the hope of a generation, but that of many generations. It is vastly better than no hope at all.
Just this past June, the American Library Association stripped Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from its award for children’s literature, deeming her characterizations of blacks and Native Americans too problematic for our tender children.