I once wrote that François Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 inverted the book’s sympathies, with far more interesting results than the original. That opinion has only deepened with time. Each viewing confirms how prescient Truffaut and company were. Despite Bradbury’s sententious bibliophilia, the well scrubbed, medicated suburbanites are much closer to our way of life than the scruffy, supposedly virtuous book lovers. The only difference is, we don’t care enough about books even to burn them. We just drown intellectual distinction in a sea of trivia.
Consider the scene in which Montag (Oskar Werner), a man who burns books until he learns to love them, drives his wife Linda (Julie Christie) and her vacant friends to distraction by reading a passage from a novel out loud. First, ask yourself “When was the last time I had a conversation about a book?” Then confront how closely the vacuous TV program the women are watching anticipates Oprah, Dr. Phil and all the other specialists in audience feel good flattery. And while the housewives’ comments about the TV announcer’s hair-do may be meant as satire, their complacent, petty, sniping inanities are painfully close to what passes for wit in our media-saturated, consumerist society.
It is unclear whether this brilliant inversion was accidental or deliberate. Truffaut’s limp, inept Hitchcock imitations do not feel like the work of a director in full control of his technique. On the other hand, the imagery of burning books is ravishing, and a few choice absurdities suggest the filmmakers’ winking recognition of just how ridiculous Bradbury’s ideas are. It is no doubt an inside joke that one of the “Book People” (outcast vagrants who memorize their favorite books) has chosen Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. On the other hand, it’s just a joke, period, that Montag’s new partner, Clarisse (also played by Christie), has memorized Saint Simon’s Memoirs. The unabridged Memoirs run over nine thousand pages.
Deliberate or otherwise, these nudges repeatedly expose Bradbury’s half-baked outrage. For example, his book-burning, supposedly totalitarian society allows the “Book People” to run to the countryside, memorize their favorite books, and expect no police interference. What are they, a “just in case” exception? Even when people are caught with books, what happens to them after their arrest? Montag says the authorities “let them come back.” Huh? If so, exactly what is so terrible about this society?
Answer: they don’t like books and for the bibliophile, that is an unpardonable sin. Even that prohibition is devoid of political substance, however. As the Captain (Cyril Cusack), portentously brandishing a copy of Mein Kampf warns, the firemen have to burn all books, regardless of their content. Books make people think and feel and that makes them unhappy. What makes people unhappy is bad. End of discussion. We may not suffer that attitude as a matter of state policy. We simply accept, even applaud, the tyranny of banality as a manifestation of the popular.
Which is worse?