World on Fire: Revisiting Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451

Every year the American Library Association releases a top 10 “most challenged books” list. Their list for 2022 will be released this month during Banned Books Week, but if you’ve been paying attention to the news recently, you may be able to guess some of the titles. Historically speaking, many banned books go on to become classics: The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple. According to an extensive analysis by Pen America, the majority of banned books these days focus on LGBTQ+ issues, stories about people of color, and the history of racism in America, a depressing snapshot of where we are now. Equally distressing is that these numbers doubled from 2020 to 2021. We are currently at the highest level of book challenges since the ALA began keeping track of such figures in 2000.

Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 has been the target of several content objections over the years, most recently in 2006 in Texas. Ironically, it’s usually not because of the subject matter, but because it contains “obscene language.” Back in 1967, publisher Ballantine modified seventy-five passages of the book for an edition intended for high schoolers. Bradbury, a man eternally ahead of his time, has been quoted as saying, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Both his novel and the 1966 film adaptation directed by Francois Truffaut envision a future where this has already come to pass. Decades of enforced censorship have made books illegal contraband; those who hoard them in their homes risk arrest and having their stashes burned in public. Reading is condemned as an act of intellectual superiority: “Books disturb people,” as fireman Guy Montag recites early on in the film. “It makes them antisocial.” He’s about to be promoted but can barely get a response out of his wife Linda, who spends most of her day in front of a “wall screen,” watching an interactive television show called The Family and taking a series of uppers and downers to regulate her mood. When he meets a sweet but unusual neighbor named Clarisse, he finds himself suddenly questioning not just his work but the entire totalitarian structure of his society.

That the French-born Truffaut chose a project so dedicated to the power of words for his first English language film is fascinating. It’s also undeniable that his humanist instincts make him an odd fit for the dystopian material, and it’s not one of his more highly regarded pictures. Still, it’s instructive to watch now, if only as a lesson in how good intentions can lead to lackluster results. A detailed diary that Truffaut kept and later published called the production the “saddest and most difficult” of his career, largely because of intense clashes between himself and star Oskar Werner. There is something undeniably subversive in the casting of a German actor in the role of a subservient officer of the state just twenty years after the end of World War II, dressed in a black uniform with fascistic overtones, but this wasn’t necessarily intentional on Truffaut’s part – the two had previously worked together on Jules and Jim. Werner’s deliberately robotic performance makes a certain amount of sense in the film’s early going. Where it falters is in Montag’s conversion from unquestioning zealot to book-collecting fugitive. Julie Christie fares slightly better in the dual role of Linda and Clarisse, though she seems somewhat hamstrung by her scene partner’s insistently stilted delivery. 

Perhaps Truffaut’s first mistake was to film in color. It was his first time doing so and the bright reds and blinding beiges that bombard the screen seem at odds with the monotone nature of the society it’s depicting. For a modern viewer, it’s difficult to feel immersed in this unmistakably 60’s vision of the future, with its monorails and modular furniture and policemen on jet packs and complete absence of anyone other than white people. Admittedly this is meant to be a society that’s been systematically scrubbed of anything unseemly: there’s no graffiti on the walls, no visible homeless people, no outward signs of decay. “We’ve all got to be alike,” the fire chief insists. “Only then can we all be happy.” But aside from the ubiquity of flat-screen televisions in everyone’s homes, there’s little that feels immediate about the world here. To borrow a phrase from another frequently challenged author, it looks “unstuck in time,” which makes it easier to dismiss as reality.

Despite the fact that the pacing often feels in need of a defibrillator, Truffaut’s flair for the Hitchcockian does spring to life in a couple key moments. There’s a scene set in a schoolhouse sure to send a chill down the spine of any educator where the camera creeps down the empty hallway as students recite times tables behind closed doors as if preparing us to confront a monster. That we find a child instead is not necessarily a relief. In public spaces Truffaut is constantly picking up on narcotized citizens touching their own bodies as if they’ve become unfamiliar to them. At one point Montag forces Linda and her friends to listen as he reads aloud from a book. Truffaut lingers on their increasingly agitated faces until one of them begins sobbing. “I don’t like to be reminded of those feelings,” she says. And then there’s the climactic sequence where Montag watches his own assassination, faked by the police to appease the live home-viewing audience. 

Still, Truffaut doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with his subject matter until the end. Having been told earlier by Clarisse of an underground society of “book people,” Montag makes his escape into the countryside and finds a simplified world where the citizens chop wood, live without cars or electricity, and introduce themselves as the book they’ve memorized, sharing stories and passing them down orally as the ancient Greeks once did. They are preparing, as one man puts it, for the next “dark times”, storing words in the one place they can’t be destroyed. The film ends with snowfall, as the “book people” cross paths with one another, reciting their texts in a symphony of languages. 

As a vision of the future, it’s both hopeful and tenebrous. Bradbury’s novel was conceived during the height of the Red Scare; the film came out as civil rights and anti-war protests were igniting across the country. Now citizens are voting to defund their own libraries and Booker winners are being stabbed at public readings. It seems we are constantly on the precipice of the next “dark times.” Whether or not we make it through depends on how willing we are to listen to one another, and what we allow ourselves to say.

Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection 'Better Times,' which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is available from University of Nebraska Press. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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