Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 begins with a striking narration of the film’s credits. The premise is simple: talk becomes the natural medium in an illiterate state. When the firemen, that is, the book burners, arrive at a high rise with orders to burn books we are immediately struck by the stark and vulgar aesthetics of the buildings that are so typical in totalitarian countries – globs of spiritless, unimaginative, state-commissioned modernism.
This drab and socially engineered reality is beautifully contrasted with the imaginative ways in which readers hide their books: one rests in a ceiling lamp, more are found in a hollowed out television set, and others in the tight confines of a heater. It is difficult to imagine a greater realism than this depiction of the double morality – the duplicity forced on its citizens by totalitarian systems.
Fahrenheit 451 is much more than an allegory of the future, and the dangers that lurk for modern man. In many respects both, the film and the novel are studies of a type of human temperament that revolves around an anti-humanism that prides itself in destruction.
If there was ever a type of government that succinctly and successfully institutionalized mass schizophrenia, clearly we do not need to look further than the twin murderous ideologies of the Twentieth Century: Communism and Nazism. In terms of the moral double-dealing that these systems of terror thrive on, consider what Arkady Shevchenko, United Nations Under Secretary General and former advisor to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko wrote after his much-publicized defection to the United States in 1978:
So I had become part of the stratum that tried to portray itself as fighting what it coveted. While criticizing the bourgeois way of life, its only passion was to possess it; while condemning consumerism as a manifestation of philistine psychology, a result of poisonous Western influence, the privileged valued above all else the consumer goods and comforts of the West. I was not immune. The gulf between what was said and what was done was oppressive, but more oppressive still was what I had to do to widen the gap. I tried to remember everything I ever said, and what others had told me, because my survival and success depended greatly upon that. I pretended to believe what I did not, and to place the interests of the Party and the state above my own, when in fact I did just the opposite. After I had lived that kind of life for years, I began to see Dorian Gray’s real picture in my shaving mirror.
The great confusion that has been propagated by most commentators of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is to neglect that he wrote the novel in 1950, precisely as a vivid commentary on Stalin’s communist Soviet Union. Let us consider how Shevchenko describes his discovery of bookstores in one of his diplomatic forays to New York: “But for me, the crown, the jewel, of the great city was its bookstores. If I had been allowed, I would have spent all my time in them. The variety of titles, including Russian-language books by Soviet émigrés and defectors, was seductive, almost overpowering.” His appraisal is an honest discovery by someone who is privileged by a doctrinal and totalitarian ideological zest for coercion. Thus much has been concocted by critics having to do with superficial and fantastical future worlds, and future book burners without truly arriving at the essence of either the book or the film.
Fahrenheit 451 is more complicated than just being a mere look at some future horror story that has the state as its protagonist. Both the novel and the film are essentially a study of what the seminal twentieth century thinker, Karl Popper has called the “tribal instinct” in his book The Open Society and it’s Enemies. Popper views democracy as a system of values that is diametrically opposed to collectivism and as such as a movement of individual autonomy that moves away from a deeply seated collective tribal longing of man. Popper’s anthropological description goes a very long way in explaining the motives of the Fire Chief in Fahrenheit 451. For instance, Popper argues that what has traditionally been the lure of some intellectuals toward the totalitarian impulse is precisely a return to a more primitive, tribal, and communistic social set-up. This serves as a significant analysis of the plight of democracy as a historical process, given Popper’s notion that the open society is a perpetual attempt at humanizing the social-political process.
Regardless of our inability or desire to recognize institutionalized evil, the book burners in both the novel and Truffaut’s film already have had and continue to have their day. These book burners have already burned, defamed, distorted, and re-written history. The problem is that this continues to happen while the very elements responsible for doing so continue to direct our glance at a future science fiction world. Bradbury makes this point very clear in an interview that he gave Robert Couteau, in 1991. When asked how the fall of the Berlin Wall would affect science fiction:
I don’t think it will affect it much. Because we’ve always talked about freedom, we’ve always talked about totalitarian governments. After all Fahrenhit 451 is all about Russia, and all about China, isn’t it? And all about the totalitarians everywhere, either left or right, doesn’t matter where they are, they’re book burners, all of them. And so Fahrenheit 451 will continue to be a read book, by people all over the world, ‘cause there are still totalitarian governments.
The film portrays the manner in which totalitarian theory and praxis destroy our ability to determine what is real. After the firemen burn a huge bag of books that they have confiscated, Montag (Oskar Werner) is called over by the Chief and asked what kind of books he had just burned. The question is neither innocent nor spontaneous. Instead it is an example of the machinations of the terror state probing about to qualify what it determines to be thought crimes. Montag does not know. The appropriate and politically correct answer being: “I don’t know, I was not paying attention.” Then the Chief further asks: “What does Montag do on his day off duty?” Here we cannot help but to notice the artificial distance created between the apparatchiks in control and their subjects in not referring to Montag as “you” but in the impersonal choice of addressing him as “Montag.” Montag answers: “Mow the lawn.” But the Chief’s duplicity and suspicion is not easily abetted. He continues: “And what if the laws forbid that?” Montag has no choice but to continue to answer in a manner that has been inculcated in him: “Watch it grow sir.” The Chief then smiles with relief, a definite sign that Pavlov’s dog is behaving as programmed. His intent is to remind the person in question that he must remain abreast of the moral, intellectual, cultural, and political dictates of mother state. These dictates, of course, include an ever-expanding catalog of crimes of intent or what amount to thought crimes. He then says to Montag: “Good. Montag might be hearing some important news in a day or two.” A promotion is what the Chief has in store for him, but first comes the obligatory stamp of submission to the state.
On his trip home on the monorail Montag is approached by a young woman who tells him that they make the same trip everyday, and that perhaps they should talk. This juxtaposition is, of course, a stroke of genius on Truffaut’s behalf. While the Chief is cynical, sinister and cold, as the state demands of its subjects, the young woman is spontaneous, sincere, and genuinely interested in exchanging ideas. She asks if he didn’t mind talking – already a sign of a coerced existence – and he answers nervously: “No, no. Go ahead talk. I can’t promise to think of anything to answer, though.” In an open society, Montag’s awkward admission to the young woman on the train would merely qualify him as socially inept, that is, as someone that lacks all social graces. But because he is an automaton regulated by a suffocating state, his response, “I can’t promise to think of anything to answer, though,” takes on a gravity that can only be described as pitiful. It is important to realize that he does not say, “I don’t have anything to say” now, at this moment, but rather “I can’t promise to think…”
She asks him what “Fahrenheit 451” that he has on his collar means. He tells her that it is the temperature at which paper catches fire. She then asks him if it is true that a long time ago firemen actually put out fires and not burn books, instead. His response is genuine, even though pitiful: “Put fires out? Who told you that? What a strange idea?” The young woman’s natural curiosity does not faze Montag. He is clearly stunned to hear that there are people who think as she does. She then asks him: “Why do you burn books?” His answer could not be more nonchalant: “A job like any other? We burn them to ashes and then burn the ashes. That’s our motto.” He tells her that people read books “precisely because it is forbidden. Books make people unhappy. Books disturb people. They make them anti-social.”
Montag’s eventual curiosity about books is indirectly fired by his wife, Linda (Julie Christie), a modern day automaton. When Montag begins to discover that reality is much more complicated than the mere dictate of a totalitarian council, only then does he realize how much work his newfound loneliness entails. Alfred North Whitehead makes this point clear when he writes in Modes of Thought:
In other words, reaction to the environment is not in proportion to clarity of sensory experience. Any such doctrine would sweep away the whole of modern physical science as being expressed in terms of irrelevancies. Reaction does not depend upon sense experiences for its initiation.
When Montag goes home he finds his zombie wife watching television – again. The program is bombastic and propagandistic. Montag is not taken in by the stupidity that he witnesses coming from the daily television broadcasts. The television commentator has the following to say about the enemies of the public peace:
Today’s figure for operations in urban areas alone account for the elimination of a total of 2,750 pounds of conventional editions; 826 first editions, and 17 pounds of manuscripts were also destroyed. 23 anti-social elements were detained pending re-education.
The “anti-social” elements in question are readers. These television broadcasts are important to the film early on because they eventually force Montag to seek the truth on his own. It is interesting to note that these same “anti-social” book readers are currently arrested in Cuba, for organizing public libraries that operate out of private homes. As for the re-education part of the broadcast, this is a staple of control and humiliation that is currently being emulated in free and open democracies.
The next day we witness Montag back at work. Montag teaches the technique of book searching inside homes because “to learn to find, we must first learn how to hide.” Montag is summoned to the Chief’s office where he is to be considered for a promotion. There we see the cynical Chief asking Montag personal questions that have no bearing on his qualifications whatsoever. The Chief primes Montag as to the nature of being a fireman. In one very revealing moment the Chief tells Montag: “Keep them busy and you keep them happy. That’s what matters.” And later, after he asks Montag more questions he tells him: “Montag has one quality that I appreciate greatly, he says very little.”
One day after work Montag arrives home and begins reading The Personal History of David Copperfield by Dickens. We are struck by the lack of sophistication in his reading ability. When he opens the book he does not discriminate between the title and publisher information. He reads aloud and very slowly, like a child who is learning to read. Gabriel Marcel argues that the toil of daily life in a modern, open society, much less in the stale air of totalitarian oppression naturally assuages our ability to communicate with ourselves by offering endless distractions. He writes in Tragic Wisdom and Beyond:
Many of us know from experience how one can come to grips with himself in calm and solitude. But that happens only if one enjoys a certain inner permanence, and present conditions of life, the influence of radio and television especially, tend to obliterate any performance of this kind and kind and, as Max Picard has seen so clearly, replace it with a discontinuity to which one may at first merely submit but which one ends up demanding.
As Montag reads David Copperfield there is a cut to a scene of the firemen raiding a park and searching elderly women and babies. The juxtaposing of Montag’s innocence while reading, and the Chief’s aggressiveness in searching a baby goes a long way in explaining Montag’s growing discomfort with his job. This innocence is further explored when Clarisse, the young woman that Montag met on the train follows him to work to tell him that she has been fired from her job. Montag cannot bring himself to believe that this has happened. He then accompanies her to her school to talk to the principal.
Montag begins to live the same duplicitous life that all readers must live in order to survive. As night falls Linda comes out of the bedroom to discover Montag sitting at the kitchen table reading a book. She then rummages through a closet and finds the rest of the books that Montag has hidden. She confronts him: “I don’t want these things in the house. They frighten me,” she tells him. He then tells her: “You spend your whole life with your “family” on the wall. These books are my family.” But Montag’s complete turnaround does not take place until the firemen go to an elderly woman’s house and raid her library. When the Chief discovers the woman’s library he gasps with sinister excitement. He tells Montag that that is a rare moment in the life of a firemen. Here we see the worst of human nature bobbling up to the surface of life: calumny, spite, envy, and a clearly defined herd instinct. The Chief tells Montag, “Go on Montag. All this philosophy. Let’s get rid of it. It’s even worse than the novels. Thinkers, philosophers all of them saying exactly the same thing, only I am right, the others all idiots. One section they tell you that man’s destiny is predetermined, the next says that he has freedom of choice. It’s just a matter of fashion that’s all. Just like short dresses this year, long dresses next year.” The Chief continues to demonstrate his shallow, totalitarian self when he continues: “ It’s no good Montag. We’ve all got to be alike. The only way to be happy is for everyone to be equal. So, we must burn the books.”
Montag’s expression becomes one of horror when he cannot believe that the woman who owns the books will not leave her house and is willing to die with her books. He can’t believe that the woman is murdered by the firemen for owning books. Montag’s mounting frustration finally boils over when he comes home and finds his wife and three of her friends mesmerized by the television. He goes up to them and tells them: “You’re just zombies. You’re not living, you’re just killing time.” He then storms over to the television set and turns it off. This is a moment when he can no longer allow himself to be confused by pseudo reality. He goes back to the living room and tells the women: “When an old woman chooses to be burned with her books rather than be separated from them…” He says this is in reference to the sheer stupidity that he sees before him. When one of the women has the audacity to tell him, “Don’t be silly Montag. Things like that don’t happen” he replies by telling them, “You mean you don’t hear about it. I saw it.” Yet his words do not steer up a response, except disbelief, and in a rather pitiful but comedic moment Linda asks him if he is alright.
Montag’s new sense of reality finally unravels when Linda asks him: “What about the promotion?” and he answers, “My promotion? That was before.” Montag goes to Clarisse’s house, after he has a nightmare about her. But her house is condemned. A neighbor tells him that she has been taken away because she was “different,” as the neighbor points at all the homes with television antennas.
Consider the case of Gao Xingjian, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner in literature. Mr. Xingjian was awarded the Nobel Prize for “the bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity in his writing about the struggle for individuality in mass culture.” Xingjian, like so many other faceless, nameless writers had to burn his writing during Mao Tse-Tung’s Cultural Revolution due to their content, which was critical of the regime. About his books, which have not been available in China after his being expelled from the country, Xingjian writes,
In China, I could not trust anyone, not even my family. The atmosphere was so poisoned, people were so brainwashed that even someone from your own family could turn you in.
The end of the film acts as a study in disenchantment. When Montag tells the Chief that he is resigning, he is told to go on just one more mission. It turns out that the house that the Chief is taking Montag to visit is Montag’s home. Montag greets Linda at the door as she leaves with her bags. She merely tells him, “I couldn’t bear it. I just couldn’t bear it.” Of course, this seems an easy move on her part given that Linda had never intimated any notion of love or tenderness toward Montag. As the Chief burns Montag’s books, he asks him cynically, “What did Montag hope to get out of all this print, happiness?” Truffaut’s close up shots of the books burning is a marvel of filmmaking that would paralyze any bibliophile in disbelief.
Montag burns the Chief in a moment of self-defense and flees into the countryside to meet up with the “book people” that Clarisse has told him about. This is an act of defection. One of the book people shows Montag’s presumed capture on television. The arrest that is shown on television is meant for mass consumption to demonstrate that the state always wins. Of course, the person that they shoot down is not Montag, but he will have to do. After all, this is a closed society where the state has rewritten history and thus has the final word as to what is real.