Retro-watch: Fahrenheit 451, on burning books and remembering stories

Deepanjana Pal

Sep 26, 2013 20:18:02 IST

It’s Banned Books Week, which is a good reason to re-watch the legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut’s only English film, Fahrenheit 451. Written in 1953 and adapted for film by Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard in the 1960s, it’s unnerving to see how accurately Truffaut and Bradbury imagined the future (i.e. our present).

The homes and streets are ordinary-looking, but the standardised, blocky architecture would have struck the film’s first audiences as very modern. Much like the monorail, these visuals are normal to us today. It’s when we look inside that the sense of familiarity becomes really unnerving. The living rooms are dominated by massive flat screens that stretch across the walls. Beaming from these televisions are interactive programmes. People watch programmes on portable screens with headsets before going to bed. They pop pills, almost without thinking. Sliding doors sense a person standing before them and open/close automatically.

Amidst all the technological sophistication in the world of Fahrenheit 451 is one primitive but critical aspect of this society:  books are burnt. Here, firemen don’t put out fires; they start them. Their only job is to hunt out books and set them aflame. Their office and uniforms have ‘451’ emblazoned upon them because 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which book paper burns. Their motto is “We burn them (books) to ashes and then burn the ashes”.

Retro-watch: Fahrenheit 451, on burning books and remembering stories

A screengrab from the youtube.

The hero of Fahrenheit 451 is Montag (Oskar Werner), a firemen. He’s law-abiding, good at his job and delights in burning books during work hours. After work, he comes home to his wife, the beautiful Linda. For Linda (Julie Christie), the world is contained in the television at which she stares happily and constantly. She, like everyone else (though not Montag), pops pills that sedate and dull the mind into comfortably acquiescing to this unstimulating life.

This ordered existence is unsettled when Montag meets a young woman named Clarisse (also played by Christie). She's full of life, unafraid of Montag's uniform and even has the temerity to discuss books with him. In a monorail compartment of bland, bored faces, Clarisse is charmingly vibrant. During their first meeting, Clarisse and Montag have this exchange:

Clarisse: Then why do some people read them [books] even though they’re so dangerous?

Montag: Precisely because it is forbidden.

Clarisse: Why is it forbidden?

Montag: Because it made people unhappy. .. Books disturb people, they make them anti-social.

Made curious by Clarisse who asked him if he’d ever been tempted to read one of the books he burnt, Montag smuggles one back home after work. It’s David Copperfield and that night, while his wife sleeps, Montag reads the novel. Soon, he’s squirrelling more books away in his home. As he reads, he’s amazed by how much is contained in the pages of these banned objects. He starts realising how little people around him know and how stunted they are emotionally as a result of being bereft of books.

The tipping point for Montag is a suicide. An old woman cheerfully burns herself along with her books, rather than let the firemen arrest her and destroy her library. Montag’s horror at this violent incident is in stark contrast to those of his colleagues, who are unmoved. He decides to resign from his job, but unbeknownst to Montag, there is a net closing around him. First, Clarisse disappears. Then Linda, creeped out by Montag’s growing book collection and his nightly reading, reports their home to the fire department. And so, Montag’s last assignment is to burn his own books.

Playing on the imagery of the phoenix, Truffaut shows Montag destroy his entire house with fire, beginning with his marriage bed, then the television that is the emblem of this dystopia, his books and finally his boss, The Captain. Everything that made up Montag’s world and value system is aflame and the only thing that emerges out of the conflagration is Montag himself. He runs away to the secluded forest where the Book People live.

The Book People are exiles who have devoted themselves to literature. They too burn books, but only after the book has been memorised, in its entirety, by someone. The written word turns into the spoken word in order to survive (pre-empting, in some ways, the audio book). One of the most poignant scenes in Fahrenheit 451 shows a dying man helping his young nephew memorise a book, gently reminding him of a missed word and filling the boy’s memory with the cadence of the story to which the old man has devoted his life. In the human library that is the colony of the Book People, Montag finds a place for himself as he memorises Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Truffaut injected almost every frame and every moment of Fahrenheit 451 with symbolism that you can’t miss and yet, it doesn’t feel preachy. From the colours used in the scenes to the books Montag reads and the way he wears his bathrobe, every detail is carefully orchestrated to show the tussle between thought authoritarian control and free thinking.

For example, the film has no written credits. Instead, the credits are read out at the beginning of the film while the camera zooms into luridly colourful photographs of television antennae. After the credits, Truffaut shows us a raid. A young man is in his apartment. He bites into an apple, the fateful fruit that brought knowledge and exile from Eden for Adam and Eve, and a phone call alerts him to the firemen’s imminent arrival. He escapes in the nick of time.

A striking scene in this opening episode is the burning of the books. It’s an elaborate ritual, reminiscent almost of public hangings or being burnt at the stake. (Incidentally, one of Bradbury’s ancestors was tried for being a witch in Salem, back in the 1500s. She escaped, but the idea of such public spectacles haunted Bradbury and found its way into this novel.)

There’s a uniform for the one who actually sets fire to the books – gloves, a helmet, an chainmail-like shirt – and if you look carefully, you’ll realise that the wearing of the uniform has been filmed in reverse. The other ritual that is filmed in reverse is that of firemen coming down the pole. As a result, Montag and the others are seen sliding up the pole. Subtly, Truffaut uses these instances to suggest this is an unnatural world; one in which the most basic laws of nature has been reversed. Interestingly, after Montag starts reading, he finds he can’t go up the pole anymore and has to take the stairs. He can no longer live in reverse like the others.

Although Fahrenheit 451 was written at the height of McCarthyism in America, when paranoia about a Communist threat led to persecution and mistreatment of many innocents in the country, the power of Bradbury’s novel comes from it not being a political statement but a love letter to literature. Bradbury never went to college and was a self-taught man, a man made in libraries as he put it. In an interview about Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury said, “The real threat is ignorance and the lack of education.” Fahrenheit 451 is an appeal against the ignorance that leads to books being banned.

The film and the book celebrate what makes a book: words and pages – simple elements that can be both unremarkable and brilliant. They have the incredible ability to articulate and contain everything from fluffy frivolity to dense philosophy. Truffaut’s numerous shots of burning pages are painfully beautiful. You can’t look away, even as the pages, curling and blackening, break your heart.

The power of literature comes from the fact that it is, as The Captain says in Fahrenheit 451, “a heap of contradictions.” It can transport you into the world of whimsy and fantasies, but it can also bring you face to face with reality. It’s made up, but it can also be fact. Books are banned in the world of Fahrenheit 451 because they disturb people. Their words and messages make some unhappy, they ruffle feathers. Written by one person, a book can inspire anger, outrage and defensiveness in countless people. It’s to protect society from such destructive forces that books are banned. What are books after all, the Captain observes to Montag, but evidence of massive, individual egos? “There’s nothing there. The books have nothing to say,” says the Captain. “Thinkers, philosophers, all of them saying exactly the same thing: ‘Only I am right! The others are all idiots.’... All they wanted was to satisfy their own vanity.”

It's now another century, but the arguments for banning books remain the same – words can be dangerous; books offend; writers of controversial books are narcissists; bans are for the greater good of society.

Truffaut’s film presents literature’s as a cultural keepsake. Simple or complex, realistic or surreal, fact or fiction, words and stories are a record of how the human imagination has arrived at its present form. As Montag says of his nightly reading ritual, “I’ve got to catch up with the remembrance of the past.” Truffaut and Bradbury suggest literature is like the mythical phoenix, which had healing powers and could rise out of its own ashes. Both fragile and resilient, literature seems simple enough to stifle. Ban it, and it disappears. Burn it, as libraries have been in every civilization, and all that remains are ashes. But if a book has been read even once, it survives, even if only as a fragment, in memory. It’s passed on when someone shares that memory, and in this way, literature survives. It transforms, spilling its stories into different art forms, like cinema and painting. As long as there is memory, there is literature.

As we come to the end of Banned Books Week, it’s a fitting moment to remember that ideas can’t be banned. The only way to wipe out an idea is by exploring it, analysing it and dismantling it with an argument that is more persuasive. There’s no doubt that books are problematic, as the residents of Truffaut’s dystopia point out. They make you cry, they fill your head with rubbish, they make you dream. But it’s because they are problematic that they are so cherished. They are testaments to how our imaginations have evolved, the way we’ve examined the world around us and how we’ve harnessed our understanding of reality. Good, bad, boring, thrilling – books, and the tales they tell, are the most precious part of us as a society. And all it takes to threaten it is ignorant anger and a flame that is 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

Updated Date: Sep 26, 2013 20:18:02 IST