Hold Fast to the Good: Fahrenheit 451, the Love of Books, and the Value of People

 Photo by  Paul Bulai  on  Unsplash

Photo by Paul Bulai on Unsplash

The recent HBO adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 attempts to update the classic story of censorship and entertainment run amok in light of new technology and our ubiquitous social media culture. It’s a laudable effort, and Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon put a memorable twist on Guy Montag and Captain John Beatty. I’ve always been a bit skeptical, however, about the wisdom of adapting this particular book to film, given its overt critiques on the logic and deficiencies of a spectacle-driven society. There’s just something odd about using a screen—big or small—to bemoan the decline of the written word’s cultural primacy of place. Even still, Bradbury himself approved of François Truffaut’s 1966 version, and critics have made a compelling case that the film’s visuals pay homage to the book’s role in shaping an inviting and hospitable world, one much more attractive and life-giving than the mechanical world of the firemen charged with burning them.

My reservations about the film versions notwithstanding, I have to admit that one scene, powerful in the book and brilliantly captured by each adaptation, dramatically and memorably depicts the central conflict of the story. It is a scene that has stuck with me from my first encounter with Bradbury’s story and that readily comes to mind when I think of what it means to take one’s commitments seriously. When one has recognized the value of a thing or person, what obligations does that recognition entail? As Bradbury’s story suggests, the greater the value, the higher the price.

Montag’s crew raid a house on an anonymous tip. There they find it overflowing with books—illegal all. As they enter the house, they find one lone woman sitting at a desk; in the recent version she reads John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, unmoved by her unexpected visitors. The firemen search the house, and room after room is overrun with books. They are stacked floor to ceiling in piles that crowd tables, bookshelves, and chairs. This “regular Tower of Babel”—as Beatty calls it—is so jam-packed that the banned materials leave only a small path for the men to walk through.

These books—any books—are an offense to the futuristic America Bradbury has imagined. They require too much time, provoke too much thought, and unsettle easy answers. True-believer Beatty expounds on the dangers inherent in making these writings freely available: “Do you want to know what’s inside all these books? Insanity. . . . One expert screaming down another expert’s throat. . . . Each one says the opposite, and a man comes away lost, feeling more bestial and lonely than before.” This forbidden fruit—Beatty suggests—dazzles with promises to unlock the secrets of the universe but leaves readers more disoriented and confused than before. Happiness, on this worldview, comes from being spoon-fed the knowledge needed to get along: “If you don’t want a person unhappy, you don’t give them two sides of a question.” In fact, you don’t give them a question at all.  

The stronger Beatty makes his case against books, the more intrigued about them Montag becomes; he snags one and tucks it into his coat before the others are doused with kerosene. As the house is readied to burn, Montag tries to get the occupant to leave. But she remains steadfast, defiant in the face of the firemen’s destruction. Montag’s conscience has been pricked: “Are we just going to leave her?” he asks as Beatty says to let her be. Coldly, the captain gives her one last chance to avoid the fate destined for her books: “Look, miss, do what you like, but you know as well as I do that these books are gonna burn.”

And then comes one of the most memorable scenes of the story: the woman stands atop a pile of kerosene-soaked books, opens her jacket to reveal additional books strapped to her waist, pulls out a single match, which she strikes and drops to the floor. She has done the firemen’s job for them, willing to die for the books she cherishes. Bradbury elevates this sacrifice, making it akin to religious devotion, by having her allude to the apocryphal last words of Protestant martyr Hugh Latimer (Oxford, 1563): “Play the man,” she says, a line concluded by Latimer with the hope that his present suffering will one day be rewarded: “We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

What makes this scene so memorable is the deep conviction readers and viewers sense in the woman’s commitment to her books. She values them so highly that, for her, they are worth her very life. Coming after Beatty’s denigration of books as societal troublemakers, responsible for all manner of unrest, the woman’s sacrifice is all the more poignant; clearly she thinks otherwise and hopes her immolation will convince viewers of the raid’s livestream to challenge the status quo, to give books a chance. And of course if someone is willing to give her life for the cause, anything so intuitively significant and sacrificial certainly merits close attention. Even if her strategy doesn’t seal the deal for those watching the fire, it might at least give them pause to reconsider the party line. It does just that for Montag and sets him on a rebellious course.  

But as memorable as the scene is, the question of the source of the value of these books remains unanswered—at least in this latest adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. It’s clear that the filmmakers (and characters like this woman) highly prize the written word, but it’s not clear why—what confers on them their worth? Unmoored from any such anchor, the books take on an almost fetishistic role. In a sharp departure from Bradbury’s original story, director and writer Ramin Bahrani introduces an electronic component to the preservation of literature; while the original story relies on an exiled community to memorialize the words behind the written texts, the HBO film entrusts it to technology—a database called OMNIS encoded in a DNA strand and stored inside a bird. Presumably, no matter what human beings do to each other, this literature will live on; the final scene of the film suggests as much, with the bird soaring high above the embattled city. These precious books have left humanity behind and are no longer subjected to their depraved machinations.

In Bradbury’s version, the opposite is true: the written word itself falls away, and is now imprinted in the memories of the “book people” who have each undertaken to memorize whole books in a throwback to the world of oral culture. The books have been more deeply internalized than before, and community is essential to their survival. While Bradbury never explores any locus of value beyond this human community, he seems to recognize what the filmmakers do not: that these texts cannot stand on their own and absorb any significant amount of devotion without something inherently valuable to underwrite them. For Bradbury, books themselves are primarily a vehicle for human creativity and an extension of the mind of the creator him or herself.

To censor or otherwise destroy them means more than physical annihilation of the material text: it’s to dishonor and degrade the people behind the writings. It’s also to stamp out the good these reflections on the human condition and our world can offer readers now. The figure of Faber, who is notably absent in the newest version, beautifully articulates the connection: “It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books. . . . The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us. . . . This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion.” Admittedly, Bradbury’s framework needs expanding a bit, undergirding the temporal human community with an eternal source of ultimate value—something that classical theism readily provides I should note, but he at least gestures in that direction.