By Lisa Sorg
In the political firestorm over Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11, Ray Bradbury inevitably entered the fray. The 84-year-old author recently told journalist Andrea Mitchell that, in naming the film, Moore "stole the title, and I want it back."
Regardless of Mitchell's line of questioning, Bradbury reiterated his point, prattling on like someone who had tippled too much dandelion wine.
Apparently, Moore didn't violate Bradbury's copyright: If he had, Bradbury's lawyer would be talking, not Bradbury. Moreover, Moore might have done him a favor: Perhaps people will discover - or rediscover - Bradbury's ominous, chilling novel Fahrenheit 451, named for the temperature at which book paper burns.
Although it has appeared on scores of high school reading lists, many people are unfamiliar with Fahrenheit 451. Published in 1953, the book's exploration of censorship and defiance resonated not only during the Cold War, when it could be interpreted either as an indictment of communism or a warning of an impending technocracy, but it also captures the zeitgeist of the 21st century, when groupthink supplants dissent and commerce substitutes for the exchange of ideas.
The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a futuristic fireman who instead of extinguishing flames with water, burns books with kerosene. Owning printed material is punishable by jail time or even death, yet the power of the word is irresistible: Slowly, Montag grows curious about the tomes he torches, and before the paper turns to ash, he glimpses a line or a word - enough to pique his interest. Secretly, he begins to collect books.
After he immolates a book-hording woman, his wife attempts suicide, and the government snuffs out an iconoclastic neighbor girl, Montag figures he has nothing to lose. He looks up a reclusive academic, Faber, whom he had once encountered in a park. The elderly English professor advises Montag to flee to the countryside and join a group of exiled, raggedy intellectuals, who have memorized books or chapters to keep the works alive. "Bums on the outside; libraries on the inside," one of them says.
This is good advice, because when friends of Montag's wife snitch on him for his book stash, he's forced to incinerate his own home. In a fit of rage, Montag turns the flamethrower on his boss, Chief Beatty, killing him.
Although Bradbury has insisted that Fahrenheit 451 isn't political, in the novel the unnamed country wages an atomic war. If considered in the framework of current events, Montag is explaining why "they" hate us: "Is it because we're having so much fun at home we've forgotten the world? Is it because we're so rich and the rest of the world's so poor and we just don't care if they are?"
Fahrenheit 451's subtext warns of a future comprised of vacant, obedient consumers. One could argue that some of Bradbury's prophecies have been fulfilled. "If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to question to worry him," waxes Beatty, the pyromaniac fire chief, 50 years before Republicans and Democrats became indistinguishable. "Give him one."
In the book, architects have eliminated front porches to prevent people from conversing. In a modern subdivision, a house with a front porch is as rare as a homeowners' association that allows an '81 Monte Carlo up on blocks. "Parlor" room walls transmit scenes from other people's lives, not unlike our 60-inch plasma screens beaming reality shows.
Despite differences in medium and message, Bradbury's and Moore's works occasionally parallel each other: Fahrenheit 451 deals with censorship; Moore contends Disney, the film's original distributor, censored Fahrenheit 9/11.
In the book's most prescient scene - an allusion to our current political climate - Faber tells Montag: "Remember that the captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom - the solid, unmoving cattle of the majority." •
By Lisa Sorg