In these posts, I cover each of Ray Bradbury's books, say something about the contents, then pick the best stories and adaptations.
Lockdown Choice #5: Fahrenheit 451
|First edition. Ballantine books, 1953. Cover art by Joe Mugnaini.
The BookFahrenheit 451 is legendary. A presentation of a dystopian future, it is sometimes considered alongside other classic dystopias such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Its central conceit - that those in charge have banned all books because of the dangerous ideas found in some of them - has great resonance, since censorship has so many times been a defining characteristic of real-life oppressive regimes. That one central idea, providing a great "what if...?", would be enough for most novelists, but Bradbury ties it to other ideas which continue to fascinate us, such as our willingness to be manipulated by the media, and our tendency to turn to addictive substances. Every time you think Fahrenheit must be rendered obsolete because its world has become impossible in real life, real life has a way of making the book all too relevant again.
And yet the book you can buy today is not the same as the original Fahrenheit 451.
The original volume in hardcover from Ballantine, published in October 1953, contained three stories: Fahrenheit itself, plus "The Playground" and "And the Rock Cried Out". It was a story collection, rather than a novel. And you can see why this might be: Fahrenheit 451 is a mere 46,000 words long, and barely counts as a novel; it is really a novella, longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. But Ballantine's paperback edition published that same year (which is technically the second edition) dropped the other two stories, leaving Fahrenheit to stand alone. And this is mostly how you will find Fahrenheit 451 today.
Find out how Fahrenheit 451 mutated from a story collection into a standalone novel in myBradbury 101 video below. And scroll further down the page for more on the evolution of the book.
If you've been following these blog posts, you'll know by now that Bradbury's four previous books were all short story collections (The Martian Chronicles looks like a novel, but is made up from a bunch of short stories). And so it should come as no surprise that his first "novel", Fahrenheit, is an expansion of a shorter work, "The Fireman".
|"The Fireman" - the first appearance of Montag's story. Galaxy magazine, 1951.
"The Fireman" sure reads a lot like Fahrenheit 451, and that's because Bradbury ported nearly all of it over into the longer work. But he also added some material - a lot of really good material. The whole business of Mildred and her substance abuse is new to the longer work, and so is the implied critique of television. In other words, two of the three thematic strands which have given Fahrenheit its longevity and ongoing relevance come from Bradbury's re-writing of his earlier short story.
When I worked on my PhD a couple of years ago, this was one of the features of Bradbury's writing that fascinated me: his tendency to re-write and re-visit earlier works, and to uncover (or generate, I suppose) gold in those re-writings. My own fascination is with how he does this in his adaptations between media - how he re-works a story when he adapts it for film - but his re-writing of prose works follows a similar pattern.
Bradbury's view on re-writing was somewhat mixed, in his public utterances at least. On the one hand he strongly advocated a two-stage process to writing, which he sometimes described vividly as "throw up in the morning, clean up at noon". The first stage of writing should be completely unrestrained, letting the imagination and the typing fingers run wild. But then there should be a second stage, where the intellect is engaged. It is here that the writer can apply some analysis to what has emerged during the first stage, and impose structure and order on what might otherwise have been random verbiage.
But on the other hand, Bradbury claimed that he didn't believe in re-writing his younger self. He let his works stand as first published, warts and all. Except... The October Country was a re-written and re-edited Dark Carnival... and he pulled stories out of collections that he didn't think fit any more, and added new ones in... and he really enjoyed taking an earlier short story and turning it into a play, or taking one of his film scripts and turning it into a novel...
The roots of Fahrenheit go back even further than 1951's "The Fireman". Jon Eller, in the book Match to Flame: the Fictional Paths to Fahrenheit 451 (ed. by Donn Albright, Gauntlet Press 2006) traces the genes of the story all the way back to 1942, and a short story called "Reincarnate". Bradbury worked through all sorts of variations of book-burning, finally arriving at this theme's finest expression in "The Fireman".
Ray Bradbury was aware that Fahrenheit 451 was his masterpiece, at least as far as novels were concerned. His gravestone, which he had carved several years before he died, reads simply "Ray Bradbury - author of Fahrenheit 451."
The StoriesIn this section I usually write about individual stories making up a collection, but in the case of Fahrenheit 451 that doesn't really work. I suppose I could write about the three stories in the first edition of the book, but who has access to the first edition?
Instead, I thought I would write about the best scenes in the book. So let's see how this turns out...
Meeting Clarisse - Clarisse is the most charming character in the book. She's a bit kooky, a bit flaky, very naive, and yet very wise beyond her years. She says she's seventeen and crazy. When the thoroughly institutionalised fireman Montag meets her, his outlook is transformed:
They walked in the warm-cool blowing night on the silvered pavement and there was the faintest breath of fresh apricots and strawberries in the air, and he looked around and realized this was quite impossible, so late in the year.Soon, Montag is brought to a point of self-awareness. He is triggered to question what he does, and is totally floored by Clarisse's last utterance:
She started up her walk. Then she seemed to remember something and came back to look at him with wonder and curiosity.
"Are you happy?" she said.
"Am I what?" he cried.
But she was gone running in the moonlight. Her front door shut gently.
"Happy! Of all the nonsense."
He stopped laughing.
The old woman - The best sequence in the book, in my view, is when Montag and colleagues go on a book burning. An old woman has been found hoarding books, and the instructions are to torch the lot. In gathering the books together, Montag inadvertently finds himself reading brief passages of texts - he has already by this point been shown as being curious about the books that he is forced to burn.
The firemen try to remove the woman from her house, but she refuses to go, causing Montag to wonder why anyone would become so attached to their books. And then comes the flashpoint.
Standing amid piles her books, scattered all around, all of them now soaked in kerosene, the woman pulls out... a match. I've waxed lyrical about the structure of this scene many times before. I marvel at how like a screenplay it is:
Montag placed his hand on the woman's elbow. "You can come with me."
"No," she said. "Thank you, anyway."
"I'm counting to ten," said Beatty. "One. Two."
"Please," said Montag.
"Go on," said the woman.
"Here." Montag pulled at the woman.
The woman replied quietly, "I want to stay here."
"You can stop counting," she said. She opened the fingers of one hand
slightly and in the palm of the hand was a single slender object.
An ordinary kitchen match.
The sight of it rushed the men out and down away from the house. Captain
Beatty, keeping his dignity, backed slowly through the front door, his pink face
burnt and shiny from a thousand fires and night excitements.
I love the way Bradbury's word choices focus the mind's eye like a film camera. Going from the woman; to the opening of her fingers; to the kitchen match; is like a camera going into ever-tighter close-up. And that single-sentence-fragment paragraph, "An ordinary kitchen match" sits alone on the page allowing the eye to absorb its implications, before the helter-skelter reaction of the firemen dashing from the tinderbox house.
The bomb - An ever-present threat in the book, an atomic war finally breaks out near the end. It is the destruction of the city that will, eventually, allow the "book people" to return and re-establish civilisation. But in typical Bradbury fashion, the dropping of the first bomb is focused entirely through Montag's perceptions.
Montag held the bombs in the sky for a single moment, with his mind and his
hands reaching helplessly up at them. "Run!" he cried to Faber. To Clarisse,
"Run!" To Mildred, "Get out, get out of there! " But Clarisse, he remembered,
was dead. And Faber was out; there in the deep valleys of the country somewhere
the five a.m. bus was on its way from one desolation to another. Though the
desolation had not yet arrived, was still in the air, it was certain as man
could make it. Before the bus had run another fifty yards on the highway, its
destination would be meaningless, and its point of departure changed from
metropolis to junkyard.
Get out, run!One of the things that has been bugging Montag is that he can't remember where he met Mildred, his wife. This seems to be a characteristic of Montag's world: in the absence of books and literature, everything has become so ephemeral. People go about their lives without thinking or reflecting. But now, in the climactic destruction of the city, Montag's memory is jolted:
I remember. Montag clung to the earth. I remember. Chicago. Chicago, a long time ago. Millie and I. That's where we met! I remember now. Chicago. A long time ago.
If you ever suggest to me that Bradbury can't write characters, I will tear the pages from Fahrenheit 451 and stuff them into your eyes!
The AdaptationsFahrenheit 451 has been adapted for radio several times, with two dramatisations by BBC radio. The best of these was by David Calcutt, adding some British flavouring to the story by referencing John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress - which turns out to be a pretty good parallel to aspects of Montag's journey. Calcutt also adds to the "oral tradition" elements of Bradbury's story by including a number of nursery rhymes and playground games, the kind of thing we all learn by rote as children.
And of course Fahrenheit has twice made it to the screen. In 1966, François Truffaut directed his own adaptation (co-written with Jean-Louis Richard), starring a multinational cast. Truffaut was by far the biggest-name filmmaker to have so far directed a Bradbury adaptation, and in many ways was an unlikely choice. Except that Truffaut was a bibliophile even more than he was a cinephile, and the concept of Bradbury's novel appealed to him. Truffaut invited Bradbury to write the screenplay, but Ray was burned out from a succession of bad experiences in Hollywood, and declined.
Truffaut originally planned to make Fahrenheit 451 in French, in black and white, with Charles Aznavour (the star of his earlier Shoot the Pianist), but the film was delayed. Eventually American money was secured, and Truffaut instead filmed in England, in English, in colour, and with Austrian actor Oskar Werner in the lead.
Just one problem: Truffaut spoke no English, and had failed repeatedly in his efforts to learn it. And so it was that Truffaut directed through an interpreter. Fortunately co-star Julie Christie and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg both spoke fluent French, and this gave Truffaut an easier ride than he might otherwise have had.
|Truffaut film poster.
At the time of release, Bradbury was very much in love with Truffaut's film, and wrote of the film and the book being reflections of each other. And while Truffaut made a number of changes (eliminating the atomic war, for one thing), there were whole sections where Truffaut brought Bradbury's sequences to detailed life. The "old woman" sequence I discussed above is filmed almost exactly as written, and remains the high point of the movie. Over time, however, Bradbury became publicly critical of the film - despite having lifted a few ideas from Truffaut when writing his own stage play version of Fahrenheit.
Despite decades of talk of new film adaptations from the likes of Mel Gibson and Frank Darabont, Bradbury passed away in 2012 without ever seeing another screen version. When one finally reached the screen in 2018 for HBO, it was something of a curate's egg: good in parts.
Ramin Bahrani, director and co-writer of the 2018 version, came with a solid reputation, but had never worked on anything remotely science fictional. His script smartly updated certain aspects of Fahrenheit's world - managing to make it broadly plausible that books might continue to be important in a world of ebooks and emojis. But a bit of hokey SF (storing books in the DNA of a pigeon) really spoiled Bradbury's practical and philosophical ending.
Find Out More...I wrote about the interplay between Bradbury and FrançoisTruffaut in a journal article, based on my PhD research in the Bradbury archives. You can read it on my Academia page, here.
I wrote about adaptations of Fahrenheit and other Bradbury works in a book chapter. You can read that on my Academia page, too, here.
Listen...I took part in two lively discussions of Fahrenheit and its movie adaptations on the Take Me To Your Reader podcast. Listen to them here... and here.
Listen to David Calcutt's BBC radio adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, here.