"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
“And when they ask us what we're doing, you can say, We're remembering.”
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Since its publication in 1953, many have perceived the underlying message of Fahrenheit 451 to be about censorship. Ray Bradbury, however, insisted his intention was to portray a society so enslaved by the latest technology – in this case television – that it rendered reading obsolete. Both perspectives are relevant today, considering books continue to be challenged and banned, while digital technology renders libraries and physical media increasingly less important. Why bother taking up space with actual books when digital media fits in your pocket? What’s unsettling – at least to Bradbury and bibliophiles like him – is that the convenience of this tech threatens the tangible ritual of reading. Sixty-five years after his love letter to literature, there are, thankfully, no signs of reading becoming obsolete. However, in an era where e-books and audiobooks are rapidly replacing volumes on a shelf, a future where technology extinguishes the demand for physical books doesn’t seem so unimaginable.
In the future of Fahrenheit 451, the law prohibits anyone from owning or reading books. Firemen, like protagonist Guy Montag, are tasked with burning the personal libraries of those unwilling to sacrifice these precious commodities. Without books, society’s window to the outside world consists of banal interactive programming projected on wall-to-wall television screens. Literature in all its forms is destroyed on the basis that its contents are offensive and the root of unhappiness. In this dystopia, the fact that books expose readers to knowledge of lives and worlds beyond their own is considered a negative instead of a positive. It is the older generations who remember the value of books, in turn, making nostalgia and memory the heroes of the story. The “book people” have memorized every word, becoming “dust jackets” for forbidden volumes until the day they can be shared and printed again. Montag takes his place among this tribe, stepping over the divide between those content to live a life spent staring at a screen to join those intent on preserving knowledge.
François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation wastes no time immersing us in a world where words are the enemy. Replacing the opening credits with narration instead of text, he forbids even the audience to read. This tactic appears again in the form of newspapers “read” by Montag (Oskar Werner), containing storyboards of colorful images like wordless comic strips. Aside from a few simple oddities – like automatic doors and a fire pole the men slide up as swiftly as they slide down – Truffaut avoids the use of gimmicks and special effects, focusing instead on the conflict within Montag, and his increasing doubts about his job. In this totalitarian society, it’s striking to see how a freedom we’ve taken for granted our entire lives becomes a punishable offense. In a pivotal moment for Montag, an old woman refuses to leave before the firemen torch the contraband in her home. "These books were alive,” she says. “They spoke to me." Lighting her own match in an act of defiance, she is engulfed in flames, burning with the pages of her beloved books.
Truffaut’s adaptation is fascinating even with its changes and subtle futuristic aesthetic. Yet, in the case of this particular book the film’s omissions are more profound, considering they prove Bradbury’s point that literature offers something more substantial than anything we view on a screen. The missing mechanical hound can be forgiven since the threat is largely replaced by Captain Beatty (Cyril Cusack) and the firemen. But even as the villain of the tale, Beatty seems reluctant to let go of the past. Constantly quoting passages from books he can’t – or won’t – forget suggests there’s conflict even in the most diligent disciples of this society.
One essential character missing from the film is Faber. A mentor to Montag, Faber represents the generation that remembers the value of the written word, despite being too much of a coward to fight against the system. Truffaut combines Faber with Clarisse (Julie Christie) in a number of ways, ultimately, by allowing her to live, rescuing her from the mysterious death Bradbury inflicts on her early in the book. It’s Clarisse that fans the flames of Montag’s doubt, intriguing him with dreamy ideas about the world passed down to her from a well-read uncle. In contrast, Montag’s wife, Linda – Mildred in the book – represents the stagnant reality of life for those who conform to the rules. A shell of a woman, she is placated by pills and immersed night in day in the “family.” In the film, both women are played by the same actress, representing quite literally the reality of choosing between one way of life and the other.
Over the years Fahrenheit 451 has become a testament to the sanctity of not only the act of reading, but the importance of cultivating physical works of literature. When one of his books was challenged or banned, Bradbury would encourage teachers and librarians to keep putting them back on the shelf. The philosophy being that you win by never allowing them to be forgotten. In our digital age, the ritual of holding a tangible work of literature in one’s hands and breathing in the fragrant history of its pages is becoming more and more precious. The fight in our future involves the conservation of literature in its physical form. Bradbury’s classic is a commentary on what happens when new technology replaces something society once held dear. What is important is that we remember its value in the first place. That we remember the significance of buildings housing volumes of infinite knowledge upon their shelves. It’s important that books continue to be consumed by those seeking knowledge and not by those intent on destroying them. As the author once said, “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Keep putting them back on the shelves.