Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Fahrenheit 451

(UK, 1966)

Science fiction movies from this era are usually a mixed bag, at best. Most of them totally suck. A very few have something intelligent to say. I thought this one was a little of both. It was not a happy production, François Truffaut being uncomfortable working in English, a language he never did master, and Oskar Werner behaving like a prima donna asshole most of the time. The screenplay is pedestrian, simplistic, hammering you over the head with its “message.” I’ve always thought the ending was pretty silly (I know, some people find it inspiring) with people “becoming” books, memorizing them and then burning them. Makes a lot more sense to microfilm millions of them rather than memorize a few hundred. And it’s a chancy proposition; what if you die while the kid learning your book is only on Chapter Ten? What if it’s a murder mystery? The solution is lost forever!

That said, the movie is miles above most of what was being made at the time. Julie Christie is always good, and she is here. And there is a really startling thing right at the very beginning. The credits are spoken, not printed. In fact, other than the words printed in books, there is no written language at all in the whole movie.

Extensive changes were made. Major things like eliminating the robot hounds that sniffed out books … probably because it was beyond the technical abilities of SFX at the time to make something that wasn’t ridiculous, like the four policemen in a really terrible traveling matte shot hovering in the air with the supporting wires fully visible. Minor things, like the nuclear war at the climax. (Okay, kidding, that’s not so minor.) I did like the look of it. They found a totally retro monorail in France, which only really ran for a mile or so but looks good. The fire trucks, though silly and impractical, look great, which is more important than plausibility in a film like this.

Ray Bradbury lived a long time after this was made, and had multiple chances to comment extensively about it. Mostly, he was happy. I read some of it at Wiki, along with a synopsis of the book to refresh my memory. He was writing during the McCarthy era of witch-hunting, and the book was a reaction to all that horror. He had this to say about the notion that we really might start outlawing and burning books:

Bradbury described himself as “a preventor of futures, not a predictor of them.” He did not believe that book burning was an inevitable part of our future; he wanted to warn against its development.

I heartily endorse that. I have felt for a long time that the record of SF writers in predicting the future is spotty, at best, and downright terrible at worst. Sure, we predicted space travel, but to anyone who knew the science involved that was a no-brainer. We missed all the big stuff, and who could fault us? Who could have predicted the transistor, the integrated circuit, the incredible power of home computers and the Internet? No one, that’s who.

However, take a look at this, also from Wiki:

Sensing Montag’s concerns, Beatty recounts how books lost their value and where the firemen fit in: Over the course of several decades, people embraced new media, sports, and a quickening pace of life. Books were ruthlessly abridged or degraded to accommodate a short attention span while minority groups protested over the controversial, outdated content perceived to be found in books. The government took advantage of this and the firemen were soon hired to burn books in the name of public happiness.

Holy freakin’ Christmas cakes!, to quote Alison Hendrix from Orphan Black. Short attention span? Quickening pace of life? Public happiness? We are in the midst of a really radical re-writing of books and of education, and outside of the campuses, no one is really noticing. Just yesterday (8/26/15) a lot of students at Duke announced that they would not read an assigned graphic novel because it dealt with lesbians and thus conflicted with their Christian beliefs. This is just the latest in an escalating assault on education by a generation that seems to believe they are entitled to pass through life without ever being offended, made uncomfortable, disenfranchised, marginalized, or anything else icky. And it is precisely the argument made against books by the fire chief in Fahrenheit 451.

That example was an attack from the right, but the worst offenders in this insanity are from the left. Students are demanding, and compliant administrations and terrified professors are allowing, that the syllabus of every literature and history class be vetted for anything that might upset anyone. This comes in the form of “trigger warnings.” Originally, it seems, these were to alert victims of rape that they might encounter a description of rape in a book, thus triggering at attack of PTSD. This includes a lot of literature, including classics going all the way back to the Greeks.

But now, the warnings are getting broader. I can see a time (and it may already have arrived) when vegan students wish to be warned if there is any mention of killing animals, or of eating meat, in the books they are asked to read. Already students wish to be warned if there is any mention of slavery (very upsetting), or instances of what they are calling “microaggression,” which means remarks that can be seen as racist (it’s entirely up to the reader to decide), even if the person making the remark intended no such thing.

This is the minefield educators are stumbling through in today’s classrooms. Any moment some African-American, Asian, Native American, Hispanic American, lesbian, white, Muslim, or Christian person may file a complaint over something you said, to which they took offense. This is happening. And it’s getting worse. I can easily see it escalating from warnings, to actual expurgation.

Far-fetched? I don’t think so. I could write pages and pages about this idiocy and the terrible effects it is having on education … and maybe I will sometime, but not today.