Thursday, June 7, 2012

The realness of Ray Bradbury

Posted By on 06.07.12 at 11:11 AM

Oskar Werner as Guy Montag
  • Everett Collection / Rex Feature
  • Oskar Werner as Guy Montag
Since learning Ray Bradbury has passed away, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what made him great. My thoughts quickly led me to my first exposure to his work, which was, like most people, in a high school English class. I believe it was sophomore year when my class was assigned Fahrenheit 451. Most of my classmates claimed to loathe it, so, in an effort to appear "cool," I followed suit. In secret, however, I found it fascinating. This was usually the case for me back then—during my freshman year, I very clearly remember telling a friend that I had yet to read a single page of Lord of the Flies because it seemed so boring, even though I’d devoured the entire thing the weekend before.

But in thinking back to our reading of Fahrenheit 451, I suddenly remembered that we’d watched Francois Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation once our work on the book was finished. This sort of thing was typical of my high school, as I’m sure it is for most high schools: read a classic novel, write a paper about it, and then watch the movie. Par for the course. But Truffaut’s film struck me as strange back then, and in some ways, it still does now.

The reason it struck me as so strange was because of how real it felt. My conception of sci-fi cinema at that point was leveled somewhere between the genre exercises of Alien and Star Wars. Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 is science fiction in name only. It uses genre as a template, but never alludes to the idea that the images onscreen are otherworldly. Even at 15, I could see the wheels of Truffaut’s larger intentions spinning.

In watching the film today, it’s obvious that the realism of Truffaut’s film lies in its comment on autocratic ideologies removing the possibility for true individualism. This theme is very much present in Bradbury's novel, but Truffaut's realization has been misunderstood for decades. For instance, Nicholas Roeg’s infamously flat cinematography, frequently cited as one of the film’s largest failings, is perhaps its greatest asset. The drabness of the visuals is indicative of a world where knowledge, and the vitality it possesses, is forbidden and therefore absent.

The best sequences of the film, however, are those in which we see actual novels being burned. The titles Truffaut burns include The Brothers Karamazov, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Peau de Chagrin, and Mein Kampf—these among dozens of what appear to be curiously selected titles. (He even throws in an issue of Cahiers du Cinema, a telling omen.) The randomness of these books presents a contradiction: Certainly a film that condemns totalitarianism wouldn’t sympathize with the burning of Mein Kampf. But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1991, artist Rob Couteau asked Bradbury what the opening of the East Bloc meant for sci-fi. His answer immediately justifies Truffaut’s film:

I don’t think [The Berlin Wall] will affect [sci-fi] much . . . We’ve always talked about freedom; we’ve always talked about totalitarian governments. After all, Fahrenheit 451 is all about Russia, and all about China, isn’t it? And all about the totalitarians anywhere: either left or right, doesn’t matter where they are; they’re book burners, all of them. And so, Fahrenheit will continue to be a read book, by people all over the world. Because there are still totalitarian governments. And book burners.

Thanks to the rise of tablet computers and e-readers, the printed word, as we know it, appears to be on the way out. The best sci-fi art is prophetic; here in the 21st century, it’s hard to label Bradbury and his work anything but. Truffaut, meanwhile, can't be called a prophet, but I think he saw the writing on the wall.

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