The film Fahrenheit 451, directed by Francois Truffaut in 1966, was an adaptation of the novel Fahrenheit 451, written by Ray Bradbury. The story detailed the world in which the main character, Montag, lived. Montag was a fire fighter in a future dystopia; a future where fire fighters do not stop fires, they start them. The fires started were book burnings. They believed that books led to anti-social behavior, therefore needed to be destroyed. Montag, at the beginning, was a faithful believer in this theory about books.
However, as the story progressed, he began to read, and escaped the rigid, censored city in which he lived and traveled to a happier place in the country, where people memorized entire books so the stories could never be taken away from them. Fahrenheit 451 was a story about censorship, the individual versus society, and knowledge versus ignorance. It reflected the attitudes about censorship in America in the 1950s, and mirrors not only the issue of censorship, but also the issue of the individual versus society in today’s American society.
Book burnings have been a part of world culture for centuries. It is under the umbrella of censorship. For example, in the United States today, fairy tales are being sanitized by mediums such as the Disney films. Parents across the nation support the sanitizing of fairy tales because it rids the stories of the “scary” parts, insuring that their children will not suffer from nightmares due to the stories. However, by ridding fairy tales of the “scary” parts, the stories lose their meaning. The stories that once taught children about not only changes within their society, but changes within themselves, have now lost all meaning. This is blatant censorship.
In essence, the same thing happened in Fahrenheit 451. The city’s authorities, the police and the fire department, wanted to rid the city of books, therefore knowledge. Perhaps they were afraid that the common man would become too intelligent. For example, the fire chief seemed afraid of the woman who chose to be burned along with her books. Montag wanted to save her; he insisted that they get her out of the house where the books were going to burn. The woman would not go. She insisted that she be burned with her books, the books that “spoke” to her, the books that she learned from and loved so much.
The film began with a book burning, then moved into the censorship of television. Linda, Montag’s wife, was watching a television show about self-defense. The self-defense techniques shown, however, had minimal contact, was in slow motion, and took place in a padded room. This was akin to the censorship of television in the 1950s. On television shows of that era, such as Leave It to Beaver, there was no violence. There were only lessons to be learned. The television show Linda was watching was reminiscent of these earlier programs.
Every aspect of the film seemed to show the theme of censorship, from the actions of the characters to the appearance of the sets. For example, the fire station and Montag’s house seem sterile, void of life. These settings are sparsely furnished and have bright, even harsh, colors. The doors in Montag’s house open automatically; neither Montag nor Linda have to touch anything. The characters seemed detached from their surroundings. The detached feeling gives the viewer a feeling of loss, a feeling that something is missing. This is the main point of censorship, to take away something. Because of the major theme of censorship, Truffaut most likely intended to create a sense of loss.
Fire plays a large role in the theme of censorship in Fahrenheit 451. The title of the film itself is significant: 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns. The very first image the viewer sees is a fire truck. From the telephone call the man in the first scene received telling him to get out of his apartment immediately, the viewer knew that the fire department was not on its way to put out a fire. The fire department created fires in order to burn books. The public is deprived of literature; the society in which they live is being censored, not only by the fire department, but by the fire itself.
Truffaut went so far as to include the credits at the beginning of the film in the theme of censorship. The credits are spoken aloud, a clever echo of the theme of censorship. In the film, any type of writing was forbidden. Books were burned and newspapers only had pictures. The spoken credits introduce this notion to the viewer immediately. At first, this obvious difference in the credits seemed somewhat odd, however, as the film progressed, the viewer learned why the credits were spoken and not in print.
The censorship theme of Fahrenheit 451 was also reminiscent of Communist fears of the 1950s. People feared that Communism would take away certain freedoms, such as the freedom of speech, which includes media such as literature and television. As depicted in the film, the authorities wanted to restrict the public’s freedom to read.
The theme of knowledge versus ignorance could be seen throughout the film. The characters were stereotyped. The people who read books were intelligent, while the people who did not read were depicted as ignorant, therefore inferior. Because the authorities were among the individuals who did not read, and were therefore inferior, they could not allow the public to be more powerful than themselves. This is shown by the multiple book burnings, and the eventual arrest of those who possessed reading material in their homes.
The authorities were successful in their oppression of those who possessed reading material. Those who were intelligent were either driven out of town, like Clarisse, the woman Montag befriended on the monorail, or killed, like the woman who chose to be burned with her books. This ensured that the authorities would not be overtaken. The authorities, right up until the end of the film, controlled the city.
Around the middle of the story, Montag, once a leader in the fire department and up for a promotion, began to read. After starting his reading, he began to realize that the police and the fire department were depriving citizens of a wonderful experience. Montag decided to quit the fire department, hoping that the fire chief would not find out his reason for quitting his job. However, the fire chief did find out. The books in Montag’s house were burned, but Montag managed to save one.
A scuffle ensued when the fire chief found the books Montag was trying to save. Upset and frightened by the gun the fire chief pulled on him, Montag, holding a fire torch with which he had burned his own books, set the fire chief ablaze. Now on the run for his life, Montag escaped to the countryside, where individuals known as “book people” lived. These people memorized entire books, hoping that one day, the stories they memorized could be written on paper again.
Montag’s enlightenment is when the theme of the individual versus society began to show itself. Montag realized that depriving the citizens of reading material was wrong. Alone, Montag faced the authorities when the entire city was against him. For example, when Montag was trying to get to the countryside, the authorities went through the town in a car with a bullhorn on top, telling the citizens to watch out for Montag, that he was a murderer and needed to be caught. The city turned on a man who was once a respected citizen.
When Montag began reading, society simultaneously began to turn on him. For example, after Montag was up late reading, the next day he was not able to go up the fireman’s pole like he had been able to before. Also, because Montag began reading, the door to his home would no longer open automatically. At first, these changes were subtle, and although they were inconveniences, the changes were not alarming. However, this is when Montag’s life began its downward spiral. Montag’s circumstances because of reading became worse and worse until he had to give up his entire way of life.
A minor theme of the film, the individual versus society showed how one person can make a difference. Montag did not make a difference in his community, but he made a change for himself. He gave up his house, his wife, and his career for what he thought was right. In essence, he gave up his entire way of life. Rarely do people do this for their beliefs today. Americans today are more interested in happiness and success to bother with doing what is right. Had more people in the film acted as Montag had, a major change in the society would have been made.
The individual versus society is an issue in today’s American society. People now look out only for themselves, and largely ignore the rest of society. American life today is about one’s own happiness and success, not the happiness and success of his neighbor. People are always trying to “one up” their neighbors, competing to see who has the bigger house, the fancier car, or the happiest family. However, unlike in Fahrenheit 451, where society was against specific individuals, in today’s American society, individuals seem to be against society.
Although Francois Truffaut clung to the original story written by Ray Bradbury, Truffaut’s film had a decidedly anti-censorship message, whereas Bradbury’s story focused on technology destroying literature. Censorship permeated every aspect of the film, sending the viewer the message that if society keeps censoring excessively, its people will lose many valuable aspects of life. This story is particularly relevant in American society. The government censors television content, and some libraries will not carry certain books, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It is certainly ironic that a story that speaks out so well about anti-censorship and details the horrors of banning books is itself banned in some libraries.
The themes of censorship, the individual versus society, and knowledge versus ignorance are prevalent throughout the film. These issues have plagued American society from the time the story was written and can even be seen in American society today. Truffaut followed Ray Bradbury’s story closely, but gave the tale an anti-censorship message. Truffaut created a film that has withstood the test of time; he created a film to which viewers today can relate.