Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mystery Man: Fahrenheit 451

Burn, baby, burn!

So I did a lot of flying around the last few weeks, and I had the chance to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which was phenomenal. I loved it! When I’m involved in a big project, as I was last month, I’m riddled with ADD. It’s a struggle to focus on anything other than the project, but F451 held my attention from beginning to end, an amazing feat. It’s actually quite short, about 173 pages. One could easily get through it in one sitting (or a long flight). Then I watched the 1966 film adaptation by Francois Truffaut, which I’ll cover in a bit. You can also see the film instantly on Netflix. After that, I sat down to read Frank Darabont’s September, 2005, screenplay adaptation.


There are many aspects about the book that I loved. In fact, it evoked a wide range of screenwriting thoughts.

You can get a summary of the story

First, I loved Ray Bradbury’s style. Wherever the story took him, he always capitalized on the heightened emotions of the moment, which is what we do, too. Consider these opening paragraphs:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.

Here’s another aspect I loved – the protagonist. Did Bradbury tell his story from the perspective of a sad, sympathetic victim who had all of his (or her) books burnt by the firemen? No. Bradbury gave us Guy Montag, a man who on the surface is very unsympathetic in his actions because he’s one of the bad guys! He’s a fireman who burns books!

But by giving us Montag, Bradbury cuts deeper into the heart. While Montag puts on a strong façade with his concentrated vigor about his job and seemingly unwavering belief in what he does, Bradbury carefully charts his inner turmoil and feelings of despair and need for something more out of life. That is the great power and glory of literature, and that is what’s at the heart of F451, the loss without books, the lack of creativity, imagination, free thinking, intellectual satisfaction, a sense of higher purpose and meaning to life.

This is also the very reason F451 would be a difficult book to adapt for the big screen because what makes the book so powerful is the inner turmoil of Montag which cannot so easily be seen on the surface.

So let me ask a question – is Guy Montag empathetic or sympathetic? Do I feel sorry for the fireman who burns books? Nope. At least, not until I understand him and his little world and the feelings he’s feelings. Only then can I appreciate the point of Bradbury’s tale, and root for Montag’s transformation. But that’s the essence of a transformational arc, isn’t it? One must be unsympathetic to a large degree before one can transform, am I wrong? Let me ask another question: is Guy Montag “like me?” No, not at all. Have I ever been in his shoes? Nope. I can’t say I’ve ever burned books or been part of an evil force like the firemen. But can I put myself in his shoes and understand his feelings? Yes. THAT is the power of great writing.

Another aspect I loved – elements of
visual storytelling. In the opening, Montag walks home, encounters little Clarisse, a neighbor and teenager, who challenges his thinking about life, about burning books, and asks him the all-important question, “Are you happy?” Montag goes home, which is dark and dreary, to find his wife nearly-dead after taking too many pills. The medics revive her. As she’s resting peacefully, Montag looks out his window and sees Clarisse’s home. I loved the visual contrast between his home and hers:

Laughter blew across the moon-colored lawn from the house of Clarisse and her father and mother and the uncle who smiled so quietly and so earnestly. Above all, their laughter was relaxed and hearty and not forced in any way, coming from the house that was so brightly lit this late at night while all the other houses were kept to themselves in the darkness. Montag heard voices talking, talking, talking, giving, talking, weaving, reweaving their hypnotic web.

Another visual aspect that cannot go un-mentioned is what saves Montag toward the end. When he falls under the spell of books, when Captain Beatty catches him, when all hell breaks loose, when Montag finds himself on the run, the whole city looking for him, and the mechanical hounds are hot on his trail, what saves Montag? Water. The river. The antithesis of fire. Montag’s visual baptism of renewal.

Another aspect I loved – the
subtext in the dialogue. Bradbury didn’t write heaping volumes, but careful consideration went into the few scenes he gave us. There were quiet moments of subtext, more specifically, denial about the emptiness they’re feeling, like the conversation Montag had with his wife, Mildred, the morning after her near-death experience from taking too many pills.

She watched his lips casually. “What about last night?”

“Don’t you remember?”

“What? Did we have a wild party or something? Feel like I’ve a hangover. God, I’m hungry. Who was here?”

“A few people,” he said.

Their lives were a lie. He was feeding the lie. She was ingesting the lie and embracing status quo. And when, toward the end of part one, Montag sought to address their emptiness by reading books, Bradbury gives us a scene between Montag and Mildred of heart-wrenching high drama where Montag tries to convince her to go on this journey with him to read books and figure out for themselves if they’re evil.

Post continues at http://mysterymanonfilm.blogspot.com/2009/05/script-review-fahrenheit-451.html


Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at MysteryManOnFilm.blogspot.com and tweets at Twitter.com/MMonFilm. And he has nice shoes.

This post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

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