Books and book-burning in ‘Fahrenheit 451’

I recently rewatched the 1966 film version of Fahrenheit 451, directed by French New Wave director Francois Truffaut and starring Julie Christie in a dual role and Oscar Werner as Montag, the fireman who falls in love with books, the very thing he’s charged with burning.

*MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS THROUGHOUT*

Here is one of the original trailers for the film:

Fahrenheit 451 1966,” uploaded by DIOTD2008, Standard YouTube License.

The origins of Fahrenheit 451

One of the major themes of the book, and resulting film, is about authoritarian censorship, the kind that led to book-burning in World War II. The finished novel of Fahrenheit 451 was first published in 1953, so this was still fresh in people’s minds.

The origins of the book, however, actually go back to 1947-1948, right after the war ended, when Bradbury wrote a short story, “Bright Phoenix.” This story featured a librarian who confronted a book-burning “Chief Censor.” Bradbury turned that story, plus another story in 1951 called “The Pedestrian” set in a totalitarian future, into the novella called “The Fireman,” which was published in the February 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Bradbury relished retelling the story about how he wrote “The Fireman” (which essentially serves as the first draft of Fahrenheit 451) in 9 days on a typewriter he rented in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library for ten cents per half hour. He then expanded that story into the novel we know today.

“An Introductory Powerpoint: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury” by Christine Samantha Anderson, SlidePlayer

“An Introductory Powerpoint: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury” by Christine Samantha Anderson, SlidePlayer

In a dystopian future — one again, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, is too eerily familiar to modern times — books are forbidden and burned when discovered. In this future, firemen are trained to burn books, rather than prevent fires. Neighbors are encouraged to spy on one another and report those they suspect have books. Information (or rather, propaganda) is spread through television, called “wall screens,” as well as through comics-like publications, as seen in the screenshot below.

Reel Librarians | Montag "reads" the comics while in bed with his wife, in an early scene from 'Fahrenheit 451' (1966)

Montag “reads” the comics while in bed with his wife, in an early scene from ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966)

The hidden library scene

A turning point in the film comes almost exactly halfway through the film, when Montag is called to the house where he knows Clarisse lives. Clarisse is described as Montag’s “rebellious, book-collecting mistress” on the back of the DVD case, but her role in the film is much tamer than that description suggests. His supervisor, Captain Beatty (played by Cyril Cusack), discovers a “hidden library” in the attic and cannot hold back his glee at the prospect of burning all those books:

I knew it. Of course, all this — the existence of a secret library was known in high places, but there was no way of getting at it. Only once before have I seen so many books in one place. I was just an ordinary fireman at the time.

It’s all ours, Montag.

Once to each fireman, at least once in his career, he just itches to know what those books are all about. He just aches to know. Isn’t that so? Take my word for it, Montag, there’s nothing there. The books have nothing to say!

Reel Librarians | Captain Beatty and fireman Montag discover a hidden library in 'Fahrenheit 451' (1966)

Captain Beatty and fireman Montag discover a hidden library in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966)

During this scene and monologue — only the captain is talking, Montag only reacts — Captain Beatty expounds on different types of books and genres, dismissing each in turn. At the end, he finally reveals the reasons behind this society’s book-burning:

We’ve all got to be alike. The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal. So, we must burn the books, Montag. All the books.

This scene reminded me of the forbidden magazines scene in The Handmaid’s Tale and the reasons the Commander gave for their totalitarian regime. The reasons in The Handmaid’s Tale were different, that they needed to “cleanse” all the dirt and filth and sex from the world. The reasons expressed in Fahrenheit 451 come off as a search for a mythical, Utopian, and elusive “pursuit of happiness.” A generic happiness, but happiness nonetheless.

Modern martyrs

The captain’s assertion that “the books have nothing to say” is directly contradicted in the next scene, in which the older woman refuses to leave her books.

Fabian, another fireman, rushes in to say that the woman won’t leave. “She won’t leave her books, she says.

Woman:  I want to die as I’ve lived.

Captain Beatty:  Oh, you must have read that in there. I’m not going to ask you again. Are you going?

Woman:  These books were alive. They spoke to me.

And so the older woman lights the match herself, to die as she lived, with her beloved books.

Reel Librarians | Book burning by choice in 'Fahrenheit 451' (1966)

Book burning by choice in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966)

Truffaut also lingers several minutes over the burning of the books, with several close-ups.

Reel Librarians | Book burning closeup from 'Fahrenheit 451' (1966)

Book burning closeup from ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966)

In the final act of the film, Montag and his firemen troop are called to his own house. He is forced to burn his own hidden collection of books.

Reel Librarians | Montag torches his own collection of books, in a scene from 'Fahrenheit 451' (1966)

Montag torches his own collection of books, in a scene from ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966)

He is chastised and criticized by his captain:

What did Montag hope to get out of all this? Happiness? What a poor idiot you must have been.

His captain tries to grab the last book from Montag’s hand — we find out later this is a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, Tales of Mystery and Imagination — but Montag finally breaks, blasting Captain Beatty with the fire hose instead.

Reel Librarians | Montag torches his own captain in a scene from 'Fahrenheit 451' (1966)

Montag torches his own captain in a scene from ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966)

Now compare this photo, of his captain lying facedown in the pile of books, ablaze, with the previous screenshot of the older woman, standing upright, proud and defiant. Both are martyrs of their own kind, but the woman chose to go up in flames.

The book people

Montag goes on the run then, hunted by the state, but he manages to escape to a hidden Utopia, deep in the forest, where others have escaped and banded together. These people are known as the “Book People,” as they have memorized a single work of literature and recite their tales for anyone who wishes to hear. The “book people” scenes were also filmed last.

Here’s how the leader of the camp describes how they came together, the 50 or so at their station. But he mentions there are more of the books:

In abandoned railway yards, wandering the roads. Tramps outwardly, but, inwardly, libraries.

It wasn’t planned. It just so happened that a man here and a man there loved some book. And rather than lose it, he learned it. And we came together. We’re a minority of undesirables crying out in the wilderness. But it won’t always be so. One day we shall be called on, one by one, to recite what we’ve learned. And then books will be printed again. And when the next age of darkness comes, those who come after us will do again as we have done.

And the book people also burn books themselves! But like the older woman in the house, they choose to do so, for their own specific reasons.

Yes, we burn the books. But we keep them up here [pointing to the brain] where nobody can find them.

The book people have literally “become” their chosen book and even introduce themselves as such:

“Are you interested in Plato’s Republic?”
“Well, I am Plato’s Republic. I’ll recite myself for you whenever you like.”

“I am The Prince by Machiavelli. As you see, you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

“That man over there hasn’t much longer to live.”
“He’s The Weir or Germiston by Robert Louis Stevenson. The boy is his nephew. He’s now reciting himself, so the boy can become the book.”

The film clip below is a combination of the final two scenes from the film.

The Book People of Fahrenheit 451” uploaded by Andrew David, Standard YouTube License.

In a special “making of” featurette in the DVD’s special features, film historian and professor Annette Ensdorf gave her own interpretation of the film’s final scenes among the “book people,” stating that the people reciting their books at the end are just as self-absorbed as the narcissists we saw at the beginning of the film. Ensdorf sums up the finale and the “book people” as:

…instruments of the text — not really existing as a completely integrated social community but rather as individual icons.

But there’s the feeling of a certain muted triumph, namely that the book people will maintain a portion of civilization, that someday these books will still be alive, even if they are recounted rather than as written text.

Classification and connections

Although the people literally become books in the end and could therefore be argued to be the only thing left resembling a librarian in a futuristic sense, I have to categorize this film in the Class V category, films with no identifiable librarians, although they might mention librarians or have scenes set in libraries. There are definitely library and censorship themes in the film, but no actual, identifiable librarians.

This contrasts with the “Books” in another sci-fi classic, Soylent Green. In Soylent Green, “Books” are former librarians and professors who become personal researchers in a dystopian future, a world in which books have ceased to be written and published. Books become rare commodities, precious treasures to be hoarded — but not due to fear of burning. Rather, books — and the people who take care of them, who then are referred to as “Books” themselves — are almost revered, and they have a unique power of their own.

In Soylent Green, the “Books” guard the past, but there is little hope for the future.

In Fahrenheit 451, however, the “Book People” guard, or consume, the past because they are the only hope for the future.

Reel Librarians | The book people in 'Fahrenheit 451' vs. the Books in 'Soylent Green'

The book people in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ vs. the Books in ‘Soylent Green’

Books in Fahrenheit 451

Here’s a list I compiled of all the books mentioned in the final scenes, in the order they are mentioned. The leader mentions there are around 50 or so around their camp, but says there are many others out there. A southern camp is also mentioned in the last scene.

These are some of the books we know that will live on:

  • Plato’s Republic
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • The Corsair by Byron
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Alice Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Jewish Question
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • The Prince by Machiavelli
  • Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, volumes one and two
  • Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Memoirs of Saint Simon
  • The Weir of Germiston by Robert Louis Stevenson

Book-burning in Fahrenheit 451

On the “making of” feature on the DVD, producer Lewis M. Allen shared this tidbit about censorship he experienced during the making of the film:

An interesting thing about censorship is that when we were doing the book burning scene, the studio… wanted to eliminate all books that were by living authors that were not in public domain, and the fact that they may be sued or whatever. And we just ignored that. We said, the hell with it, because I think everybody, anyone who was around who had a book being burned in there would be very much flattered by it. … So we ignored that and went right ahead.

Reel Librarians | Books in 'Fahrenheit 451' (1966)

Books in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966)

Allen also shared an amusing anecdote about how they compiled and played with all those books for the book-burning scenes:

To me, the most interesting part of the film… was the burning of the books, which went went on and on. And we had those books in our offices, we had hundreds of books, from the beginning of the film. And he would play with them. We’d go round and pick ones out, play with them, and toss them, and put piles and so on. Every day this was done, as a kind of ritual, which was fun to do, ‘cause we’d come up with strange books.

Homme livre/libre

The screenplay was originally written in French, as it was director François Truffaut’s vision, so there were several puns that got lost when translated into English.

One of the best puns focused on “homme livre” versus “homme libre.”

The original script had a moment between Clarisse and Montag, in which Clarisse explains about the “homme livre,” which translates to “book man.” But in French, “homme livre” sounds very close to “homme libre,” which translates to “free man.”

Reel Librarians | Screenplay puns in 'Fahrenheit 451' (1966)

Screenplay puns in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966)

As producer Lewis M. Allen shared on the “making of” DVD feature:

That was a nice pun, about the book people and the free people, livre and libre, which could not be translated.

Definitely an attempt to preserve the nature of the original pun in French, but it’s a pale ghost of the original.

Homage to the written word

"fahrenheit 451" by CHRIS DRUMM is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“fahrenheit 451” by CHRIS DRUMM is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The ultimate message of Truffaut’s film version of Fahrenheit 451 gets discussed by several people in the DVD features.

From film historian and critic Annette Ensdorf:

What you’re going to get is Truffaut’s really passionate homage to literature, to the written word, to the notion of a text as a living, breathing entity and process that can still affect us.

Ensdorf’s thoughts on the ultimate significance of the book people’s actions:

You learn it [the book] by heart, through the process of love. […] Is there not freedom in the very choice of which book you want to be?

From producer Lewis M. Allen, who praised Truffaut playing down several of the more overt sci-fi elements in the book, like the “mechanical hound,” because:

It would be very distracting, in fact, from the simple story of the books, which was really what he was interested in most of all.

From Steven C. smith, biographer of composer Bernard Hermann, who composed the music for the film and who was personal friends with the book’s author Ray Bradbury:

The act of reading becomes… the most romantic thing in Fahrenheit 451.

And in the music feature on the DVD, Ray Bradbury summed up the themes of the film’s musical score and its connection with the story itself:

What we have is a romance with books.

Final words from the author himself

The DVD that I checked out of this film also included in its special features an interview with Ray Bradbury, who talked about how he first wrote the book in a library basement and how the title came about.

"Ray Bradbury, Miami Book Fair International, 1990" by MDCarchives is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

“Ray Bradbury, Miami Book Fair International, 1990” by MDCarchives is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

On reflection in 2002 special feature on the DVD by Universal Studios, Bradbury remarked:

I am a library person. I never made it through college you see. I’m self-educated in the library so anything that touches the library touches me.

You can also read a bit more background info and personal quotes from the author in my obituary post for Ray Bradbury, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 91. He was a lifelong and vocal supporter of libraries, and as he stated in 2009:

Libraries raised me.

Here’s to the “book people” around the world who stand up to censorship and advocate for reading, books, libraries, and librarians. ♥


Have you read the book and seen the film version of Fahrenheit 451? Please share your thoughts and leave a comment below.

Follow the leader

I’m still on the librarian-image-has-a-deeper-meaning kick (see last week’s post on theories behind — hee hee — the anal-retentiveness of reel librarian portrayals). Now let’s explore more about the librarian as a cinematic representation of an ethical and intellectual leader.

“Today’s Librarian Wordle” by The Unquiet Librarian via Flickr

Ann O’Brien & Martin Raish wrote in their article, “The Image of the Librarian in Commercial Motion Pictures,” that “[o]ften a figure of wisdom and benign authority, the librarian was the custodian of positive social and educative forces” (63). Libraries are places where one can access information and all kinds of knowledge; transferring those qualities of wisdom and collected intelligence to the librarian(s) makes sense. Librarians in real life also tend to be master generalists — we know a little about a lot of things. Noah Wyle as Flynn Carsen in The Librarian TV movies is a great example of this, with his umpteenth degrees and vast array of esoteric knowledge that helps him get out of all sorts of tricky situations.

The librarian’s role in film has also periodically included being the moral center of the community. This “morality” does not necessarily take on conservative or overbearing overtones; rather, the librarian stands for what is right and good in a society, a highly positive image. Whew, a positive image for reel librarians! Well, we were due. 😉 In the article I referenced in last week’s post, “Power, Knowledge, and Fear:  Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian,” Marie and Gary Radford comment that “the library has long been taken […] as a metaphor for rationality” (254) and “[l]ibraries are segregated places of intellectual activity” (255).

Storm Center (1956) adheres to the notion that librarians represent rationality and ethical judgment, as Bette Davis plays a librarian in a small town who stands up against censorship. And passes out lollipops to kids (not kidding, see left, as well as my post on advertising the reel librarian). But I digress… the censorship issue also emerges in Rome Adventure (1962), and in a more heated environment in Pump Up the Volume (1990), as well. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) features a more benign librarian hero, played by Jason Robards, but he still stands up for what he perceives as right; he literally represents the “good” pitted against Mr. Dark’s “evil” (deliciously played by Jonathan Pryce).

In a more diluted form, the librarian can stand for good ol’ common sense, as exemplified by Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set (1957) or Greer Garson in Adventure (1945). And who doesn’t love a bit of common sense?

It’s an Adventure!

The trailer pretty much sums up Rome Adventure (1962):

Suzanne is a librarian who breaks with her stuffy New England background to live this… ‘Rome Adventure’!

Suzanne Pleshette plays Prudence Bell, an assistant librarian at the Briarcroft College for Women. The first scene sets the stage:  Prudence lands in trouble for letting a young girl read Lovers Must Learn, a book considered “too adult” for this school. The board has banned the book (this also serves as a clever advertisement for the real book, which the film was based on, and its author, Irving Fineman, who is name-dropped in the first five minutes) and reprimands Prudence in the process. Prudence, however, stands up to them and defies their rules. She delivers a speech about the importance of love — what’s hiding in every girl’s heart, that need to be loved — and quits the library to follow the book’s advice. She says, “This is Independence Day!” We are on her side for standing up to the board — and, in effect, standing up against censorship. [Plus, this week is the annual Banned Books Week, so this post is right on target!]

She is “going out to find love instead of waiting for it” (as apparently she has been doing as a librarian at a girls’ school?). Part of this scene is highlighted (albeit a little misleadingly) in the film’s trailer, below.

This was Suzanne Pleshette’s first leading role (although she gets 4th billing), and she was one of the loveliest actresses of her day. Her character is dressed in conservative but stylish suits, and her hairstyle and makeup are modern and fresh. Pleshette had a very direct kind of acting style — coupled with her trademark throaty voice — which works for this film, as it strengthens what might have otherwise been a very insipid role in lesser hands. Pleshette injects an intelligence and witty humor behind Prudence’s (forgive me!) slightly prudent demeanor.

Prudence is a prime example of the Liberated Librarian character type, a woman whose “liberation” often becomes the major plot. Liberated Librarians may even seem on the path to Spinster Librarians, but are spared from this oh-so-terrible fate (tongue firmly in cheek). This is the case for Rome Adventure, and Prudence even says early on: “I have absolutely no talent for being a spinster.”

So Prudence travels to Rome, to learn and to get a job — which the plot promptly serves up. Prudence begins work at The American Bookshop, befriending another American who fell in love with Italy (and Italian men).

This plot and setting is quite familiar, taking cues from the classic Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), both Best Picture nominees. The original title for both this film and the novel it’s based on was Lovers Must Learn, but they most likely changed the film’s name in an effort to capture a bit of borrowed glory from Roman Holiday. Even the packaging is similar (see right). We get to see lots of iconic Roman sights, coupled with pretty girls in pretty dresses falling in love and learning “the ways of the world” along the way. Nothing wrong with that!

Prudence rapidly falls in love, saying those three little words on her first date with Don Porter, played by then-heartthrob Troy Donahue. Onscreen romance led to love off-screen, as well — Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue were married, albeit briefly (8 months), after this film was released. In the film, Prudence goes on a trip with Don — just the two of them — but is concerned about what her mother might think of her affair. “I can’t run away from my conscience!” But she valiantly battles with her rival in love, an ex-girlfriend in the shape of sexy Angie Dickinson. Romantic complications ensue, and she seeks lessons in love from the master, Rossano Brazzi (who is totally more swoon-worthy than Troy Donahue, in my opinion), who helps change her image to a sexier one. But this sexier image is one that Prudence — proving her namesake to the end — ultimately rejects, saying “I think first I better change back into me.”

Prudence’s liberation comes full circle. She decides to go back home because the cost to her freedom and self-respect is too much — and even if her choices at the end of the film may seem conventional, the point is that she did learn, but only by making her own choices.

After rewatching this film, I can’t help thinking, WHY is Prudence a librarian? Her initial profession is certainly highlighted in the trailer — which was a surprise to me! — but why wasn’t she a teacher or even a flower shop assistant? Was “librarian” a profession chosen at random? I haven’t found a copy of the book yet to see if she’s a librarian on the page as well as on screen (that is now added to my to-do list). That might be the easy answer, but again, why a librarian? I think a young woman in that profession lends an air of intelligence and, let’s be honest, respectability — which she might need as support once she goes traipsing on long weekends in Italy! And, harkening back to my more cynical point-of-view, being a librarian provides a more solid contrast to the idea of “liberation” — that without this chance of a “Rome Adventure” to broaden her horizons, she will have to face a future of spinsterhood (and overbearing would-be censors, a sad fate indeed). There just isn’t the same kind of contrast if she had simply been a salesclerk or a young lady with no profession. So when Prudence does explore her sexuality in the film, the audience might even be relieved for her, instead of condemning her more liberated escapades (perhaps a more serious issue in 1962, when the film was released?). Ahhh, the specter of the Spinster Librarian!