Ray Bradbury, RIP: Fahrenheit 451 Is Still Misinterpreted. We, Not Government, Are Enslaving Ourselves

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Wed, Jun 6, 2012 at 1:52 PM
click to enlarge Ray Bradbury, explaining that Fahrenheit 451 was about letting onself be stupified by glowing screens -- not about book burning. - KEVIN SCANLON
  • Kevin Scanlon
  • Ray Bradbury, explaining that Fahrenheit 451 was about letting onself be stupified by glowing screens -- not about book burning.

Ray Bradbury, in a 2009 interview with LA Weekly at his Cheviot Hills home, explained with gusto a fact that shocked millions of fans: Fahrenheit 451 was not a warning about government mind control. The world got that wrong. His warning was, we are doing it to ourselves -- enslaved to glowing screens.

The charming elder of sci-fi began divulging in 2007 that, read deeply, Fahrenheit 451 predicted TV's mastery of humans. Written in 1953, it foresaw "flat" panels on walls that would mesmerize, isolate and produce atrophied attention spans and minds. He was a brilliant futurist, six decades early in seeing digital isolation, smartphone addiction, gaming addiction:

In the Weekly in 2007, writer Amy E. Boyle Johnston explained Bradbury's effort to wake up society via Fahrentheit 451:

Now, Bradbury has decided to make news about the writing of his iconographic work and what he really meant. Fahrenheit 451 is not, he says firmly, a story about government censorship. Nor was it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled fear and stifled the creativity of thousands.

This, despite the fact that reviews, critiques and essays over the decades say that is precisely what it is all about. Even Bradbury's authorized biographer, Sam Weller, in The Bradbury Chronicles, refers to Fahrenheit 451 as a book about censorship.

Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.

"Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was," Bradbury says, summarizing TV's content with a single word that he spits out as an epithet: "factoids."

click to enlarge Fahrenheit 451's 50th Anniversary edition: It wasn't the government. It was us.
  • Fahrenheit 451's 50th Anniversary edition: It wasn't the government. It was us.

A careful reading of Fahrenheit 451 makes clear that only after Bradbury's characters stopped reading novels and non-fiction books, and chose to live from factoid to factoid, did the government then burn books.

As the Weekly explained in 2007:

Bradbury imagined a democratic society whose diverse population turns against books: Whites reject Uncle Tom's Cabin and blacks disapprove of Little Black Sambo. He imagined not just political correctness, but a society so diverse that all groups were "minorities." He wrote that at first they condensed the books, stripping out more and more offending passages until ultimately all that remained were footnotes, which hardly anyone read. Only after people stopped reading did the state employ firemen to burn books.

Most Americans did not have televisions when Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, and those who did watched 7-inch screens in black and white. Interestingly, his book imagined a future of giant color sets -- flat panels that hung on walls like moving paintings. And television was used to broadcast meaningless drivel to divert attention, and thought, away from an impending war.

In 2009, Bradbury was in his late '80s and no longer entirely mobile due to a stroke. But the old-fashioned gent still flirted with women, still remembered exactly how he dreamed up the ideas for The Illustrated Man and October Country, and talked of how much he missed his soul mate and wife Maggie Bradbury, who died in 2003.

But Bradbury always returned to peering up ahead. He was thrilled with his new play, "Falling Upward," at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood, and gave me a tantalizing view into the future. He saw a time when his masterpiece book would be remade by Hollywood -- but this time, the right way.

And guess who, of all the controversial big names in Hollywood, will likely decide how to remake Fahrenheit 451 for the movies?

The Ray Bradbury profile in the LA Weekly People Issue of 2009 quoted him as saying:

"Mel Gibson owns Fahrenheit 451 ... The mistake they made with the first one was to cast Julie Christie as both the revolutionary and the bored wife."

His dearest hope was that Gibson would reject what Bradbury called typical low-brow Hollywood studio decision-making, in which a shallow screenwriter who can't handle the depth of his material is brought on to screw things up.

That's a lot of pressure resting on the wildly screwed-up Gibson. Yet Bradbury didn't seem worried about Gibson. His enduring sorrow about the creative world of Hollywood was that:

"Screenwriters don't know a goddamn thing about writing -- they didn't grow up in a library, consuming words. When I grew up, I was educated. They are not."

See more over at Squid Ink, "Ray Bradbury and Clifton's Cafeteria: Death and Rebirth."

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