Pop Culture

'Fahrenheit 451' and Its Blistering Legacy, From Playboy to Beyond

If we’re fairly high on HBO’s Fahrenheit 451, premiering Saturday, May 19, that’s partly because we can’t help feeling a bit proprietary. In 1954, when Playboy was in its infancy, we serialized the original Ray Bradbury novel in three parts—the March, April and May issues, in case you feel like picking it up on eBay. (We won’t make a dime off it, we promise. Go nuts.)

Over the years, we’ve printed more than our share of distinguished fiction, from Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov to Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. In those days, however, practically nobody thought of sci-fi as “distinguished.” Bradbury himself never much liked being pigeonholed that way. His work mostly came out in specialty pulp magazines, pretty much guaranteeing that the literary mainstream would stay oblivious to writers like him.

Bradbury’s fantasy about a society where books are banned—all books, not just “subversive” ones—had come out as a paperback original from Ballantine Books the previous October. (The first hardcover version didn’t appear until a bit later.) But paperback originals didn’t often get reviewed then either, and some people believe that Fahrenheit 451 might have sunk without a trace if Hugh Hefner hadn’t gambled on paying $400 for the serial rights. (The above illustration by Luke Brookes is an update on the original Playboy artwork by Ben Denison.)

It would have been resurrected sooner or later, of course, because Ray Bradbury is Ray Bradbury. But Playboy did introduce Fahrenheit 451 early on to thousands of readers who weren’t necessarily sci-fi junkies. Naturally, they (or we) couldn’t have guessed they were getting their mitts on one of the all-time classics of the genre, but two or three generations of readers since have known that going in. Even 65 years later, the book has never been out of print.
Having one of the all-time great titles of any sci-fi novel hasn’t exactly hurt Fahrenheit 451’s renown. “The temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns,” the title page explains, and face it: Celsius 232.778 just wouldn’t pack the same zing. After that curtain-raiser, we’re introduced to fireman Guy Montag, whose job isn’t putting out infernos. Instead, he torches books, wherever he and his unit find them hidden.

At home, his zonked-out wife is hooked on both pills and the vacuous entertainment on their apartment’s “parlor walls”—i.e., giant flat-screen TVs, decades before they became a reality. But Montag’s furtive rebellious streak is triggered when he meets a free spirit named Clarisse who makes him question his society’s virulently post-literate conformism. Eventually, he finds his way to a rebel sect whose members memorize forbidden books to preserve the best of civilization until its hoped-for renewal dawns.

If you want to be literal-minded about it, this premise has never made much sense. What, any book? Every book? Instruction manuals, too? (So much for How to Operate Your Flamethrower.) But that’s why they call allegories allegories. Any bright reader understands that Fahrenheit 451 is a metaphor for censorship, anti-intellectualism and destructive orthodoxy. Bradbury himself sometimes claimed the book was really about television’s potential to destroy literature.

At the time he wrote the novel, however, literal book-burning was making its first big comeback since the Nazis, courtesy of the United States government. The State Department was tossing books by allegedly seditious American authors into bonfires even before Sen. Joe McCarthy’s “junkeering gumshoes”—future Donald J. Trump mentor Roy Cohn and his cohort, David Schine—traveled to Europe in 1953 to make sure that Commies like crime novelist Dashiell Hammett were expunged from our libraries abroad. It’s hard to imagine that wasn’t what Bradbury was responding to.
Nothing would be nicer than to live in a society where Fahrenheit 451’s fantasy felt fatally dated. Alas, our president is doing his damnedest to discredit intellect.
Fahrenheit 451 has been adapted for the screen before, back in 1966, with an unlikely director (France’s Francois Truffaut), an unlikely cast (Oskar Werner, Julie Christie) and an unlikely setting (England, not exactly the country you’d expect to smokestack Dickens and Shakespeare). The movie isn’t totally bad, mostly thanks to cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, plus Cyril Cusack’s droll performance as Captain Beatty, Montag’s enigmatic boss. But even though Bradbury claimed he liked it, it’s hardly the Fahrenheit 451 of anyone’s dreams.

Although it’s gotten mixed reviews—and it’s considerably less faithful to Bradbury’s original, starting with ditching Montag’s pill-addicted wife from the story line—the HBO remake improves on the Truffaut’s tepid version, if you ask us. Dystopian futures are now so common in movies that it’s almost impossible for a filmmaker to think up a totally original way of visualizing one. But adapter and director Ramin Bahrani does his best to enliven the genre’s familiar authoritarian imagery by keeping its details specific and localized. (Hamilton, Ontario, stands in for Cleveland.) In a clever touch, the firemen’s book-burning raids are the new infotainment—projected on the sides of buildings citywide—and Montag himself is a celebrity.

Because torching printed books exclusively would look awfully primitive to audiences reared on iPads and Kindles, the ban now includes disseminating them electronically, and apparently also extends to all art. (Among other artifacts, a Mozart score goes up in flames, too.) Meanwhile, the book people aren’t merely criminals; they’re treated as terrorists, and one self-immolation Bradbury’s readers will remember is modernized into a startling parody of a suicide bomber’s last moment. The updated topical references range from on-the-nose blunt—“See Something, Say Something” shows up a lot—to interestingly suggestive, like the way the book lovers are often dressed and made up to resemble today’s homeless population during the roundup scenes.

Fresh off his dynamite performance as Killmonger in Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan plays Montag, and he’s awfully good at putting across the character’s hysteria as his loyalties get more conflicted. But the best thing in the remake is his relationship with Beatty (Michael Shannon), who in this version is much more explicitly Montag’s alter ego—a man who’s resolved the same hysteria by forcing himself to become a fanatic. No actor is better than Shannon at turning errant flickers of human feeling into just another twist on menace, and that skill gets a workout here.

Not much would be nicer than to live in a society where Fahrenheit 451’s fantasy felt fatally dated. Ironically, to some extent, it did in 1966; one reason the Truffaut version lacked urgency was that it didn’t correspond to any of that era’s particular anxieties for cosmopolitan moviegoers. But not these days, with the president of the United States doing his damnedest to discredit intellect, and Fox News cheering him on. The remake’s book lovers may look like they’re homeless, but that doesn’t bar them from being elitists as well—and as we all know, there’s no dirtier word than that in Trumpland.