Fahrenheit 451 for the 21st Century

I was watching the Sundance Channel this morning and saw for the first time the 1967 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I had never seen it before. Directed by Francois Truffaut, this little unpretentious movie cleverly depicts a society devoid of reading material. They have newspapers, but they are comics without words, merely pictures or images, much like the television in each family’s living room.

I was struck instantly by the similarities to 21st century living that this movie managed to get right in 1967: flat screen tv’s broadcasting “self-improvement” infomercials all day long, appliances for every need in the kitchen, convenient mood enhancing drugs for every situation, etc. Of course, there is no equivalent to the Internet even remotely implied in the film, and probably not in Bradbury’s novel either, since computers were something no lay person would ever be able to lay their hands on in that time. However, I was also struck by the theme; books are outlawed because, as one man who ritually sets books on fire for a living put it, “Reading books just makes people dissatisfied with their lives.”

Despite the similarities and differences to our society, the movie evoked certain thoughts in my own mind while I was watching it. For some strange reason I thought of the many ways today that our society tries to keep people ignorant, through church, through meaningless jobs, through mind altering drugs for every need. Ignorance and drug-induced serenity means compliant people after all. Books represent the ability to learn for oneself and by implication, the ability to INTERPRET for oneself. No one in our culture, except religious fundamentalists, would dare claim that they do not want people to read or that we should be burning books, but there is still much vociferous objection if people dare to interpret what they read for themselves. There is a war going on, and the battle is over words; who has the first and last ones, who has the right to speak, who has the right to write or read.

Why is there so much fear, on the part of our government and our social institutions, that people will actually be able to educate themselves? Governments are always saying how dumb the general population is, yet they use every means in their power to keep us that way, by regulating what we eat, wear, listen to, or see on TV. They manipulate homes into buying electronics they don’t need, fashion and other magazines that perpetuate stereotypes and objectify human beings into sexual toys. Unwittingly, extreme liberal leftists are helping this nanny government by telling us what we can and cannot do with our bad habits, our personal preferences in sex, our lifestyles. The general population is misguided, they say. We, and only we, are educated enough to tell them what they need to know. Academics are as bad as the conservatives they want to rout. It never ends. Those on the extreme right and left are squeezing the soul out of the generally moderate middle, all in the name of what THEY think is best for the rest of us.

I realized that all institutions of fear and control should be mistrusted: government, religion, the health industry, education, etc. The only solution is to educate ourselves with as much material as we can get our hands on. This is why the Internet is a good step in that direction, but, as this movie reminds us, there is nothing, NOTHING, like a good work of fiction, philosophy, history, or biography in an actually printed book to fill in the gaps that the Internet naturally leaves unfilled. Not everything we see on the Internet is true, but reading enough of it, and by reading books again, will they begin to show us patterns of historical truth that even the most previously ignorant can learn to pick up for themselves, that even the most jaded can see is a pattern that we need to correct.

I am never one to advocate eliminating television because like anything else there is good and bad television. In fact, I received much of my prodigious education through watching television. What we must be is more discriminating and do everything in our power to resist those who would tell us what to watch, what to read, who or what to believe, or how or if to worship. Suspicion and skepticism are always very good mindsets to cultivate.

5 thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451 for the 21st Century

  1. Excellent article! You did a very good job of illustrating how those in control want to remain in control by controling are diet of food, fashion, news and education. Very well done!

  2. This is refreshing in our dull society. I also recently saw the movie for the first time and was stunned and a bit horrified by the similarities to our society today.

    Good observations — I like what you’ve said and I’m glad someone is saying it at least! But I differ in your analysis in that it is not the government that has created the censorship and book burning, but rather the people–the masses, if you will. The roar of the crowd lost in an overstimulated society. The parallel is even more frightening because we do it to ourselves, warns Bradbury. While the government surely benefits and takes the reigns for censorship later, it is the people who ask for the censorship. People don’t want to feel bad — most the people I know don’t watch the news unless a catastophic event occurs. Ask anyone on the street, I bet only about 1 % even know who represents them in local and state government. Give them shiny objects to distract them from the truth.

    In a society that values skanks and whores who call themselves actors and musicians more than we value educators and artists, we already live in the dystopian world. While we can freely read books if we choose, it is not ‘typical’ to read a book in the evening after the drudgery of the dull day, but more common for people to run home to watch American Idol or Housewives. We have done the same here. Where we once had diversity and uniqueness, we now have McDonald’s and Walmart. People buy the same food, clothes, tampons, and make-up. Roles have been assigned and we are expected to conform. If we step outside those roles expected from those in society, then we are ostracized and considered ‘strange’ or odd. We have forgotten that beauty is found in uniqueness and thoughts are formed by thinking. But we expect those things of each other first. We need to change our thinking about each other and be a more accepting society. We need to turn off our TVs and read to our children — walk in the snow, cry for a stranger, scream in frustration. We need to start feeling again — thinking again. It’s time we suck the marrow out of life…

  3. Aemelia,

    Also good observations, and I agree with you completely about learning to live life to its fullest again. I only blame the media and government for creating the consumer mentality to begin with. I think people tune out precisely because we cannot believe what we see on television any longer when it comes to news and information. We are being manipulated by fabricated information designed to sell the “news” as entertainment. I think it’s pretty much a two-way street here where we hand over our thinking capacity to government and advertising and they, in turn, give us slick products to consume, news and politics included. While I think tuning out some TV is good, I think that it’s necessary to watch and learn with a good bit of skepticism. Good comments! Thanks! 🙂

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