Fahrenheit 451 Rings as True as Ever Today


Fahrenheit 451 (2018) Spoilers Ahead

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has remained a timeless American classic for all the right reasons: whether it be because of the visceral appeal of firemen, our society’s most honourable, destroying instead of saving, or the acknowledgement that books, and more broadly, art, impart values onto our lives, this dystopian novel has always been a seminal work on any libertarian bookshelf. The polarization and censorship of media pervading today’s society is one that could easily spiral into such a disheartening future. I believe the recent, albeit condensed, HBO adaptation is a fitting reprisal that holds valuable lessons for our time.

(Spoiler) In a blend of Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s original intentions with Fahrenheit 451 (which, incidentally, is not the accurate auto-ignition point of paper), the HBO version depicts a futuristic world where social media is used to hunt and condemn book-readers, ubiquitous eye-drops induce long-term memory loss, and a compulsory “Alexa”-esque home assistant monitors all users’ actions.

In this chilling adaptation, not only books, but all movies and other works of art are confiscated lest they inspire internal turmoil in their consumers. As the captain of the firemen says in relation to political and philosophical discourse, why give people many choices over which to agonize when they could accept a simple answer?

Perhaps even more unnerving than the dystopia of 1984, is that, in this universe, it is the populace themselves that by and large support the oppressive regime, opting for ignorance over bliss.

Those who want to continue educating themselves through bootlegged books or videos are beaten, banished from society, or even killed.

Guy Montague, the protagonist, is first depicted as an enthusiastic arsonist, savouring the attention he gets on social media for his deeds without even the slightest moral qualm or curiosity about books. As his character evolves, he remembers his own father, who had been memorialized as a fireman “hero” after death, actually being murdered by the firemen for harbouring books. In a watershed quote, he acknowledges his life in the futuristic dystopia has been like a leaky sieve, with meaning and memories all passing right through under the pressure of pervasive social media and government censorship. He recognizes that only through books can one face the challenging questions that lead to the development of values like freedom and individualism, values that deposit in our identity rather than leaking through.

Perhaps the most powerful dimension of the film is its ability to relate an age-old classic to the social atmosphere of the present day. Too many of us reside in echo chambers enabled by social media. The democratization of information by the internet has led to the decay of trust in truth and the onslaught of “alternative facts.”

Such social erosion is only compounded when exploited by authority (like our current and previous administrations) to enforce order and grow power. Our social media world has also distilled information down to split-second headlines that discourage readers from consider the depth and nuance of the real world. Many today are set on the trajectory of the “sheeple” of the Fahrenheit 451 dystopia.

This film, although bound to be liberal and anti-Trump considering its origins, does a strong job of addressing the dilemma of political correctness as well. Before burning a library, the captain fireman explains that first the blacks objected to Huckleberry Finn, demanding it to be destroyed, then the whites to Native Son, the Jews to Nietzsche and then the feminists to Hemingway. Various groups enforcing censorship due to offense snowballed into the total annihilation of all independent thought and meaning. The scene ends with him burning Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (along with the aforementioned books), reminding us that even the most vile ideas deserve our protection in a free society if we are to uphold the principles of liberty.

Undoubtedly, essential elements of the book were revised and jettisoned in creating a contemporary and shorter movie (which is ironic considering the dire warnings against short-attention spans and lack of depth in media). Ultimately, the book and movie succeed in achieving what the firemen and their dystopian government feared most— the transmission of meaning through art, and the imbuement of the underappreciated value of freedom to the masses.

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Adam Barsouk

Adam Barsouk is a student of medicine and health policy at Jefferson Medical College and a cancer researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. His family’s escape from the Soviet Union, and his experiences in the lab and the clinic, have inspired him to restore liberty to healthcare and the other depraved sectors of American life.