Burn, Baby, Burn

On 'Fahrenheit 451' and why good democracy should make you feel bad

Burn, Baby, Burn
Illustration by Kevin Peake

When I was 12 years old, word came down that the Montgomery County School Board had decided to ban a book called Amos Fortune: Free Man from all school libraries. They claimed the biography of an African prince turned slave was too controversial and culturally insensitive to be forced upon (or even made available to) the minds of impressionable children, too accurate a portrayal of the darkest chapter in American history to be taught in American schools. African princes are snatched from their villages, the banners cried, and forced into slavery! The book contains the word "nigger," they warned. Not once, but many, many times! All across suburban Maryland, you could hear the sighs of parents who until that point had never heard of Amos Fortune: Free Man but who could now sleep soundly knowing their kids wouldn't be coming around asking them uncomfortable questions about it.

The next day, I went out and bought myself a copy of Amos Fortune: Free Man and, with all the brazenness of early adolescence, took it to school to read during English class. I was convinced that within those pages resided a tale of such decadence, such lasciviousness, such utter degradation and human calamity as to make my hair stand on end, my knees buckle, and my soul curdle. Why else would adults be banning it?

Turns out I had gotten my hopes up for nothing: The Amos Fortune affair, rather than being my introduction to a world of controversy and open defiance, would mark instead the beginning of my realization that adults had no idea what they were talking about. I read every page of that book and discovered nothing even remotely scandalous. There were scenes of violence and racism, of course, but anyone who had made it to the seventh grade knew what slavery was and was cognizant of the fact that those subjected to it had lived lives of unaccountable misery. Nothing new there. So why had they banned Amos Fortune, when I found nothing there to differentiate it from any number of morality tales about the value of hard work and charitable living shoved daily down the throats of American students from Maine to California?

It was then I began to realize that some people will try to ban anything, regardless of its artistic merit, its cultural status, or even its ability to titillate or warp young minds. Some people will try to ban things simply because they think banning things is a good and noble way to spend one's time ... because someone's got to keep an eye out!

The whole fiasco left me terrified of the fragility of American liberty and ashamed of the prudishness of American culture, a feeling that has never gone away.

A curious (and very partial) list of books that have been banned, challenged, or redacted by government and/or school officials in the United States:

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Canterbury Tales, The Diary of Anne Frank, Of Mice and Men, The Life and Works of Renoir, Little House on the Prairie, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, To Kill a Mockingbird, The What's Happening to My Body? Book for Girls: A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Daughters, The What's Happening to My Body? Book for Boys: A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Sons, the Bible, Where's Waldo?

"Books make people unhappy."

This line comes from François Truffaut's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's 1953 sci-fi classic, Fahrenheit 451, about a dystopian future society where reading has been outlawed and books are burned in the streets. Newspaper comic strips are cartoons devoid of words. Human beings rely on impossibly vapid television shows for their senses of identity and purpose (Bradbury has said that his main motivation for writing the book wasn't concern over censorship but rather fear that television was destroying people's interest in reading). The written word is dead.

The Captain, played by Cyril Cusack, speaks that line while explaining to the film's hero, Guy Montag (Oskar Werner), why it's necessary that they and their fellow firemen burn books. The firemen, after all, are the best line of defense against the reading scourge; without their ability to suss out suspected readers, the America they live in – a land of drugged-up housewives and automaton husbands – would fall prey to critical thought and individuality, resulting in self-absorption, moral relativism, and societal collapse.

The frightening thing, of course, is that the Captain's observation isn't entirely wrong. After all, it's a fool who sees a correlation between happiness and intimate knowledge of the psychological motives behind Raskolnikov's axing the pawnbroker woman in Crime and Punishment, between happiness and knowing exactly how many hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were hacked to death in 1994, between happiness and the awareness of the perilously slim and shrinking lead Barack Obama has in the current presidential election.

But isn't that what makes American democracy so fascinating? Any society can advocate the pursuit of happiness, but it takes an especially confident one to allow its citizens the right to pursue the opposite. Despair, worthless empathy, artistic immersion are the dread of others. Unhappiness. True democracy lies in a society resigning itself to the great multiplicity of human emotion and behavior. If anything, liberty should be making us all miserable.

Truffaut, ever the Frenchman, understood this paradox as well as anyone, and with Fahrenheit 451, he created a cinematic world that celebrates the variety of human experience even as it condemns viewers to the unvaried confines of authoritarianism.

Truffaut found just the right housing slabs to film at just the right point in gray, leafless late autumn to capture the pervading sense of lifelessness compulsory to any dystopian movie. And yet, at the same time, Fahrenheit 451 is the first movie the director ever shot in color – glorious Technicolor, to be exact – and he couldn't resist shooting it as if it were some kind of carnival fun house, a world bursting with colors that both thrill viewers and sicken them with saturation.

Witness the director's ironic, almost cartoonish use of green-screen backgrounds. It was the most blatant and unapologetically artificial manipulation since Hitchcock (his hero), brazen in its acknowledgement of the pure contrivance that is cinematic storytelling. It's a technique that pays tribute to the wonder of film while acting as the perfect visual parallel to Bradbury's condemnation of ersatz broadcast reality and its detrimental effects on the human mind, on human emotion, and on human society.

It's film honoring film and condemning it at the same time.

A curious (and partial) list of movies that have been banned by government officials, Hollywood Production Code administrators, and/or Catholic League of Decency members in the United States (with explanations):

The Birth of a Nation (racism), The Tin Drum (underage sex), The Last Temptation of Christ (blasphemy), Scarface (violence), Frankenstein (cruelty), The Moon Is Blue (existence of female sexuality), The Outlaw (existence of Jane Russell's breasts).

Every year, the American Library Association pays tribute to the lunacy of censorship by organizing events all over the country for Banned Books Week. In Chicago, for example, there's the Read-Out! celebration, where authors and other celebrities recite passages from their favorite banned and challenged books. In Encino, Calif., students at the Valley Beth Shalom Day School will be taken to the school library and invited to explore banned books to see what all the fuss is about (I don't envy them their inevitable disappointment). Even the virtual world of Second Life is staging an event.

Austin being Austin, however, it couldn't just celebrate Banned Books Week the way other cities do. This is a multimedia town, after all – a movie town – and we've got better things to do than sit around all day listening to people read.

Instead, we've got the Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek, which will be celebrating freedom of expression with a special banned-books edition of their Music and a Movie series. On Sept. 27, they screen Fahrenheit 451, to be preceded by a performance of original works by local composer and self-styled "educated hillbilly" P. Kellach Waddle: works inspired by some of the most famous banned books of the last two centuries, including a bass sonata on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a cello sonata on D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, and a bass/cello piece based on a poem from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. (Waddle will perform again on Sept. 28 at BookPeople in the culmination of their all-day banned-books celebration; see www.bookpeople.com for more info.)

It's a celebration of the freedom of written expression expressed through song and image, just the kind of thing Austin is known for. Whether Bradbury would approve, though, I can't say. There's an irony there I'm worried he might find disconcerting: It's hard to imagine the author of Fahrenheit 451 not having reservations about a city gathering to celebrate the written word by watching a movie. Too close to TV, he might fret. Too close to comic strips without words; too close to enlightenment without effort.

P. Kellach Waddle performs at the Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek (13729 Research Blvd.) on Saturday, Sept. 27, at 6:30pm, followed by a screening of Fahrenheit 451. Tickets cost $14; 15% of the evening's proceeds benefit Friends of the Austin Public Library. See www.drafthouse.com for more info.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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P. Kellach Waddle, Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut, Banned Books Week, BookPeople, Amos Fortune: Free Man

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